Korea, (North) Democratic Republic of
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Religious Adherents, 2010 (World Christian Database)1

Korea, (North) Democratic Republic of Eastern Asia World
Baha'i 0.0% <0.1% 0.1%
Buddhist 1.5% 19.0% 7.2%
Chinese Universalist <0.1% 26.8% 6.3%
Christian 0.8% 8.1% 32.8%
Confucianist 0.0% 0.4% 0.1%
Ethnoreligionist 12.3% 4.4% 3.5%
Hindu 0.0% <0.1% 13.8%
Jain 0.0% <0.1% <0.1%
Jewish 0.0% <0.1% 0.2%
Muslim <0.1% 1.4% 22.5%
Shintoist 0.0% 0.2% <0.1%
Sikh 0.0% <0.1% 0.3%
Spiritist 0.0% <0.1% 0.2%
Taoist 0.0% 0.5% 0.1%
Zoroastrian 0.0% <0.1% <0.1%
Neoreligionists 12.9% 2.8% 0.9%
Atheist 15.6% 6.7% 2.0%
Agnostic 56.8% 29.7% 9.8%

Religious Demography2

The country has an area of 46,500 square miles and a population estimated at 22.7 million. The number of religious believers was unknown but was estimated by the Government to be 10,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 4,000 Catholics. Estimates by South Korean and international church-related groups were considerably higher. In addition, the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government-approved group based on a traditional religious movement, had approximately 40,000 practitioners, according to the Government. According to a South Korean press report, in 2002 the chairman of the Association of North Korean Catholics stated that the Catholic community in the country had no priests but held weekly prayer services at the Changchung Catholic Church in Pyongyang. However, some doubted that all of those attending services were Catholic.

In Pyongyang there were reportedly four state-controlled Christian churches: two Protestant churches under lay leadership (Bongsu and Chilgol Churches), the Changchung Roman Catholic Church, and the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. The Chilgol Church is dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il-sung's mother, Kang Pan-sok, who was a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches is unknown.

The Presbyterian Church of Korea in the South was partnering with the Christian Association in North Korea to rebuild Bongsu Church. In the fall of 2006, according to press reports, a delegation of 90 Christians from South Korea visited the Bongsu church to celebrate completion of its first phase of renovation. According to religious leaders who traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at these churches, although it was not known if they were resident or visiting.

In its July 2002 report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the country reported the existence of 500 "family worship centers." However, according to the 2007 Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) White Paper, defectors interviewed were unaware of any such centers. Observers stated that "family worship centers" may be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation, while an unknown number of "underground churches" operate apart from the Federation and are not recognized by the Government. Some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians in the country. Others question the existence of a large-scale underground church or conclude that no reliable estimate of the number of underground religious believers exists. Individual underground congregations are reportedly very small and confined to private homes. At the same time, some NGOs reported that the individual churches are connected to each other through well-established networks. The regime has not allowed outsiders the access necessary to confirm such claims.

There were an estimated 300 Buddhist temples. Most were regarded as cultural relics, but religious activity was permitted in some. A few Buddhist temples and relics have been renovated or restored in recent years under a broad effort aimed at "preserving the Korean nation's cultural heritage." In 2007 reconstruction was completed on the Shingye or Singyesa (Holy Valley) Temple, which was destroyed during the Korean War. The Republic of Korea (ROK) Government and foreign tourists funded the reconstruction. A South Korean monk, the first to permanently reside in North Korea, has lived at the temple since 2004 but serves primarily as a guide for visiting tourists rather than as a pastor caring for Buddhists living in the area.

The Government announced in June 2007 that 500 monks and Buddhist followers were making day-long pilgrimages to the recently renovated Ryongthong temple in Kaesong strictly for religious purposes. Foreign diplomats in Pyongyang who visited the temple were told that the two monks living there may be joined by more. State-controlled press reported on several occasions that Buddhist ceremonies had been carried out in various locations. Official reporting also linked descriptions of such ceremonies with the broader theme of Korean unification.

The Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church opened in Pyongyang on August 13, 2006. The church was reportedly commissioned by Kim Jong-il after he visited an Orthodox cathedral in Russia in 2002. Two North Koreans who studied at the Russian Orthodox Seminary in Moscow have been ordained as priests and are serving at the church. The purported aim of the church was primarily to provide pastoral care of Russians in the country, but one religious leader with access to the country speculated that the church likely extended pastoral care to all Orthodox Koreans as well. Similar to other religious groups, no reliable data exists on the number of Orthodox believers.

Several foreigners residing in Pyongyang attended Korean-language services at the Christian churches on a regular basis. Some foreigners who visited the country stated that church services appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime, in addition to religious themes. Foreign legislators attending services in Pyongyang in previous years noted that congregations arrived at and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed that they did not include any children. Other foreigners noted that they were not permitted to have contact with congregants. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups, but it was generally assumed they were monitored closely. According to the 2007 KINU White Paper, defectors reported being unaware of any recognized religious organizations that maintained branches outside of Pyongyang.

Several schools for religious education exist. There are 3-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. A religious studies program also was established at Kim Il-sung University in 1989; its graduates usually worked in the foreign trade sector. In 2000 a Protestant seminary was reopened with assistance from foreign missionary groups. Critics, including at least one foreign sponsor, charged that the Government opened the seminary only to facilitate reception of assistance funds from foreign faith-based NGOs. The Chosun Christian Federation, a religious group believed to be controlled by the Government, contributed to the curriculum used by the seminary. The Chosun Christian League operates the Pyongyang Theological Academy, a graduate institution that trains pastors affiliated with the Korean Christian Federation.

Sources

Note: The World Christian Database (WCD) estimates, used in the Religious Adherents section above, count each person as belonging to a maximum of one religious group. For more information, see the WCD methodology document. The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom report estimates, used in the Religious Demography section, use less restrictive criteria in which a person who identifies with more than one religion is classified as a follower of each. In certain cases (such as Japan and other nations with strong folk religion traditions), this can cause counts to vary widely between estimates. Users are advised to consult the relevant source documents before determining which counts to cite.

1.  The World Christian Database (WCD) is based on the 2600-page award-winning World Christian Encyclopedia and World Christian Trends, first published in 1982 and revised in 2001. This extensive work on World religion is now completely updated and integrated into the WCD online database. Designed for both the casual user and research scholar, information is readily available on religious activities, growth rates, religious literature, worker activity, and demographic statistics. Additional secular data is incorporated on population, health, education, and communications. A dataset with these and the other international measures highlighted on the country pages can be downloaded from this website. Used with permission.

2.  The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report is submitted to Congress annually by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. This report supplements the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom. It includes individual country chapters on the status of religious freedom worldwide. A dataset with these and the other international measures highlighted on the country pages can be downloaded from this website. These State Department reports are open source.