Jane Lampman wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “While Christianity's explosive growth has swept through much of the Southern Hemisphere – particularly across Africa – another dramatic story has unfolded in Asia. Some have dubbed it the "Korean miracle."” Seoul “boasts 10 of the 11 largest Christian congregations in the world. And South Korea sends more missionaries abroad to spread the word than any other country except the United States. “Christianity has grown from a few hundred adherents in the late 19th century to "about 9 million Protestants and 3 to 4 million Catholics in South Korea today," says the Rev. Samuel Moffett, professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. [Source: Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007]

“The dynamism of Korean Christianity, many observers agree, is an outgrowth of the peninsula's unique history as well as the early role of indigenous leadership. Christian teachings were first brought to Korea not by foreigners, but by Korean diplomats who came in contact with Roman Catholicism in Japan and Manchuria. An active lay movement developed, but it led to controversy and periods of great persecution.”

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Catholic Christianity first entered Korea via China, when Korean travelers there made contact with Jesuit missionaries from the West and Chinese Catholics and returned home with some of their ideas to found the first Catholic congregation in Seoul. That was in 1784. Protestant Christianity took root many decades later, first with believers who had met Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in Manchuria, to the north, and then in the 1880s with the arrival of numbers of Protestant missionaries mainly from the United States. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Until the 1880s, Christianity was outlawed in Korea. This was because Christians were known to disapprove of the most important Confucian family ritual, namely the chesa. The argument over whether Chinese Christians should be allowed to continue their ancestral rituals had raged for more than 100 years in the 1600s and 1700s until the pope decided that the Chinese had to stop what he regarded as heathen spirit worship. The Chinese authorities were incensed that the pope, who knew nothing about China and the benefits of Confucian morality, would dare to label Chinese civilization as heathen.

“This makes South Korea the "most Christian" country in Asia, apart from the Philippines which was ruled for 300 years by Catholic Spain and then by the United States. People often ask for an explanation for Christian "success" in South Korea when only 2 percent of Chinese and only 2.5 percent of Japanese are Christians. The answer lies in history: in the suffering and sacrifice of Korean Christians and the circumstances of modern Korea that made Christianity a refuge and force for reform. “

Why Christianity Caught in Korea and Not Elsewhere in Asia

The Economist reported: “Asia is mostly stony ground for Christianity. Spanish rule left the Philippines strongly Catholic, but Korea is less simple. In the 18th century curious intellectuals encountered Catholicism in Beijing and smuggled it home. Confucian monarchs, brooking no rival allegiance, executed most early converts: hence all those martyrs, ranking Korea fourth globally for quantity of saints. Protestantism came later and fared better. By the 1880s Korea was opening up, and the mainly American missionaries made two astute moves: opening the first modern schools, which admitted girls; and translating the Bible into the vernacular Hangul Korean alphabet, then viewed as infra dig, rather than the Chinese characters favoured by literati. [Source: The Economist, August 13, 2014]

“The seeds thus sown incubated under Japan’s rule (1910-45), and have sprouted wildly since. The trauma of Japanese conquest eroded faith in Confucian or Buddhist traditions: Koreans could relate to Israel’s sufferings in the Old Testament (no Chosen jokes, please). Yet by 1945 only 2 percent of Koreans were Christian. The recent explosive growth accompanied that of the economy. Cue Weber’s Protestant ethic: for the conservative majority, worldly success connotes God’s blessing. But Korea also bred its own liberation theology (minjung), lauding the poor and oppressed. Rapid social change often produces spiritual ferment and entrepreneurs like Moon and Yoo: saviours for some, to others charlatans. Prophet and profit can blur: both men did time for fraud. Even Yoido’s founder, David Cho, was convicted in February of embezzling US$12m. But these are rare outliers.

“Today 23 percent of South Koreans are Buddhist and 46 percent profess no belief. Does this represent scope for Christianity's growth, or incipient secularisation? In 2012 only 52 percent claimed to be religious, down from 56 percent in 2005. But the world is now their oyster: only America sends more missionaries. Korean Christians have been seized in Afghanistan, beheaded in Iraq and stopped by their embassy from hymn-singing in Yemen. Many work undercover in China. Some, riskily, help North Koreans to flee: as many as 1,000 have reportedly had their Chinese visas cancelled. Others have a grander ambition, to spread Christianity in the North. In Japanese days Pyongyang was a Protestant hotbed, and now some are back, running the private Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which since 2010 has been educating North Korea’s future elite; strictly no preaching. Given Korean Christians’ energy and tenacity, it is a sure prophecy that one day the Pyongyang skyline will be as studded with neon crosses as Seoul’s.”

