Religion in Korea

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Religion in the Korean Peninsula (early 2000s)[1][2][3]

  Buddhism (14.9%)
  Protestantism (12.3%)
  Catholicism (7.3%)
  Korean shamanism (5.3%)
  Cheondoism (4.4%)
  Other (3.4%)
  Not religious (52.4%)

Religion in Korea encompasses a number of different traditions. Korea's religious tradition is influenced by traditional Buddhism, Muism with a background of Korean Confucianism, and fast growth of Christianity. The modern separation of Korea into North and South Korea has also shaped religious practice, especially in the communist North.[4][5][6][7][8]

Religion in South Korea[edit]

Religion in South Korea[2]
religion percent
No affiliation

Just over 53 percent of South Koreans profess religious affiliation. That affiliation is spread primarily among three traditions - Buddhism (22.8 percent), Protestantism (18.3 percent), and Catholicism (10.9 percent).[9] The cultural impact of these movements is far more widespread than the number of formal adherents suggests. A variety of "new religions" have emerged since the mid-19th century, including Cheondoism and the Unification Church. Very small Muslim and Bahá'í minorities also exist due to the emigration of South Asians.

While there is a clear distinction between religious adherents and nonbelievers with the Christian population, there is much ambiguity in statistics for religion in South Korea. This is primarily due to the fact that there is no exact or exclusive criterion by which Buddhists can be identified. The lineage of refuge, a commitment that distinguishes between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, has disintegrated in Korea. With Buddhism's incorporation into traditional Korean culture, it is now considered a philosophy and cultural background rather than a formal religion. As a result, many people outside of formal groups are deeply influenced by these traditions.[10] Moreover, it is not uncommon for non-practicing Koreans to pray at Buddhist temples, participate in Confucian ancestor rites, and even consult a shaman and sponsor a kut. As a result, when factoring in the number of individuals influenced by these philosophies, a much higher number of South Koreans are considered to be Buddhist influenced by Confucian principles.[11] Religion in South Korea is further complicated by the integration of Buddhist and Confucian customs among Catholics, chiefly through the practice of ancestor worship and observance of some principles.[12]

Religion in North Korea[edit]

Religion in North Korea[13]
religion percent
No affiliation
Korean shamanism

Traditionally religion in North Korea primarily consisted of Buddhism, Confucianism and Korean shamanism. Since the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, there was a significant Christian population in the North of Korea, with Pyongyang as an important Christian center. With the split of Korea most of the Northern Christians fled to the South. New religions have arisen during the last century, the most prominent one being Cheondoism, based on traditional shamanism with the incorporation of traditional Buddhist and Daoist philosophies. North Korea is officially an atheist state in which much of the population is nonreligious.[14][15] Although North Korea largely sees organised religious activity as a potential challenge to the leadership,[16] Buddhists in North Korea reportedly fare better than other religious groups, particularly Christians, who are said to face persecution by the authorities. In fact, Buddhists are given limited funding by the government to promote the religion, because Buddhism has played an integral role in traditional Korean culture.[17] However, one form of Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Church, was allowed to establish a church in Pyongyang in 2004.[18]

Buddhism and Confucianism[edit]

Buddhism was the dominant religious and cultural influence during the Silla (57BC–935) and Koryo (918–1392) dynasties. Confucianism also was brought to Korea from China in early Three Kingdoms period, but it occupied a subordinate position until the establishment of the Choson Dynasty where it became the state ideology.


Main article: Christianity in Korea

Roman Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Korea until 1794, a decade after the return of the first baptized Korean from a visit to Beijing. However, the writings of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who was resident at the imperial court in Beijing, had been brought to Korea from China in the seventeenth century. It appears that scholars of the Sirhak, or practical learning, school were interested in these writings. Largely because converts refused to perform ancestor rites, the government prohibited the proselytization of Christianity. Some Catholics were executed during the early nineteenth century, but the anti-Christian law was not strictly enforced. By the 1860s, there were some 17,500 Roman Catholics in the country. There followed a more rigorous persecution, in which thousands of Christians died, that continued until 1884.

