Religion in South Korea

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Religion in South Korea - 2005[1]

  Irreligion (46.5%)
  Buddhism (22.8%)
  Protestantism (18.3%)
  Roman Catholicism (10.9%)
  Other religions (1.7%)

The predominant religions in South Korea are the traditional Buddhist faith and a large Christian population (composed of Catholics and Protestants of various denominations). Although a large segment of the population claims to not be affiliated with any organized religion, most South Korean households continue to observe traditional ancestral rites and Confucian philosophies that have been integrated into Korean culture.[2] The practice of both Christianity and Buddhism has been strongly influenced by the enduring legacies of Korean Confucianism, which was the official ideology of the 500-year-long Joseon Dynasty, and Korean shamanism, the native religion of the Korean Peninsula.

Statistics on religion by population[edit]

Of the South Korean population in 2005, 46.5% were classified as Irreligious, 22.8% were Buddhist, 29.2% were Christians (18.3% were Protestants and 10.9% were Catholics), and the rest adhered to various minority religions including Jeung San Do, Daesun Jinrihoe, Cheondoism, Taoism, Confucianism and Won Buddhism. A smaller minority of Koreans also professed Islam.[1]

Large metropolitan areas had the highest proportions of people belonging to formal religious groups: 49.9 percent in Seoul, 46.1 percent for Busan, and 45.8 percent for Daegu. South Korea had the third highest percentage of Christians in East Asia or Southeast Asia, following the Philippines and East Timor.

Except for the Christian groups, who maintain a fairly clear-cut distinction between believers and nonbelievers, there is some ambiguity in these statistics. For instance, there is no exact or exclusive criterion by which Buddhists or Confucianists can be identified. Although existing in other countries, the lineage of refuge, a commitment that distinguishes between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, has disintegrated in Korea and is difficult to find because religion is seen to be hereditary.[3] As Buddhism has harmonized with traditional Korean culture and can be seen as a philosophy and cultural background rather than a religion, many people outside of formal groups have been deeply influenced by these traditions.[4] 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, about over half of South Koreans can be considered Buddhist influenced by Confucian principles.[5][6] Furthermore, the statistics may underrepresent the numbers of people belonging to new religions. Some sources have given the number of adherents of Korean new religions as 7.373.364 million people, or 15.2% of the population.[7]

Given the great diversity of religious expression, the role of religion in South Korea's social development has been complex. Some traditions are adhered to as important cultural properties rather than as rites of worship. Confucianism remains important as a social ethic; its influence is evident in the immense importance Koreans ascribe to education. Ancestor worship influenced by Mahayana Buddhist and Confucian rites remains an important social practice among formal practitioners of those faiths, as well as non-practitioners and Catholics.[8] Christianity is identified with modernization and social reform. Many Christians in contemporary South Korea, such as veteran political opposition leader Kim Dae-jung, a Catholic, have been outspoken advocates of human rights and critics of the government. Christian-sponsored organizations, such as the Urban Industrial Mission, promote labor organizations and the union movement. New religions draw on both traditional beliefs and on Christianity, achieving a baffling variety and diversity of views. It has been estimated that there were as many as 5000 new religions in South Korea in the late 19th century, though many were small and transient phenomena.


In 2005, according to figures compiled by the South Korean National Statistical Office, 46.5% of the population were classified as Irreligious, compared to 22.8% Buddhists, 18.3% Protestants, 10.9% Catholics, and 1.7% Other religions.[1]

According to a 2012 Gallup International poll 15% of South Korean people were convinced atheists, up from 11% in its previous survey in 2005.[9]


Main article: Korean Buddhism

Buddhism entered Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period (4th to 7th century). Buddhism was the dominant religious and cultural influence during the Shilla (668-935) and Koryo (918-1392) dynasties. Confucianism was also brought to Korea from China in early centuries, but it occupied a subordinate position until the establishment of the Choson Dynasty and the persecution of Buddhism carried out by the early Choson Dynasty kings.

Buddhism is stronger in the more traditional east of the country, namely the Yeongnam and Gangwon regions, where it accounts for more than half of the religious population. There are a number of different "schools" in Korean Buddhism, including the Seon; however, the overwhelming majority (around 90%) of Buddhist temples are part of the Jogye Order. Many adherents of Buddhism combine Buddhist practice and shamanism.

Buddhism in South Korea is dominated by the Jogye Order, a syncretic sect traditionally linked to the Seon tradition. Most of the country's old and famous temples, such as Bulguksa and Beomeosa, are operated by the Jogye Order, which is headquartered at Jogyesa in central Seoul. Other Buddhist traditions in South Korea include the "Taego" and "Cheontae" lineages. Taego is a form of Seon (Zen), while the Choentae is a modern revival of the T'ien T'ai lineage in Korea, focusing on the Lotus Sutra. Another lineage, the Jingak, is a form of Vajrayana Buddhism. Both the Jogye and Cheontae orders require their monastics to be celibate, while the Taego and Jingak orders allow for married priests. There are many other small orders in South Korea as yet unknown in the West.