Introduction of Christianity (Catholicism) in Korea

Roman Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Korea until 1794, a decade after the return of the first baptized Korean from a visit to Beijing. However, the writings of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who was resident at the imperial court in Beijing, had been brought to Korea from China in the seventeenth century. It appears that scholars of the Sirhak, or practical learning, school were interested in these writings. Largely because converts refused to perform Confucian ancestor rites, the government prohibited the proselytization of Christianity. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Catholic Christianity first entered Korea via China, when Korean travelers there made contact with Jesuit missionaries from the West and Chinese Catholics and returned home with some of their ideas to found the first Catholic congregation in Seoul. That was in 1784. Until the 1880s, Christianity was outlawed in Korea. This was because Christians were known to disapprove of the most important Confucian family ritual, namely the chesa. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The argument over whether Chinese Christians should be allowed to continue their ancestral rituals had raged for more than 100 years in the 1600s and 1700s until the pope decided that the Chinese had to stop what he regarded as heathen spirit worship. The Chinese authorities were incensed that the pope, who knew nothing about China and the benefits of Confucian morality, would dare to label Chinese civilization as heathen. They were already uncomfortable about a foreign doctrine that taught about the divinity of Jesus, virgin birth, and original sin. In 1722 the Chinese empire began suppressing Christianity. Only a few Western missionaries were allowed to remain in Peking, because they were regarded as well-educated representatives of Western learning and were useful as a window on Europe. This episode is known as the "rites controversy," referring to the question of whether Christians could engage in Confucian ancestor rites.”

According to korea4expats.com: “Christianity is reputed to have been introduced to Korea following the baptism of Lee Seung-hoon (baptismal name Peter) while he was in China. On his return to his home, he set about converting and baptizing other Koreans. About 15 years later, priests arrived, first from China and then from France. However, the long presence of local ‘lay-workers’ as opposed to foreign priests meant that Christianity was born as a grass-roots movement and consequently spread more quickly than if it had been introduced by ‘foreigners’. [Source: korea4expats.com]

“Prior to 1784, Christianity had visited Korea through Christians in the Japanese military and through a Jesuit priest who worked with Japanese expatriates, but who was not permitted to proselytize Koreans. In the early 17th century, a Korean diplomat returned from China with books written by another Jesuit and introduced some of the ideas to other intellectuals, many of whom were attracted by what they perceived to be the egalitarian values of Christianity. But it wasn’t until almost two centuries later, when Lee Seung-hoon established the first Catholic prayer house that Catholicism began to truly take hold in Korean society.”

Some Catholics were executed during the early nineteenth century, but the anti-Christian law was not strictly enforced. By the 1860s, there were some 17,500 Roman Catholics in the country. There followed a more rigorous persecution, in which thousands of Christians died, that continued until 1884. *

Ideas Introduced and Embraced by Christianity in Korea

Western ideas, including Christianity, reached Korea through China in the seventeenth century. Telescopes, alarm clocks, guns, Catholicism and Western scientific literature were introduced to Korea in the 1630s and 1640s, mainly via Japan.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Koreans were first exposed to both Western technologies and Catholic religious doctrine via the Chinese-language writings of Western missionaries in China. In the late eighteenth century, the first Korean converts to Catholicism appeared, and their numbers increased to several thousand after missionary priests entered the peninsula and began to proselytize in secret. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

Ideas brought to China by Jesuit missionaries on things like astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences, philosophy and the Christian religion made their way to Korea. Donald N. Clark wrote: “The "practical learning" scholars advocated realistic answers to the problems facing Korea, suggesting applications of Western science and technology. They also went far toward adopting the Jesuits' understanding of the spiritual dimension and even founded their own branch of the Catholic religion in Seoul, which turned out to be the beginnings of Korean Christianity.”

According to korea4expats.com: “The Catholic Church was the first public institution in Korea to officially recognize the value of the Korean-language based and easily learned Hangul (invented around 1446 in the court of King Sejong but rarely used because of the perceived superiority of Classical Chinese writing) and not only used it for its printed literature, but also taught it to Catholic children. Consequently, Christian teachings began to spread beyond the Korean elite, most of whom used Chinese. In 1887, the Bible was translated into Korea and its mass-circulation began.” [Source: korea4expats.com]

Catholicism: the Religion of Modernity in Korea?

Andrei Lankov wrote in Al Jazeera: “In the late 18th and early 19th century, Catholicism came to be seen in Korea as a religion of modernity and science. The Catholic doctrine began to spread in Korea in the late 18th century in the most unusual fashion: It was introduced by books, not missionaries. The 18th century was a time of considerable intellectual ferment in Korea. The younger members of the educated gentry (yangban) class felt increasingly disappointed by the ossified scholastics of neo-Confucianism, which at that time was the official state ideology. The youth were not interested in wasting time arguing whether the Qi principle transcends the Li principle in determining the formation of the universe; they did not want to spend their entire lives debating similarly abstract and scholastic issues that dominated neo-Confucianism of the era. [Source: Andrei Lankov, Al Jazeera, 18 August 2014]

“Rather, these young and inquisitive minds wanted to learn how to make better guns, how to build cranes for constructing larger buildings, and how the Earth goes around the Sun. Since the official high culture of their time thought of such questions as irrelevant, trivial and unworthy of intellectual pursuit, the young dissidents naturally enough began to read Western treatises on technology, astronomy, and physics. Fortunately for them, such books were being imported into Korea from China since the early 1700s.