Protestant missionaries entered Korea during the 1880s and, along with Catholic priests, converted a remarkable number of Koreans.[19] Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful.[20] They established schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages and played a significant role in the modernization of the country. During the Japanese colonial occupation, Christians were in the front ranks of the struggle for independence. Factors contributing to the growth of Protestantism included the disorganized state of Korean Buddhism, the efforts made by educated Christians to reconcile Christian and Confucian values (the latter being viewed as purely a social ethic rather than a religion), the encouragement of self-support and self-government among members of the Korean church, and the identification of Christianity with Korean nationalism.

Orthodoxy was introduced by Russian missionaries into Korea in 1900, and gained a small number of converts.

A large number of Christians lived in the northern part of the peninsula where Confucian influence was not as strong as in the south. Before 1948 P'yongyang was an important Christian center: one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 people were converts. Following the establishment of a communist regime in the north, however, most Christians had to flee to South Korea or face persecution.

New religions[edit]

The fall of the Joseon Dynasty and the coming of the Japanese occupation spurred the formation of several new faiths. These typically drew on a combination of Western, Eastern, and autochthonous traditions. The most prominent is Cheondoism, which claimed more than a million members at its height in the early 20th century. Today Cheondoist believers make up less than 0.1% of the South Korean population. Other similar religions include Wonbuddhism, Taejonggyo and Jeung San Do.

Cheondoism (Way of Heaven School), generally regarded as the first of Korea's "new religions," is another important religious tradition. It is a synthesis of Neo-Confucian, Buddhist, Shamanist, Daoist, and Catholic influences. Cheondoism grew out of the Donghak (Eastern Learning) Movement established by Choe Je-u, a man of yangban (aristocratic) background who claimed to have experienced a mystic encounter with God, who told him to preach to all the world. Choe was executed by the government as a heretic in 1863, but not before he had acquired a number of followers and had committed his ideas to writing. Donghak spread among the poor people of Korea's villages, especially in the Jeolla region, and was the cause of a revolt against the royal government in 1894. While some members of the Donghak Movement – renamed Cheondoism (Teachings of the Heavenly Way) – supported the Japanese annexation in 1910, others opposed it. This group played a major role, along with Christians and some Confucians, in the Korean nationalist movement. In the 1920s, Cheondoism sponsored Kaebyok (Creation), one of Korea's major intellectual journals during the colonial period (see The Media, ch. 4).

Cheondoist basic beliefs include the essential equality of all human beings. Each person must be treated with respect because all people "contain divinity;" there is "Heaven in Humanity." Moreover, men and women must sincerely cultivate themselves in order to bring forth and express this divinity in their lives. Self-perfection, not ritual and ceremony, is the way to salvation. Although Choe and his followers did not attempt to overthrow the social order and establish a radical egalitarianism, the revolutionary potential of Cheondoism is evident in these basic ideas, which appealed especially to poor people who were told that they, along with scholars and high officials, could achieve salvation through effort. There is reason to believe that Cheondoism had an important role in the development of democratic and anti-authoritarian thought in Korea. In the 1970s and 1980s, Cheondoism's antecedent, the Donghak Movement, received renewed interest among many Korean intellectuals.

Apart from Cheondoism, major new religions included Taejonggyo, which has as its central creed the worship of Dangun, legendary founder of Gojoseon, thought of as the first proto-Korean kingdom. Jeungsando, founded in the early 20th century, emphasizes magical practices, the soon-coming end of world civilization as we know it due to cosmic-caused changes in the Earth's climate and other disasters, and the subsequent creation of a paradise on earth by its followers, who will survive the cataclysm. It is divided into several competing branches, at least one of which has notably modernized its approach and has recruited some non-Korean adherents. Wonbulgyo (Won Buddhism), attempts to combine traditional Buddhist doctrine with a modern concern for social reform and revitalization. There are also a number of small sects, which have sprung up around Gyeryong-san (Rooster-Dragon Mountain, always one of Korea's most-sacred areas) in South Chungcheong Province, the supposed future site of the founding of a new dynasty originally prophesied in the 18th century (or before).

