“The key doctrine of Tonghak is that man is God. Choe Je U advocated that man is the most intelligent of all things in the universe and therefore there is no need for him to have a god above him; man himself and his mind are the very god and the will of the god.”Uriminzokkiri: Religion of Chondo and Choe Je U. http://www.uriminzokkiri.com/index.php?lang=eng&ptype=cfougi&mtype=view&no=2893, retrieved on 24 July 2022.
Choe Je-u was inspired by Confucianism in the first place, and in Confucianism, the moral behavior and the correct conduct of rituals is emphasized, while God was rather equaled with the Heaven and quite abstract; the Chinese emperors (and probably the Korean kings) were representatives of the Heaven on Earth. Now Choe changed this idea, probably through the Buddhist understanding in which the practitioner has to become enlightened and therefore, nirvana comes from within, that God is found within man. “Followers of this religion believe that all life was generated by a God that is in all things. This God-like presence within all living beings is also compared to Heaven, the ultimate in goodness. […] Followers believe that improving the self, brings one closer to Heaven and that this earthly existence can be converted into a paradise” [Amber Pariona: Cheondoism (Chondoism): Beliefs and Origins. World Atlas, 20 June 2019. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-cheondoism-chondoism.html, retrieved on 19 February 2023]. So in fact, Chondoism knows the idea of a transcendental God in form of the metaphysical concept of Confucianism: Heaven. But this divine principle is within His creation. So man is not the highest intelligence and there is something above, the metaphysical key component does not vanish. The thing which is brilliantly achieved in Chondoism is the connection between man and God who stand in a strong relation. God is in man and man can realise the divine principle through improving the self which makes man come closer to Heaven, and thus leading to a spiritual elevation and eventually to a kind of enlightenment.
Of course, Chondoists in the DPRK practice their religion as compatible with the state doctrine as possible. The Juche Idea explicitly rejects all forms of Idealism and a positive attitude of metaphysics is usually accompanied with an Idealist stance. So Chondoism is not materialistic. Juche also claims that man is master of himself and that there is nothing higher above him, and here, North Korean Chondoists try to adopt the view by rationalizing down God. This means in practice, that North Korean Chondoists also regard man to be the highest being, as man and God are equal to them and God’s presence shines through man’s intelligence which is why man has to improve himself, he is not dependent on anyone else. So it seems that the function of heaven gets possibly lost or alternatively, Chondoists might explain that the Kims are chosen by heaven (or are gods themselves) and therefore are meant to help the masses to improve their life. However, how Chondoism and especially its religious rites are practiced in North Korea is not known, as we lack too much information on this. Even I cannot assure whether I described the North Korean Chondoism correctly, since I could only deduce it out of propaganda material in combination with my knowledge on the state’s principles. Anyways, Han Su Yong writes that Tonghak means that man is the heaven, the Chondoist Youth Party represents the sovereign spirit of the Korean Nation and sees as its goal to reach an equal society in which there is neither master nor serf, establishing a Heaven on Earth, creating a blossoming perfect world in which everyone lives in prosperity, as well as the peaceful Korean reunification [Han Su Yong: Allgemeines über Korea, Band 3: Politik. Unter der Redaktion von Kim Ji Ho. Übersetzt von An Jong Ok und Jong Kwang Nam. Pyongyang: Verlag für fremdsprachige Literatur, 2016, p. 40 f.], which gives us a glimpse into the North Korean understanding of Chondoism and the Chondoist Party.
Timo Schmitz, 25 February 2023