DISCLAIMER: The following article is based on my personal understanding. Much of the information I know came about through conversations with my North Korean friends. Lots of times we try to understand each other with both sides attempting to use analogies to explain concepts. It’s never easy as our worlds often feel so distant. I hope that sharing some of my interactions with them translates to a better understanding of their culture.
Based on the North Korean constitution, citizens are granted freedom of religious beliefs. I would think that with such a constitution in place, there would be a tangible manifestation of many religious activities, especially Asian ones like Buddhism or Taoism. In communist countries such as China and Vietnam, it’s easy to find symbols and statues pertaining to all manner of Asian gods and deities. However, in North Korea, the only place I can find such icons are within official religious buildings. When I ask my North Korean friends about the afterlife, most believe a person becomes a kind of spirit upon death, while others are unsure. For those who believe in becoming a spirit, the next question often eludes them. “Where do these spirits go?”
Are the “Eternal Leaders of Juche Korea” considered gods?
Based on what I understand through conversations with my North Korean friends, I would have to say no. They told me that they don’t pray to the Eternal President Kim Il Sung or the Great Leader Kim Jong Il the same way people pray to Jesus or to the Goddess of Mercy (观音). For example, if you’re worried about a critically ill family member, you might be inclined to pray to Jesus to heal that family member. Another example, if you bought the lottery, you might pray to the god of wealth ( 财神) to bless you with a win. North Koreans simply don’t pray to their leaders that way. They explained that they have a deeply entrenched respect for their leaders similar in ways to how a Chinese family would continue to show their respects to their deceased grandparents. I was told bowing and offering flowers to the leader’s statues and portraits are in a sense similar to how the Chinese give offerings to ancestors, only with much more extreme reverence and formality.
Do North Koreans believe in anything spiritual?
From what I understand, they do have some superstitions. There’s “lucky money”; usually a US dollar with a rare marking or “lucky numbers” that include any combination of 88 or 888. I was surprised to learn that some North Koreans seem to have picked up this superstition from the Chinese. The number 8 in Chinese is Bā (八)，which sounds like “get rich” (Fā 发). Chinese believe the more 8s a dollar note has, the luckier it is. Some North Koreans appear to have adopted this belief.
A few North Korean friends also believe in karma, although not exactly the Buddhist interpretation of it. They told me that people who do lots of bad things will receive bad things sooner or later and that people who do good things will also receive good things sooner or later.
Lastly, some of them seem to believe in ghosts. They told me it’s usually someone who died tragically or unhappy. When I asked them to tell me a North Korean ghost story. They just told me “not today… next time…” I never got to hear the ghost story.
Situated in Mount Myohyang, the Pohyon Buddhist Temple is a national treasure due to its significant history. It was founded in 1024 during the Koryo Dynasty and was later restored from the damages inflicted on it during the bombing runs of the Korean war. Several monks currently live in the temple compound to maintain the Buddhist relics stored in special climate-controlled rooms.
Bongsu Church 봉수교회
Being Christian myself, the North Koreans cordially invited me to attend a Presbyterian church service in Bongsu Church 봉수교회, Pyongyang. The entire service was conducted in Korean so I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. However, I did enjoy their choir very much as they sang familiar hymns in Korean. One thing I noticed was that nobody wore their leaders’ pin within the church compound!
There’s often a lot of debate on the authenticity of churches in North Korea. Since it’s a situation where any comment (good or bad) would instantly draw flak from the opposing side, I’ve decided to skip my opinion on this part and just show you the 360° Virtual Tour:
Changchung Cathedral 장충성당
During one of my visits, I managed to take a very quick look inside Changchung Cathedral on a Sunday morning. There are a couple of foreigners who are stationed in North Korea attending Catholic mass regularly. I only spent a quick 5 minutes up on the balcony to grab some photos and left.