“However, all these Western books were translated into classical Chinese, which was then the only language of intellectual discourse in China and Korea, by Western Catholic missionaries then operating in China. Predictably, these technological and scientific books retained a number of positive references to Christianity. Thus it was that many of these young intellectuals began to read translated Christian texts as well. Many of them felt that they had finally found the truth, and, so to say, converted themselves.

“This was how, by the late 1790s, there came to be a few thousand Catholic believers in Korea. Most of these people had never seen a Catholic priest before, let alone been baptised. The first Korean to be baptised by an ordained priest was a man called Lee Sung-hun. Lee managed to visit China in 1784 as a clerk in a Korean diplomatic mission and encountered missionaries there...At the same time as Catholicism was being repressed in Korea as a symbol of Western modernity, it was increasingly seen as an anti-modern and reactionary force elsewhere in the world.”

Execution of Christians in Korea

Many of the Catholic priests who entered Korea from China in 1795 were executed for spreading the decadent Western religion, renouncing Korean ancestral rites as "pagan" despite them being an integral part of Korean culture. and promoting "filth" which threatened the existing Confucian social order. Catholic beliefs took root however only to be followed by more bloodshed. In the mid-19th century 8,000-10,000 Korean Catholics were massacred. So many have been canonized that Korea has the fourth largest number of saints of any nation. In 1984, John Paul II canonized 103 all at once. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine; The Economist, August 13, 2014]

“For its first 75 years” the Catholic church “underwent the most horrendous persecution, comparable really to the history of the early church,” Dr. James Grayson, professor of Modern Korean Studies at the University of Sheffield, told the Diplomat. Murder, torture, and massacre were all directed at early Christians by the Joseon Kings, who saw the church’s teachings of equality before God as a direct threat to their power. [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Andrei Lankov wrote in Al Jazeera: “The Korean government did not look favourably on the gradual spread of Catholicism. It was seen as potentially dangerous because it could be used by Western powers in their imperialist endeavours. It was also seen as repulsive since Catholics refused to make sacrificial offerings to the souls of their ancestors. The latter was seen as an obscene and grotesque violation of the principle of filial piety. As a result, several waves of persecution ensued. These inquisitions killed thousands of believers, including the Chinese, French and Korean priests who since the early 1800s secretly operated in Korea. However, such harsh methods brought only partial success at best. Catholicism continued to grow and spread among educated and progressive-minded Koreans. [Source: Andrei Lankov, Al Jazeera, 18 August 2014]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korean travelers who started the first Catholic congregation in Seoul in the 1780s were risking their lives to do so. Periodically the Korean government discovered cells of the secret church in Korea and persecuted its members, executing many. The first executions came in 1801 and were followed by others in 1839, 1846, and 1866. In the persecution of 1866, more than 2,000 Korean Catholics are said to have lost their lives along with 9 French missionaries. From the roster of martyrs during this bloody history came the names of 103 Korean and French Catholics who were canonized by Pope John Paul II when he visited Seoul for the bicentennial of Korean Catholicism in 1984. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“ Why did Koreans keep risking their lives to join the Catholic church? One answer seems to lie in the tight family and community ties that bound the earliest members of the church to each other in such a way that they could maintain secrecy. Another lies in the fact that some of them were very well educated Confucians who were concerned that Korea was falling behind the times and wanted to investigate new ways of looking at natural and spiritual phenomena. And another reason might be that many of the early Catholics were members of middle and lower classes, intelligent enough to know that as long as the Confucian system prevailed in Korea they would never be allowed to rise in society or realize their potential as human beings. “

Robert Jermain Thomas: the Martyred Welsh Missionairy

Robert Jermain Thomas was a Welsh missionary credited with being one of the most important figures in bringing Christianity to the Korean peninsula. He was killed on the Taedong River in Pyongyang in August 1866 and is now considered a martyr. [Source: Stephen Evans BBC News, December 26, 2016]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: “The exact circumstances of his death are unclear but it is known that he was a missionary who became fascinated by Korea. At a time when Western influence was feared and rejected, he voyaged on an American ship to spread his faith. There was an altercation and fierce fighting broke out between the crew and the Koreans ashore.

