Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Korean, Chinese
Main religions: Chondogyo, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Shamanism
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is one of the world’s most homogeneous countries in linguistic and ethnic terms: almost all 25 million North Koreans are the descendants of migratory groups who entered the Korean Peninsula several thousand years ago. There is only one very small Chinese minority estimated in the mid-2000’s at around 50,000, and the number of foreigners living in the country is miniscule compared to its southern neighbour.
Exact numbers for religious minorities are extremely difficult to obtain and verify given the nature of the state’s secretive, authoritarian governance. There is no majority religion in the country since the total of all religious practitioners is apparently far less than 50 percent, with even traditional religions such as Buddhism now thought to have relatively few active adherents.
Updated May 2018
The human rights situation in North Korea remains among the very worst in the world. The regime continues to commit crimes against humanity including against religious minorities. There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association. The cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Un and his predecessors, the official Juche doctrine which has been used to supplant religious practice, and rigid state control over the activities of the three approved official federations have resulted in an absence of freedom for religious minorities to profess and practice their faith. The regime’s requirement for absolute loyalty and its complete intolerance of any dissent means that significant political and ideological changes are necessary if the situation is to improve.
In June 2015, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein opened a UN office based in Seoul to help monitor and document rights abuses in North Korea, and in December 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for human rights violations.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is an East Asian state located on the mountainous peninsula which juts into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) on the north-eastern edge of China. It shares the peninsula with a southern neighbour, the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Until 1945 both were part of Korea, a country occupied by the Japanese after 1910. The country’s northern land border is formed by the Yalu (or Amnok) and Tumen rivers. Most of the northern border is shared with the Chinese provinces of Jilin and Liaoning, and the remaining is shared with Russia. The Korean peninsula’s location far away from the migration routes of early populations partly explains its particularly homogenous ethnic makeup.
While North Korea’s ethnic makeup has been homogenous throughout most of its history, the continued presence of religious minorities is closely linked to some of the peculiarities in the country’s unique past. Mahayana Buddhism remains a surprisingly small minority after nearly 500 years of attempts to remove Buddhist influences and promote Confucianist ideals during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) until the occupation of Korea by Japan in 1910. While the Japanese authorities tried to promote Buddhism, these efforts did not seem to have any significant impact.
Christianity made rather slow inroads initially: the first Roman Catholic missionary only arrived in Korea in 1785 and for almost 100 years the Joseon rulers largely tried to restrain or even prohibit the spread of Christianity. This changed after 1881, when Korea opened up to western countries and Protestant missionaries and others began to actively proselytise and open schools, hospitals and orphanages. Protestants were active in opposing the Japanese occupation, which may explain some of their growth in the country. Immediately before the start of the Japanese occupation Christian minorities were particularly successful in the northern part of Korea, with the result that by 1945 some 13 per cent of Pyongyang’s population were Christians despite Japanese suppression. There may have been 52,000 Catholics and 200,000 Protestants in North Korea at the end of World War II, but according to official figures only 800 Catholics and 150 Protestants remained in the country by the mid-2000s.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a number of religious sects begin to form in Korea, one of which was to subsequently become quite widespread. Chondogyo, a syncretic Korean religious movement with roots in peasant uprisings of the previous century, was able to grow substantially in part as a native Korean response to the Japanese occupation.
The rise of communism and the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 have largely meant that only ‘officially sanctioned’ religious activities have been permitted in the country for almost three quarters of a century. North Korea’s brand of communism is also influenced by the application of the ‘Juche’ doctrine in state policy which promotes economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in defence while demanding citizens’ absolute loyalty to the party and leader.
In the initial period after the creation of North Korea, President Kim Il Sung instituted a policy which in effect led to the elimination of all public religious practice, and by the 1960s all religious minorities were treated in much the same way: there were no Christian churches, Buddhist temples, or Chondogyo places of worship operating. This has also been linked to the Juche doctrine which was promoted by the government as an alternative to traditional religion, and is often seen as opposed to Christianity and Buddhism.
