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Catholicism in South Korea: Living in the shadow of a nuclear-armed tyrant

Over the course of the last few decades, both Catholic believers and vocations have been on the rise in South Korea.

People carry a banner during a Mass for peace on the Korean Peninsula in Imjingak, South Korea, June 25, 2019, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. "In particular, let us remember the separated families and displaced people who still suffer from the pains of the war," said Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul. (CNS photo/courtesy Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation)

The proportion of South Koreans who are Roman Catholic has surpassed 10 percent—high for the region, especially considering that people with no religious affiliation account for 46 percent of the total population and are a plurality in South Korea, where Christians outnumber Buddhists by a significant percentage.

As much as Christianity has succeeded in South Korea, it is even more prevalent among Korean-Americans, more than 70 percent of whom identify as Christian (of these, the overwhelming majority are Protestant). Though Catholicism came to the Korean peninsula before Protestantism, the latter faith has been more active in proselytizing.

And yet, over the course of the last few decades, both Catholic believers and vocations have been on the rise in South Korea. But threats of nuclear attack have also risen in recent years, thanks to North Korea’s rogue leader Kim Jong-un—the third ruler from the autocratic family dynasty. With nuclear warheads at his disposal, he reigns supreme in a nation just 35 miles north of Seoul, South Korea’s sprawling capital city.

“Yes, it is too close… However, there are no options for us,” admits Father Paul Kim, a South Korean who serves at a parish in suburban Sydney, Australia. He adds that one factor helping to mitigate South Korean anxiety is the belief that North Korea is far more preoccupied with the US as an enemy and has scant interest in targeting any location on the Korean Peninsula.

Though that may well be accurate, having a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un for a next-door neighbor is a situation many would find highly unnerving. Even if his missiles were to malfunction and land on top of him, the results could be catastrophic for many South Koreans, given their proximity.

That said, Father Kim is somewhat optimistic about an eventual peaceful resolution involving North Korea. He thinks it is unlikely that a dictatorship could survive beyond its third generation, and he adds that Kim Jong-un, as shown by his willingness to communicate with US President Donald Trump, is trying to “find a way to survive.”

Indeed, for decades now, most North Koreans have been reduced to trying to “find a way to survive.” Meanwhile, South Korea has been among the world’s highest-functioning nations. And yet the vast lot of their ethnic brethren to the north inhabit a land of literal and figurative darkness. As its autocratic neighbor stifled religion (along with so much else in life), Christianity in South Korea underwent exponential growth that was manifested in people of all age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Geographically speaking, the Catholic Church has had a rather similar level of success across the country. Father Kim says that there is no particular region in South Korea that is disproportionately Catholic, and that the rate of Catholicism in South Korea is “pretty much balanced” throughout the country.

There are three archdioceses (Daegu, Gwangju, and Seoul) along with 12 dioceses and one military diocese. As of the beginning of 2018, there were about 5.8 million Catholics in Korea (an increase of 1.3 percent from the previous year), which accounted for 11 percent of the general population.

As of 2017, South Korea had 1,734 parishes (most church services are delivered in the Korean language, but every diocese provides some Mass in English). The country has 5,318 priests, the vast majority of whom (5,160) are Korean natives. There are 1,319 seminarians, and more than 10,000 women belonging to religious orders.

Father Kim says that some Korean Catholic converts come from the Protestant denominations, but most come from the Buddhist religion. Buddhism, along with Confucianism and shamanism, were the faiths in Korea prior to the arrival of Christianity.

Though there are some reports of missionaries having reached Korea as early as the 16th century, Catholicism began to gain traction there in the 18th century, arriving at the Korean peninsula by way of China and Japan, where the faith had already enjoyed some success. Korean intellectuals began translating Christian texts to their native language.

As the 19th century approached, the ruling Joseon Dynasty deemed the growing presence of Christianity a threat to the status quo, and reacted with violence. Over the next 100-plus years, about 10,000 persons (mainly Korean natives) died for their Catholic faith. Most notable among them were the 103 martyrs (whom Pope John Paul II canonized during his 1984 visit to Seoul).

The most admired historical figure in Korean Catholicism is Saint Andrew Kim Taegon. Ordained in Shanghai in the year 1844, he became the first Korean-born Catholic priest. Not long after his return to Korea, however, the 25-year-old suffered torture and decapitation at the repressive hands of the Joseon monarchy.

The late-19th century saw a loosening of laws directed against Christianity. And when Korea was under Japanese rule, which lasted from 1910-1945, Christianity continued to grow not only for spiritual reasons but also as an act of resistance against Japanese occupiers.

Ironically, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang was, in the early-20th century, by far the most Christian place in any part of Korea. In fact, Pyongyang had so many churches that it was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East.”

At the end of WWII, however, a defeated Japan could no longer occupy Korea, which proceeded to split into two zones: the pro-USA southern zone, and the USSR-influenced northern zone. South Korea’s 1950 declaration of independence led to an invasion by North Korea (backed by both China and the USSR), which resulted in the Korean War. The year 1953 saw an end to this war (which claimed about 2 million lives) and an agreement to divide the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel (also known as the Demilitarized Zone).

One side became a center of both progress and Christian faith; the other side descended into a largely failed state kept afloat by allies and controlled by a family dynasty that proceeded to make gods of themselves.

These days, an estimated 200,000-400,000 people in North Korea choose to believe in Jesus instead of their ungodly Supreme Leader. Most of these Christians are Protestant, but Fr. Kim points out that “there are many Catholic underground churches” in North Korea.

Officially, there are four Christian churches in the North Korean capital. However, these state-sanctioned “churches” are essentially showpieces for foreign visitors. All legitimate Christian worship among North Koreans is performed in secret – and this is with good reason: For 17 consecutive years, North Korea has ranked as the world’s most oppressive place for Christians.

Any North Korean person caught partaking in legitimate Christian worship is likely headed to a forced-labor prison, along with their parents and their children. North Korean protocol dictates that three generations of the family must receive punishment in order to cleanse one person’s “disloyalty.”

Such has been the fate of the Far East ‘Jerusalem.’ Believe it or not, the parents of Kim Il-sung (the first Kim dictator) were actually devout Christians: His mother was a Presbyterian deaconess, and his father was a church elder. Never could this ardent Christian couple have imagined the consequences of their union.


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About Ray Cavanaugh 9 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

1 Comment

  1. Just to note that Yuma Kim, Korean Olympic champion skater, is a convert to the Catholic faith. From what I remember reading about her is that she is very generous and a good catholic model. Also in the area where I am aware of in Des Plaines, Ill part of the Chicago Area Northwest Suburb, there is a Korean Catholic, with the name St Paul Chong Hasang. Also in and area there seems to be a Methodist and Anglican Church, that are now Korean. So it seems that many Koreans that have immigrated to the US have brought there faith with them.

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