Several new religions derive their inspiration from Christianity. The Cheondogwan, or Evangelical Church, was founded by Pak T'ae-son. Pak originally was a Presbyterian, but was expelled from the church for heresy in the 1950s after claiming for himself unique spiritual power. By 1972 his followers numbered as many as 700,000 people, and he built several "Christian towns," established a large church network, and managed several industrial enterprises.

Because of its overseas evangelism, the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, or Unification Church (Tongilgyo), founded in 1954 by Reverend Sun Myung Moon (Mun Seon-myeong), also from a Christian background, is the most famous new Korean religion. During its period of rapid expansion during the 1970s, the Unification Church had several hundred thousand members in South Korea and Japan and a moderate number of members in North America and Western Europe. Moon has said that he is the Messiah and the Second Coming of Christ and is fulfilling Jesus' unfinished mission.[21][22] In 1988, Moon matched 2,500 Korean members with Japanese members for a Blessing ceremony held in Seoul, partly in order to promote unity between the two nations.[23] A 2000 ceremony included couples in North Korea.[24] Also like Pak, Moon has invested in economic ventures. Businesses in South Korea and abroad manufacture arms and process ginseng and seafood, artistic bric-a-brac, and other items. In 1999 Moon founded Pyeonghwa Motors, which does business in both South and North Korea, as well as in China, and is the North’s only automobile manufacturer.[25]

In 1963 Moon founded the Little Angels Children's Folk Ballet of Korea which tours the world to attract positive attention to Korean culture and in particular to act as goodwill ambassadors for South Korea.[26][27] [28] Strongly anticommunist, Moon has sought to influence public opinion at home and abroad by establishing newspapers such as the Segye Ilbo in Seoul, the Sekai Nippo in Tokyo, and the Washington Times in the United States capital. In the 1970s and 1980s he invited academics to the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences and other conferences, often held in South Korea.[29][30][31] In 1983 some American church members joined a public protest against the Soviet Union over its shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007.[32] Apart from that, the church has used its substantial resources to support work towards Korean reunification. Moon is also an advocate of the proposed Japan Korea Tunnel.[33] In South Korea, by the 1980s the Unification Church was viewed with suspicion by some authorities because of its scandals and accusations that it desired to create a "state within a state." In 2003, Korean Unification Church members started a political party in South Korea. It was named "The Party for God, Peace, Unification, and Home." In an inauguration declaration, the new party said it would focus on preparing for the reunification of the South and North Korea by educating the public about God and peace. A church official said that similar political parties would be started in Japan and the United States.[34]

Minor religions[edit]


Main article: Islam in South Korea
A mosque in Seoul.

The number of Muslims in South Korea is estimated at about 30,000, mainly consisting of people who converted during the Korean War and their descendants. This figure doesn't including migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia. The largest mosque is the Seoul Central Mosque in the Itaewon district of Seoul; smaller mosques can be found in most of the country's major cities.[35]

In addition to native Korean Muslims, there are some 100,000 foreign workers from Muslim countries,[36] particularly Bangladesh and Pakistan.[37]


