MT. KUMGANG, North Korea — Watched by impassive granite peaks and the suspicious eyes of the North Korean secret police, a Buddhist temple is coming back to life in this most inhospitable terrain.
For the last 11 months, South Korean monks and craftsmen have been living in North Korea, rebuilding a famous temple destroyed during the Korean War. Among the myriad North-South ventures underway, this one is extraordinary because it is happening despite the communist regime’s hostility to religion.
Houses of worship have not fared well in North Korea, but there are some, mostly catering to foreigners. Shingye Temple is one of those.
Although the $10-million reconstruction will not be completed until 2007, regular services already are being held. In the main shrine, where a statue of Buddha sits under intricately carved but as yet unpainted beams, one can hear the hollow tapping of the wooden gong, or moktak, each morning and the hypnotic chanting of a monk calling to prayer the faithful, or at least those permitted to attend.
The temple is intended for South Koreans and other foreigners visiting Mt. Kumgang, one of the few parts of the country open to tourists. The only North Koreans permitted here are a handful of construction workers and farmers who tend a collective plot thick with curling vines of pumpkins and squash. On occasion, high-ranking North Korean officials visit to see what is going on.
The lush valley of pine trees at the foot of Mt. Kumgang was the site of a Buddhist temple dating back to 519. A stone monument erected by the North Korean government says the most recent temple was destroyed by U.S. warplanes in 1951.
“The architectural beauty of our ancestors was destroyed by the brutal air bombing of the American imperialists,” it says.
Although little was left after the war other than some stone pillars and a stupa, a shrine for Buddhist relics, the site of Shingye temple became a pilgrimage destination for North Koreans. Not only was it seen as a testament to U.S. aggression, but the place had been visited twice by North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
The monk supervising the construction acknowledges that North Koreans regard the Shingye temple as a cultural relic rather than a house of worship.
“The North Koreans are not interested in the religious aspects of Buddhism. But they are interested in their cultural heritage,” said Jejeong, who like other monks uses only one name. He says the Buddhists’ purpose here is not to proselytize, but to give North Koreans an opportunity to revel in the culture that they share with the South.
“I think culture is an easier path toward unification than politics or economics …. That is why I was interested in this project,” he said, speaking over the buzz of a chain saw.
An urbane 44-year-old who wears round tortoiseshell glasses and the baggy, pale gray outfit of Korean monks, Jejeong has lived in San Francisco, taught Korean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and once spent a year working in Myanmar. He seems to have both the sense of humor and the patience to deal with life under a repressive regime.
Even for someone used to an austere existence, life here is restricted. Jejeong, who drives around in a minivan, cannot stray from the wire-fence-lined road between the temple and the trailer park where he lives with employees of the South Korean tour operator. He cannot take meditative strolls through the woods or visit other North Korean temples.
“There are no cellphones. No e-mail. But it’s better. Nobody bothers me,” he said.
The money for the project is coming from South Korean Buddhists, as well as tourists who donate an average of $20 to write their name on one of the clay roof tiles. (“I came. I saw. I climbed,” scrawled one visitor from California.)
The North Korean government’s involvement is limited to its scholars’ consultations on the architectural design of the temple. One restriction that was imposed: The stone pillars that survived the war will not be used in the reconstruction because their design was of the Japanese colonial period between 1910 and 1945.
North Korea claims to have 10,000 Buddhists and hundreds of Buddhist temples. But people who have visited say the temples are mostly guarded by elderly couples who call themselves monks but do not wear monastic clothing and appear to be married in contradiction of celibacy rules imposed by most Korean orders.
“There are temples and there are people who claim to be monks, but there is a real question about whether there are Buddhist rites and meditation practiced there,” said David Hawk, a human rights expert who has been studying North Korea for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an agency funded by Congress.
But Buddhists apparently have fared better than Christians, who have been sent to labor camps or even executed for practicing their religion, defectors have said. Hawk said he had not heard of any such cases involving Buddhists.
“They are more tolerant of Buddhists, maybe because North Korea hasn’t had a tradition of socially conscious Buddhists, so people are not as much of a threat to the regime,” he said.
“There is a striking difference between Buddhism and other religions. It is deeply embedded in Korean culture and history. Buddhism is still very familiar to North Koreans,” said Yun Hyu Won, an official with the Seoul-based Jogye Order of Buddhism, which is overseeing the reconstruction.
According to State Department reports, 1,500 churches were destroyed in North Korea during the early decades of the communist regime, after World War II. Pyongyang, the capital, once was a stronghold of Christianity on the Korean peninsula. Now the city has just three churches that mostly serve expatriates.
Some North Koreans seem to view organized religion as a foreign intrusion.
“There used to be foreign missionaries in this area, and they robbed people and stole cultural relics,” said Kim Song Gun, 37, a guard at Mt. Kumgang.
These days, foreign religious organizations in North Korea only provide food and development aid.
A handful of other houses of worship are under construction in North Korea. During his trip to Siberia in 2001, leader Kim Jong Il was reportedly so impressed by the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches that he approved the building of one in Pyongyang. It is expected to open next year to serve the small Russian business and diplomatic community there. The Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, which has invested heavily in the North, is believed to be building an interfaith religious center in Pyongyang.
But experts believe that such projects are the exception rather than the rule.
“The conditions are ripe for a religious revival. The ideology of Kim Il Sung has lost much of its heavenly mandate because of the collapse of the economy and there probably is an ideological vacuum,” Hawk said. “But I’m sure the regime is aware of that and making sure it doesn’t happen.”