Introduction to North Korean Buddhism
In North Korea, Buddhism is known as Pulgyo – 불교. Because of North and South Korea’s shared past, when it was once unified, Buddhism first entered the Korean Peninsula in 372 A.D. through the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. 668 A.D.). Buddhism would be the dominant religion of Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.) and would continue during the subsequent Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). During the Goryeo Dynasty, Korean Confucianism would rise and eventually become a threat to the prosperity of Korean Buddhism during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). This would result in the suppression of Buddhism for the next 500 years until it started to eventually recover during the 20th century.
With the division of the Korean Peninsula in August, 1945, and like the rest of the newly formed countries, North and South Korean Buddhism would grow apart. While Buddhism in South Korea can be practiced freely, Buddhism in North Korea is practiced under the watchful eye of the official Buddhist Federation, which is an arm of the North Korean state. For instance, while Buddha’s Birthday is a national holiday in South Korea, it isn’t in North Korea. Instead, North Koreans hold Buddhist ceremonies to mark the occasion. This controlled celebration was re-started at Pohyonsa Temple on Mt. Myohyangsan (1,909 m) in May, 1988. And during these ceremonies, and because Buddhism is controlled by the state, only a limited number of Buddhists designated by the state can participate in Buddha’s Birthday celebrations. More than anything, these celebrations are conducted to show the world that North Koreans have the guarantees of freedom of religion, which they don’t have. In fact, in 2018, and according to a survey of some 13,349 North Korean defectors as conducted by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights based in Seoul, some 99.6% of those surveyed said they were not free to engage in religious activities.
As for the North Korean monks that attend to these North Korean Buddhist temples, and unlike South Korean monks, they don’t shave their heads or reside at the temples. Instead, they go to the temples in the morning in a suit. At the temples, they then change into outfits made for the Buddhist monks. Most of these monks are married. More than anything, these monks are temple managers of historical relics than they are of religious sites. And when foreign guests visit these temples, the monks only then wear the traditional red robes.
Before the division of the Korean Peninsula in August, 1945, there were some 700 monks in the northern part of the peninsula. However, and as of 2014, this number stood at 300. The main reason for this fall, besides the Korean War, is the persecution of Buddhism, and all religions for that matter, in North Korea. As for temples, and at the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, there were over 400 historic temples spread throughout the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Now, however, there are only just 64 Buddhist temples in North Korea; this, according to the “Temples in North Korea” published by the Korean Buddhism Promotion Foundation in South Korea. By region, there are 5 Buddhist temples in Pyongyang, 4 in Kaesong, 19 in Pyonganbuk-do Province, 3 in Pyongannam-do Province, 2 in Chagang-do Province, 4 in Hwanghaebuk-do Province, 6 in Hwanghaenam-do Province, 4 in Hamgyongbuk-do Province, 7 in Hamgyongnam-do Province, 9 in Kangwon-do Province, and 1 in the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region.
The most famous of these North Korean temples are Pohyonsa Temple at Mt. Myohyangsan (1,909 m), Kwangbopsa Temple on Mt. Taesongsan (270 m), the other Pyohunsa Temple on Mt. Kumgangsan (1,638 m), Jagyesa Temple in Hwanghae Province, and Songbulsa Temple at Mt. Jongbangsan.
It must be emphasized once more, North Korean Buddhist temples aren’t regarded as places of worship; instead, they are seen as cultural relics of North Korea’s past. As a result, these temples are used for communist propaganda to support the regime. So unfortunately, North Korean temples are void of their true meaning. Instead of being holy sites, they are used as political tools. Below is a list of the one temple I have visited in North Korea.