CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
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Religions of Korea in Practice: A Summa on Korea's New (and Old) Religions

by Massimo Introvigne

book cover

Religions of Korea in Practice (Princeton University Press, Princeton 2007), edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. for the well-known Donald Lopez’s series Princeton Readings in Religion is the first notable book of 2007 for those interested in new religious movements. It is, of course, much more. This monumental work offers an encyclopaedic look at religion in both South and North Korea. While North Korea has (at least officially) only 10,000 Buddhists, 10,000 Protestants and a few hundred Catholics, the largest religion with 15,000 members, is the oldest Korean new religious movement, Ch’ondogyo (called Tonghak before 1905), originating in 1860 from the revelations of God to Cheu Ch’oe (1824-1864) near Kyongju, and regarded by many as a nationalistic response to the success of Catholic missionaries. It is currently losing momentum in the South due to the competition of some two hundred more recent NRMs.

Of these, the most successful in South Korea is not the Unification Church, nor Taejonggyo (another “old” NRM, born in response to Christian missions in 1909 through the preaching of Ch’ol Na, 1863-1918, and worshiping a trinity of mythical progenitors of the Korean people, including the legendary first Korean king, Tan’gun), but Chungsan’kyo, which believes that its founder Chungsan Kang (1871-1909) was actually God the Almighty incarnated in human form. Although Chungsan’kyo splintered into various branches after Kang’s death, two of them (Daesun Jinrihoe, promoted by Hangyong Pak, 1917-1996, as a splinter of the branch T’aegukto, which had been founded by Ch’olche Cho, 1895-1958, after he had a vision of Kang in 1917; and Jeungsando, which claims a lineage reaching back to Kang’s family) claim each a membership in excess of six millions. The Dahn World School, or Danhak, a school of internal alchemy with a sizeable following in the United States, is in fact an offshoot of Taejonggyo, although it denies it and downplays the connections to Taejonggyo, particularly ouside Korea (but a large statue of Tan’gun has been erected outside its U.S. headquarters in Sedona, and passages from Taejonggyo’s scriptures are still memorized by members).

Buswell’s book is less rich in details about the movements more well-known in the West. However, a short chapter by Don Baker explains while Reverend Moon’s claims to be the Messiah and his crowning as king in 2003 are less controversial in Korea than in the West (they are quite common in dozens of Korean new religions), and how rituals recently introduced are heavily influenced by Korean popular traditions and the common lore of local NRMs. Quite surprisingly, the Pentecostal Yoido Full Gospel Church of minister Paul Yonggi Cho in Seoul, regarded as having the world’s largest congregational membership with more than 700,000 members, does not deserve a chapter. There is, however, a biography of Chasil Ch’oe (1915-1989, Cho’s mother-in-law, from which we learn that she was the true founder of the church, although “in deference to Korea’s patriarchal subculture, she did not contest her son-in-law’s paramountcy”.

Coming back to North Korea, a surprisingly sympathetic chapter by Eun Hee Shin (who teaches at Simpson College, in Iowa) traces the evolution of Juche, the thought of Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), through three stages from a Koreanized version of Marxism to a Korean philosophy increasingly downplaying the Marxist affiliation to a religion. North Koreans are now taught that Kim Il Sung is immortal (and he is still today the head of the North Korean state), and that through faith in him we too can have eternal life “since – as Don Baker summarizes – even after our physical body dies, we remain enmeshed in the relational web of the sociopolitical community fostered by Juche; therefore, as long as that community survives, so do we”. This may seem a little complicate, but to the average North Korean peasant Kim Il Sung is just another saviour in a long line of Messiahs introduced by Korean NRMs.

In the meantime, South Korea remains a very religious country. Christianity as a whole (21.6 percent of Koreans are Protestants, 8.2 Catholics) has now more adherents than Buddhism (26.8), although there is a growth of Won Buddhism, founded in 1916 by Chungbin Pak (1891-1943) and not included in the Buddhist statistics, since both Korean Buddhists and the editors of the book regard it as a NRM. Confucians are reduced to 0.3 percent, but Shamanism, although difficult to count and more often than not non-organized, appears to be flourishing. Summing up, as Baker concludes in his introduction to the book, “as Korea has modernized, it also became more religious”, confirming once again that “secularization is not the wave of the future” and that religious competition does indeed create a climate where religion in general can flourish and grow.