Media mention of religion in North Korea generally involves the arrest of some unfortunate foreign Christian who thought they could sneak a Bible or other evangelism materials into what is arguably the world's most repressive state -- which is saying something, given the number of horrific governments out there.
As for the existence of religion in North Korea itself, the default position for most journalists, including those on the religion beat, is that the nation formally (and oxymoronically) known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is officially atheist. On occasion, a more knowledgeable reporter may note that its official philosophy is known in Korean as Juche.
This recent New York Times piece does just that. Here's the pertinent sentence: "Juche, or self-reliance, is the North’s governing ideology."
Well, yes. But there's so much more that can be said. Including that some who study the sociology of religion consider Juche -- as politicized and seemingly secular as it is -- a "religious" ideology. Which means there's a "religion ghost," or unrecognized religion angle, hidden in some stories about how the North's oppressed population endures.
Think of Juche as an all-encompassing worldview that helps isolated North Koreans, who know virtually nothing of the larger world, rationalize the deplorably harsh conditions they are forced to survive by a ruthless regime currently headed by Kim Jong-un, the third member of his paternal line to rule their unfortunate homeland. (He was preceded by his grandfather Kim Il-sung and his father Kim Jong-il.)
Or, think of North Korea as a case in which an imposed state philosophy amounts to a real case of religion serving as an opiate for the masses, wording made appropriate by the fact that Juche was derived from Marxist-Leninist thinking.
Those who count Juche as a religion maintain that it has more adherents -- coerced as they may be -- than do global Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism or Zoroastrianism.
Of course unlike those other religions, you'd be hard pressed to find any subscribers to Juche outside the land of its birth -- except perhaps at the North Korean embassy in China and similar diplomatic outposts.
Here's a large chunk -- actually, very large might be a more apt description -- of Juche's Wikipedia entry. I'm quoting it at length because of it's relatively clear description of Juche's complex, quasi-religious structure. (Check the full entry to make sense of the numerical endnote references.)
Some South Korean scholars categorize Juche as a national religion or compare its allegedly religious facets to those of other religions or religious movements. For instance, Juche has been compared to Christianity due to the observable familiarities in their doctrines, rituals and religious practices, and community organization. It has also been compared to pre-existing religions in Korea, notably neo-Confucianism and Korean shamanism. While the influence of East Asian and Western traditional religions on Juche is widely disputed, the ideology has been examined in several academic studies as a national and indigenous religious movement rather than solely a political philosophy for the following features: presence of a sacred leader, rituals, and familism. ...
Although the ideology appears to emphasize the central role of the human individual, Juche can only be fulfilled through the masses’ subordination to a single leader and accordingly, his successor. The ideology teaches that the role of a Great Leader is essential for the popular masses to succeed in their revolutionary movement, because without leadership, they are unable to survive. This is the foundation of North Korea's cult of personality surrounding Kim Il Sung. The personality cult explains how the Juche ideology has been able to endure until today, even during North Korean government’s undeniable dependence on foreign assistance during its famine in the 1990s.
Through the fundamental belief in the essential role of the Great Leader, the former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung has become the “supreme deity for the people” and the Juche doctrine reinforced in North Korea’s constitution as the country’s guiding principle. The parallel relationship structure between Kim Il-sung and his people to religious founders or leaders and their followers, has led many scholars to consider Juche to be a religious movement as much as a political ideology.
Some researchers see in Juche's public spectacles an equivalency with the bells and whistles of high church rituals, Wikipedia continues.
The religious behavior of Juche can also be seen in the perspectives of the North Korean people through refugee interviews from former participants in North Korea’s ritual occasions. One pertinent example is the Arirang Festival, which is a gymnastics and artistic festival held in the Rungnado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. All components of the festival, from the selection of performers, mobilization of resources, recruitment of the audience, and publicity for the show, have been compared to facets of a national religious event.
The Arirang Festival has been described to demonstrate the power of the North Korean regime to arrange a form of religious gathering. It has done so by "appropriating a mass of bodies for calisthenic and performative arts representing the leader as the Father and his faithful." The Festival's effectiveness in transforming its participants into loyal disciples of Juche seems to originate from the collectivist principle of "one for all and all for one" and the ensuing emotional bond and loyalty to the leader.
There's a lot to unpack here, and I admit to wondering whether the parsing of Juche's shadow religious nature is just an excess of academic gaming.
But then there's this unabashedly Christian website that focuses on North Korea -- and which I would have thought would dismiss outright any connection between Juche and "true" religion.
Instead, NorthKoreanChristians.com calls Juche "a full-fledged religion."
Let's be clear. The North Korean regime's utter ruthlessness is the reason it remains entrenched, not because Juche acts as a balm. I can't image that North Koreans are a happy lot because they follow Juche.
That Juche is entirely irrational to us is meaningless. The bottom line for journalists is to remember how important the need to discern meaning to experiences is to human survival -- no matter how convoluted that meaning may seem to outsiders.
In short, faith -- religion -- may be said to come in as many forms as there are Hindu deities, including the manipulative and repressive. Witness the most reported upon example around today -- the twisted form of Islam that the leaders of the Islamic State insists is the only true Islam.
IMAGE: Graphics from Deviant Art.