Faking Enlightenment in the DPRK


This is the fifth in a multi-part blog on North Korea. You can find the others here

After another horrid hotel breakfast we were taken to visit a Buddhist temple in the mountains. It was said to be very old, but detailed questioning revealed most of it to be a concrete reconstruction. According to the North Koreans, the original temple was destroyed by the “American imperialists” during their bombing campaigns in the Korean War.

The design was similar to Chinese temples I’d seen, with intricate carving and garish, vividly painted patterns in Halloween orange and chimney red. But all similarities ended with the superficial external.

dprktemple2.jpgThe entire setting felt like a façade.

The site guide’s responses to our questions were vague, and she often evaded the subject by giving the answer to an entirely different, unasked question.

When asked how many practicing Buddhists there are in North Korea, she said she didn’t know.

When asked if we could meet the priest or temple monk, she said yes, and then abruptly changed it to no. She suddenly remembered that he was performing a ceremony no one could watch. (Perhaps I’m just being overly paranoid, and he was simply on the bowl…)

Unlike the temples I’d visited elsewhere in Asia, no one was praying there. There were no local people, no monks. Only two bored soldiers standing around watching us. And, as everywhere else, a pair of people sweeping and clipping grass. Our guide was dressed in traditional Korean clothes and had been waiting for us when we arrived, but one of the guys saw her at our hotel that morning. She was clearly a prop as well.

Our suspicions were confirmed back in Pyongyang a couple days later, when we visited a temple that was almost an exact duplicate of this one, right down to the placement of the buildings and the brightly painted statues.

I learned later that the government maintains these places, as well as a couple Christian churches, to show to visitors and foreign aid workers. They do this to demonstrate “proof” of North Korea’s tolerance and openness.

The government claims many freedoms for its citizens on paper, including freedom of religion. But the only religion permitted in North Korea is the cult of the Kim regime.


About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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