By the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, there was a slight change of policy which began to permit the re-emergence of highly controlled public religious organizations in order to reach out to religious constituencies outside North Korea. This led to the creation of official religious federations. The activities of all members of the Buddhist, Christian and Chondogyo minorities have thus in recent decades been subject to heavy surveillance by the state and are channeled through and only permitted within the three corresponding state-sponsored religious organizations, the Korean Buddhists’ Federation, the Christian Federation and the Chondogyo Youth Party.
Buddhists seem to be given slightly more latitude by the ruling regime: there are reportedly 300 Buddhist temples (although many are little more than cultural artefacts) in the country. In more recent decades there may have been some cosmetic changes, with a new Protestant church and a Catholic cathedral opened in 1988, a second small Protestant church opened in 1992, and a Russian Orthodox church completed in 2006. These are claimed by critics to be ‘show’ churches for propaganda purposes where foreigners can attend religious services.
A dictatorship under the rule of Kim Jong Un since 2011, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has long been considered by many outside observers to have one of the world’s most opaque and repressive governments. There is no real judicial entity in place to ensure human rights protection in North Korea, which remains lacking. Despite having ratified a number of international human rights treaties, and despite the existence of a number of basic human rights in its Constitution, these rights are often either qualified in the Constitution for reasons of public security or must be exercised consistently with ‘socialist norms of life’ or ‘collective spirit’. Other constitutional rights such as freedom of association lack any kind of enforcement legislation and are in practice ignored by authorities. It can be said that the rule of law, which is fundamental for the protection of the rights of individuals, is severely underdeveloped.
Human rights abuses over the years have been extensive and in 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea published a report documenting various human rights issues including extrajudicial killings, enslavement, torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced abortion and infanticide in prisons, and other forms of violence. In line with this report, the UN Security Council added the human rights situation in North Korea to its formal agenda in December 2015.
There has never been any specific provision for the protection or recognition of minorities in North Korean legislation or the Constitution, largely because no substantial minority has existed in the country since its formation. This has remained a consistent feature of the state’s legal and political makeup. For religious minorities the context is different but not necessarily reassuring: while the state’s current Constitution, most recently revised in 2016, includes freedom of religion in one of its provisions, while at the same time includes wording to the effect that, ‘Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order’. In practice, an almost total denial of freedom of religion persists.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights
Database Center for North Korean Human Rights
Human Rights Without Frontiers International
Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights
US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (USA)
Sources and further reading
[There are no specific reports or studies on the Chinese minority in North Korea]
Choi, Sung-Chul, ‘Human rights and North Korea’, Institute of Unification Policy, 1999.
Chosun Journal: Networking Communities for Human Rights in North Korea, http://chosunjournal.com/index.php
Daily NK – The Hub of North Korean News, http://www.dailynk.com/english/index.php
‘Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’, 27/08/2001, UN Document CCPR/CO/72/PRK.
‘Failure to Protect: A Call to the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea’, US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Washington, 2006.
Grayson, James, ‘Korea: A Religious History’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.
Human Rights in North Korea, Derechos Human Rights, http://www.derechos.org/human-rights/nasia/nkorea.html
‘Human rights in North Korea’, Sung-Chul Choi (ed.), Center for the Advancement of North Korean Human Rights, 1995.
‘Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)’, Minnesota Lawyers.
International Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Watch/Asia, 1988.
Human Rights Watch Asia: North Korea, http://hrw.org/asia/dprkorea.php
Life and Human Rights Quarterly Journal, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
‘North Korea: Briefing on present situation’, Amnesty International, January 2006,
North Korean Human Rights : Trends and Issues / National Human Rights Commission Republic of Korea, NGOs Seminar on North Korean Human Rights/5 June 2003
Pan, Lynn, ‘The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas’, Landmark Books, 1998.
‘Religion in North Korea’, US Library of Congress, http://countrystudies.us/north-korea/36.htm
‘Religious Culture in Korea’, Republic of Korea Ministry of Culture, Seoul, 1996.
‘Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur, Vitit Muntarbhorn’, UN Document E/CN.4/2006/35, 23 January 2006.
Soon Hyung Yi, ‘Human rights of the child in North Korea’, International Seminar on North Korean Human Rights 2005, National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 2005.
‘Thank You Father Kim Il Sung: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in North Korea’, US Commission on International Religious Freedom, November 2005.
‘White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea’, Korean Institute for National Unification, Seoul, 2006.