The Jewish presence in South Korea effectively began with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. At this time a large number of Jewish soldiers, including the chaplain Chaim Potok, came to the Korean peninsula. Today the Jewish community is very small and limited to the Seoul metropolitan area. There have been very few Korean converts to Judaism.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Calculated by direct proportionality, whereas South Korea constitutes two thirds of Korean population and North Korea one third of entire population.
  2. ^ a b According to figures compiled by the South Korean National Statistical Office. "인구,가구/시도별 종교인구/시도별 종교인구 (2005년 인구총조사)". NSO online KOSIS database. Retrieved August 23, 2006. 
  3. ^ "Religious Intelligence UK Report". Archived from the original on 2007-10-13. 
  4. ^ About Korea - Religion[dead link]
  5. ^ "South Koreans". Every Culture. Retrieved 2012-02-21. 
  6. ^ "Culture of SOUTH KOREA". Every Culture. Retrieved 2012-02-21. 
  7. ^ "Culture of NORTH KOREA". Every Culture. Retrieved 2012-02-21. 
  8. ^ CIA The World Factbook -- North Korea
  9. ^ "인구,가구/시도별 종교인구/시도별 종교인구 (2005년 인구총조사)". NSO online KOSIS database. Retrieved 2006-08-23. 
  10. ^ Kedar, Nath Tiwari (1997). Comparative Religion. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0293-4. 
  11. ^ Eungi, Kim. 2003. “Religion in Contemporary Korea: Change and Continuity.” Korea Focus, July–August, 133–146.
  12. ^ Park, Chang-Won (10 June 2010). Cultural Blending in Korean Death Rites. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-1-4411-1749-6. 
  13. ^ Religious Intelligence UK Report
  14. ^ World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Marshall Cavendish. Retrieved 2011-03-05. North Korea is officially an atheist state in which almost the entire population is nonreligious. 
  15. ^ The State of Religion Atlas. Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 2011-03-05. Atheism continues to be the official position of the governments of China, North Korea and Cuba. 
  16. ^ "North Korea confirms US citizen is arrested". BBC News. April 14, 2011. 
  17. ^ Demick, Barbara (October 2, 2005). "Buddhist Temple Being Restored in N. Korea". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-05-20. 
  18. ^ "Korean Orthodox Church becomes Separate Metropolis". 2004-05-10. Retrieved 2014-10-06. 
  19. ^ Queen of Suffering A Spiritual History of Korea
  20. ^ Kim, Sang-Hwan (1996). The impact of early Presbyterian missionary preaching (1884-1920) on the preaching of the Korean church (M.A. thesis) Wilfrid Laurier University
  21. ^ Moon At Twilight: Amid scandal, the Unification Church has a strange new mission, Peter Maass New Yorker Magazine, September 14, 1998. "Moon sees the essence of his own mission as completing the one given to Jesus--establishing a "true family" untouched by Satan while teaching all people to lead a God-centered life under his spiritual leadership."..."Although Moon often predicts in his sermons that a breakthrough is near, Moffitt realizes that Moon may not come to be seen as the messiah in his lifetime."
  22. ^ Unifying or Dividing? Sun Myung Moon and the Origins of the Unification Church, George D. Chryssides, 2003
  23. ^ MARRIAGE BY THE NUMBERS; MOON PRESIDES AS 6,500 COUPLES WED IN S. KOREA Peter Maass Washington Post October 31, 1988
  24. ^ Moonies join hands across the border, The Guardian, 2000-02-10
  25. ^ Pyeonghwa Sells in North Korea, Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2009
  26. ^ [1][dead link]
  27. ^ [2]
  28. ^ [3][dead link]
  29. ^ excerpt The Unification Church Studies in Contemporary Religion, Massimo Introvigne, 2000, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, ISBN 1-56085-145-7
  30. ^ Kety Quits Moon-Linked ICF Conference Harvard Crimson, 1976-08-10.
  31. ^ ICUS Statement of Purpose
  32. ^ [4] San Francisco Chronicle September 3, 1983
  33. ^ The Proposal for Constructing an "International Highway", Terug website
  34. ^ 'Moonies' launch political party in S Korea,The Independent (South Africa), March 10, 2003
  35. ^ Bae Ji-sook (2007-08-10). "Life is Very Hard for Korean Muslims". The Korea Times. Retrieved 2014-10-12. 
  36. ^ "Islam takes root and blooms". 2002-11-22. Retrieved 2012-02-21. 
  37. ^ "Korea’s Muslims Mark Ramadan". The Chosun Ilbo. September 11, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-09. 

External links[edit]