World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - North Korea : Overview
|Publisher||Minority Rights Group International|
|Cite as||Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - North Korea : Overview, 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce6223.html [accessed 21 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) is an East Asian state on the mountainous peninsula which juts out into the Sea of Japan on the north-eastern edge of China. It shares the peninsula with a southern neighbour, South Korea. Both were until 1945 part of Korea, a country occupied by the Japanese after 1910. The peninsula's location at the very end of the Asian continent, far away from the migration routes of early populations, help understand its particularly homogenous ethnic makeup.
Main languages: Korean, Chinese
Main religions: Chondogyo, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, shamanism
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is one of the world's most homogeneous countries in linguistic and ethnic terms: almost all 23 million Koreans (Source: CIA World Factbook, 2007 estimate) are the descendants of migratory groups who entered the Korean Peninsula several thousands of years ago. There is only one very small Chinese minority of perhaps around 50,000, and even the number of foreigners living in the country is quite small when compared to its southern neighbour.
Exact numbers for religious minorities are extremely difficult to obtain and verify given the nature of the state's governing regime. 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.
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 evolution unique past. Mahayana Buddhism remains a surprisingly small minority due partially to 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 for its part made rather slow inroads initially: the first Roman Catholic missionary only arrived in Korea in 1785 and for almost 100 years the Joseon rulers mainly tried to restrain or even prohibit the activities of Christian minorities. 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 particularly present 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: officially 800 Catholics and 150 Protestant 'believers' remain today.
It is also at the beginning of the 20th Century that a number of religious sects began to form in Korea, one of which was to subsequently become quite widespread. Chondogyo is a syncretic Korean religious movement with roots in peasant uprisings of the previous century which 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 may be conducted in the country for over half 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 as well as requiring 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. Partially this may also have 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 emerge which permitted the re-emergence of highly controlled official public religious organisations in order to be able 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 channelled through and only permitted within the three corresponding state-sponsored religious organisations, the Korean Buddhists' Federation, the Christian Federation, and the Chondogyo Youth Party.
Buddhists seem to be given slightly more latitude by the country's regime: there are reportedly 300 Buddhist temples (though many of which are little more than cultural artefacts) in the country. More recently there may have been some cosmetic changes, with a new Protestant church and a Catholic cathedral opened in 1988, a second small Protestant church was 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 Il, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is considered by many in the West to have one of the world's most opaque and repressive governments. The human rights abuses alleged over the years have been extensive: extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detention; torture; forced abortions and infanticide in prisons; lack of fair trials; violations of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc.
Human rights protection still remains weak and underdeveloped, with no real supervisory judicial capacity in place to ensure its application. Despite having ratified a number of 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.
There has never been any specific provision for the protection or recognition of minorities in North Korean legislation or constitution, largely because no substantial minority has existed in that country since its formation. That situation remains 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 of 1992 includes freedom of religion in one of its provisions, it at the same time includes wording to the effect that 'no one may use religion as a means by which to drag in foreign powers or to destroy the state or social order.' The cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Il, the official Juche doctrine which has been used to supplant religious practice, and the rigid state control over the activities of the three approved official federations all suggest religious minorities are not free to profess and practise their own religion.
Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples
There is no information available on the current state of the Chinese minority.
There have been a number of changes in relation to religious minorities, though their significance and impact is difficult to assess. The completion of a Russian Orthodox church in 2006 has been noted, but as there is no indication of the existence of an Orthodox minority in North Korea this would merely appear to be a 'Potemkin'.
Reports in 2005-6 continue to appear from religious and human rights groups of harsh treatment, and even of torture, of members of religious minorities involved in non-sanctioned religious practices.
There is no protection for religious freedom in North Korea and exact numbers for religious minorities are extremely difficult to obtain and verify given the nature of the state's governing regime and lack of access for outside observers. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2007 report classifies North Korea a 'country of particular concern' and documents severe government repression of public and private religious activities and all-encompassing control over government-sanctioned religious practice. It would appear that the government sees any kind of religious belief as a competitor to the cult of personality centered on dictator Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's regime has also continued to refuse sending an invitation in 2005 and 2006 to UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn which would allow him to visit the country.
In December 2006 the UN General Assembly expressed very serious concern at continuing reports from North Korea of torture, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detentions, forced labour, punishment of refugees forcibly returned from abroad, severe restrictions on freedoms of thought, conscience, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association and access to information, violations of women's rights, such as human trafficking and violations of the rights of persons of disabilities, including their detention in collective camps.
More positively, North Korea has generally complied with its reporting obligations to monitoring bodies for the human rights treaties which it has ratified. However, the information provided to the monitoring bodies has tended either to be incomplete, unhelpful or misleading in relation to religious minorities. Nevertheless, North Korea did modify in the last couple of years some reforms, such as in criminal law, following some of the criticisms from monitoring bodies, but overall there has been no significant movement in relation to minorities. There remains a huge gap between the formal recognition of human rights, especially in relation to religious minorities, and their implementation in the country.