Main article: Christianity in Korea
Jeondong Catholic Church

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 17th century. It appears that scholars of the Sirhak, or practical learning, school were interested in these writings. Largely because converts refused to perform Confucian ancestor rites, the government prohibited the proselytization of Christianity. Some Catholics were executed during the early 19th 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, which continued until 1884.

Protestant missionaries entered Korea during the 1880s and, along with Catholic priests, converted a remarkable number of Koreans. Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful. 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 degenerate 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.

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.

The profusion of church steeples in most South Korean cities has often attracted attention. Christianity, which initially got a foothold in Korea in the late 18th century, grew exponentially in the 1970s and 1980s, and despite slower growth in the 1990s, caught up to and then surpassed Buddhism in the number of practicing adherents. Christians are especially strong in the west of the country including Seoul, Gyeonggi and Honam regions. Seoul is home to Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest pentecostal megachurch in the country.

The Christian faith in South Korea is heavily dominated by four denominations: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Roman Catholics, Some non-denominational churches also exist. Similarly to non-practitioners, Catholicism in South Korea has also integrated traditional Buddhist customs and rites. Korean Catholics still observe jesa (ancestor worship) and many Buddhist and Confucian philosophies.[citation needed] Protestants however, no longer observe these traditional customs.[10]

Today there are ten Korean Orthodox parishes with several hundred members in South Korea, as well as one monastery. These grew out of Russian Orthodox missionary endeavors in the nineteenth century.

The traditional peace churches have not gained a strong foothold on the peninsula. Quaker thought briefly attracted a national following in the late 20th century, thanks to the leadership of Ham Seok-heon. However, after Ham's death, interest in the Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) declined, and now only one Quaker meeting is active nationwide. The state of Unitarianism is similar.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea was established following the baptism of Kim Ho Jik in 1951. Studying nutrition in Cornell, he met a member of their faith, Oliver Wyman, and was impressed with their doctrine. Upon joining the church and completing his degree, he traveled back to South Korea and became an influential governmental leader, started translations for materials, and helped the church gain official recognition.[11] As of December 31, 2012, there are 81,628 members, one temple in Seoul,[12] 3 missions (Seoul, Daejeon, and Busan with a fourth to be added in July [Seoul South][13]), 128 congregations, and 24 family history centres.[14]

Muism or Sinism[edit]

Main article: Muism

Korean shamanism, today known as Muism (Mugyo, "religion of the Mu")[15][16] or sometimes Sinism (Shingyo, "religion of the gods", with shin being the Korean character derivative of the Hanja),[17] encompasses a variety of indigenous religious beliefs and practices of the Korean people and the Korean sphere.[18] In contemporary South Korea, the most used term is Muism and a shaman is known as a mudang (무당, 巫堂) or Tangol (당골). The role of the mudang, usually a woman, is to act as intermediary between a spirit entity, spirits or gods and human beings.

Korean shamans are similar in many ways to those found in Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria. They also resemble the yuta found on the Ryukyu Islands, in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Cheju Island is also a center of shamanism.

Shamans, most of whom are women, are enlisted by those who want the help of the spirit world. Female shamans (mudang) hold kut, or services, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven.

Often a woman will become a shaman very reluctantly—after experiencing a severe physical or mental illness that indicates "possession" by a spirit. Such possession allegedly can be cured only through performance of a kut. Once a shaman is established in her profession, she usually can make a good living.

Many scholars regard Korean shamanism as less a religion than a "medicine" in which the spirits are manipulated in order to achieve human ends. There is no notion of salvation or moral and spiritual perfection, at least for the ordinary believers in spirits. The shaman is a professional who is consulted by clients whenever the need is felt. Traditionally, shamans had low social status and were members of the ch'ommin class. This discrimination has continued into modern times.

Animistic beliefs are strongly associated with the culture of fishing villages and are primarily a phenomenon found in rural communities. Shamans also treat the ills of city people, however, especially recent migrants from the countryside who find adjustment to an impersonal urban life stressful. The government has discouraged belief in shamanism as superstition and for many years minimized its persistence in Korean life. Yet in a climate of growing nationalism and cultural self-confidence, the dances, songs, and incantations that compose the kut have come to be recognized as an important aspect of Korean culture. Beginning in the 1970s, rituals that formerly had been kept out of foreign view began to resurface, and occasionally a Western hotel manager or other executive could even be seen attending a shamanistic exorcism ritual in the course of opening a new branch in Seoul. Some of these aspects of kut have been designated valuable cultural properties that should be preserved and passed on to future generations.

The future of shamanism itself was uncertain in the late 1980s. Observers believed that many of its functions in the future probably will be performed by the psychiatric profession as the government expands mental health treatment facilities. Given the uncertainty of social, economic, and political conditions, however, it appears certain that shamans will find large numbers of clients for some time to come.

Since the early 2000s, the religion has been enjoying great popularity among young people.[19][20][21]


Main article: Korean Confucianism

Only 0.2% of contemporary South Koreans give "Confucianism" as their religion. However, the influence of Confucian ethical thought on other religious practices, and on Korean culture in general, remains ubiquitous and pervasive.

Confucian rituals are still practiced at various times of the year. The most prominent of these are the annual rites held at the Shrine of Confucius in Seoul. Other rites, for instance those in honor of clan founders, are held at the numerous shrines found throughout the country.

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.


Main article: Cheondoism

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.

Unification Church[edit]

Main article: Unification Church

Because of its overseas evangelism, the Unification Church (also known as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity), 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.[22][23] 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.[24] A 2000 ceremony included couples in North Korea.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27][28] [29] 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.[30][31][32] In 1983 some American church members joined a public protest against the Soviet Union over its shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]


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.

Other religions[edit]


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

The number of Muslims in South Korea is estimated at about 40,000 mainly consisting of people who converted during the Korean War and their descendents and not 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.

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


Main article: Hinduism in Korea

In addition to native Korean Hindus, Hinduism is practiced by South Korea's small Indian and Nepali community. However, Hindu traditions such as yoga and Vedantic thought have attracted interest among younger South Koreans. There are two Hindu temples in the Seoul region, the Sri Radha Shyamasundar Mandir and the Sri Sri Radha Krishna temple, located on Seoul's outskirts, approximately 2 hours from the city centre. South Korea is home to a small number of migrants, including students and engineers, from countries such as India and Nepal many of whom are Hindu.


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.

Religious conflict[edit]

Some Korean Protestant Christians have expressed hostility to Buddhism. There have been several dozen incidents of arson and vandalism against Buddhist shrines and facilities over the last two decades, including the destruction of several large temples. In some of these incidents, the perpetrators were identified as Protestants, or left messages denouncing "idol worship."[38]


  1. April 23, 2004 Yonhap News article, no longer available. Formerly at.[39] Google cache retrieved March 29, 2006:.[40]


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.

  1. ^ a b c 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. 
  2. ^ Presidential Election in South Korea Highlights Influence of Christian Community Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved on 28 May 2013.
  3. ^ Buddhism in Korea, Korean Buddhism Magazine, Seoul 1997
  4. ^ "Think Quest - Map of religions". Think Quest. Retrieved 31 July 2013. 
  5. ^ Asia Society - Historical and Modern Religions of Korea
  6. ^ Eungi, Kim. 2003. “Religion in Contemporary Korea: Change and Continuity.” Korea Focus, July–August, 133–146.
  7. ^ Charts Bin - New religions by country
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ "Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism". Gallup International. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  10. ^ Kwon, Okyun (2003). Buddhist and protestant Korean immigrants: religious beliefs and socioeconomic aspects of life. LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC. pp. 137–138. ISBN 978-1-931202-65-7. 
  11. ^ "Kim Ho Jik: Korean Pioneer". The Ensign. July 1988. Retrieved 2013-07-07. 
  12. ^ "Seoul Korea". 2012-02-21. Retrieved 2013-03-13. 
  13. ^ "LDS Church announces creation of 58 new missions". Deseret News. 2013-02-22. Retrieved 2013-07-07. 
  14. ^ "Facts and Statistics, South Korea". LDS Newsroom. 2012-12-31. Retrieved 2013-07-07. 
  15. ^ Chang Soo-kyung, Kim Tae-gon. Korean Shamanism – Muism. Jimoondang, 1998.
  16. ^ Choi Joon-sik. Folk-religion: The Customs in Korea.
  17. ^ Margaret Stutley. Shamanism: A Concise Introduction. Routledge, 2003.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Sang-Hun, Choe (July 6, 2007). "In the age of the Internet, Korean shamans regain popularity". New York Times. 
  20. ^ Korean shamanism finds new life in modern era
  21. ^ Modern shamans all the rage in S Korea
  22. ^ 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."
  23. ^ Unifying or Dividing? Sun Myung Moon and the Origins of the Unification Church, George D. Chryssides, 2003
  24. ^ MARRIAGE BY THE NUMBERS; MOON PRESIDES AS 6,500 COUPLES WED IN S. KOREA Peter Maass Washington Post October 31, 1988
  25. ^ Moonies join hands across the border, The Guardian, 2000-02-10
  26. ^ Pyeonghwa Sells in North Korea, Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2009
  27. ^ [1][dead link]
  28. ^ [2]
  29. ^ [3][dead link]
  30. ^ excerpt The Unification Church Studies in Contemporary Religion, Massimo Introvigne, 2000, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, ISBN 1-56085-145-7
  31. ^ Kety Quits Moon-Linked ICF Conference Harvard Crimson, 1976-08-10.
  32. ^ ICUS Statement of Purpose
  33. ^ [4] San Francisco Chronicle September 3, 1983
  34. ^ The Proposal for Constructing an "International Highway", Terug website
  35. ^ 'Moonies' launch political party in S Korea,The Independent (South Africa), March 10, 2003
  36. ^ Islam takes root and blooms
  37. ^ "Korea’s Muslims Mark Ramadan". The Chosun Ilbo. September 11, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-09. [dead link]
  38. ^ ""Buddhism under Siege in Korea" by Dr. Frank Tedesco". Retrieved 2011-06-02. 
  39. ^
  40. ^ [5][dead link]
  1. ^ Colin Whittaker, Korea Miracle (book), Eastbourne, 1988, p. 63.

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