“In one version of the story, Thomas abandoned the burning ship and was captured by hostile troops on shore. He is said to have kneeled and given his executioner a Bible before being killed. That legend resonates loudly 150 years later in South Korea, where Christianity thrives, and in my native Wales... South Koreans think Thomas, and his example, were very influential in spreading Christianity. Gi Jung Song, the Korean pastor of the International Church in Cardiff, told the BBC: "Korea was in darkness spiritually and this young man from Wales brought the Bible. "He was killed soon after his arrival but his death influenced the whole of Korea. The person who killed him became a Christian and his house became a church."

“The influence grew after Thomas's death. Pyongyang became a strong Christian centre with a hundred churches only fifteen years later. As the century turned, Korea started looking to Wales for inspiration, so the Welsh Religious Revival of 1904 was echoed by a revival of Christian belief in Korea in 1907. One Christian who frequently visited the country told the BBC that, when he goes to Pyongyang, he unobtrusively tries to look for the last resting place of Robert Jermain Thomas: "I've had no success finding the actual grave but on the island (in the centre of Pyongyang where the death is thought to have happened), there is only one area where the boat could've run ashore and there are very old trees there."

Protestantism in Korea in the 19th Century

Protestant Christianity took root in the late 1800s, with first believers being Koreans who met Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in Manchuria, to the north. Many more converted in the 1880s with the arrival of numbers of Protestant missionaries mainly from the United States. Two missionaries from the United States — the Methodist Henry Appenzeller and the Presbyterian Horace Underwood — were particularly influential.

Christianity caught on in Korea partly because missionaries provided education and medical service for ordinary people and it shared many beliefs and values of Buddhism and Confucianism. It was also viewed as modern, offering a path forward. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The forced "opening" of Korea by Japan in the 1870s set in motion a series of radical changes in Korea. The United States, England, Russia, and other Western countries were allowed to set up diplomatic missions and open relations with Korea in the 1880s. Western missionaries soon followed, with Americans setting up Presbyterian and Methodist missions in Seoul in 1885. Although most Koreans saw Christianity as a strange and unwelcome creed, there were those who responded with active interest and became Korea's first Protestant Christians. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“One reason for this interest was the spiritual appeal of Christianity, which had also attracted Koreans to Catholicism early in the century. But another reason was Christianity's association with the West and modern things, particularly as a Western alternative to the pressure they were feeling from their aggressive neighbor, Japan. As the Korean royal court fell to Japanese domination and Korea desperately sought foreign alliances that might help them resist colonization, Koreans hoped that the United States in particular would help preserve Korean independence. In the end, though the Americans did nothing to help Korea resist Japan,”

Protestantism, backed by the money and experience of American missionary groups, soon eclipsing the Catholic missions. Nonetheless, Catholic believers were still active and pursued modern education. They and Protestants made up a large percentage of Korea’s first engineers, medical doctors and university professors. [Source: Andrei Lankov, Al Jazeera, 18 August 2014]

Following the wave of Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries of the late 19th century, other sects such as the Church of Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists among others found a stronghold in Korea. Prior to the division of the peninsula into North and South Korea, a higher number of Catholics could be found in the North with more Protestants in the South.

Protestant Missionaries

Protestant missionaries entered Korea during the 1880s and, along with Catholic priests, converted a remarkable number of Koreans. Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful. They established schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages and played a significant role in the modernization of the country. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In the late 19th century, Protestant missionaries established Korea’s first modern educational institutions, including Ewha Womans University in 1886. The establishment of these schools and others led to a rapid increase in the number of Protestants among the common people, which in turn, grew their numbers more than that of Catholics. [Source: korea4expats.com]

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: Protestantism arrived mostly from American missionaries, like Horace Allen and the Underwood family (famous for their typewriters), who built the schools, hospitals, and universities the kings didn’t. Christians were reputed to treat peasants with respect, as opposed to the scorn poured on them by the traditional nobility. The Bible was translated into Hangul, the simple phonetic writing system, rather than only into Chinese characters, which most people couldn’t read. [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Jane Lampman wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “The first Protestant missionaries, American Presbyterians and Methodists, arrived in the late 1800s. The introduction of the Bible in the local language and the founding of schools for boys and girls helped spread the faith beyond the elites. Moffett's father, also named Samuel, was an early Presbyterian missionary. "He landed in Pyongyang in 1890 on his 26th birthday and stayed for 46 years," Sam says. He founded the first seminary and began training Koreans. "Samuel Moffett Sr. was a missionary of great vision and commitment – a major figure who educated native pastors," says Timothy Kiho Park, a Korean who directs Korean studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. [Source: Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007]

“One key to the rapid growth was the strategy adopted by the young pioneer missionaries, which emphasized developing indigenous leadership: "self-government, self-propagation of the faith, and self-support." "This encouraged national leaders to take care of their own affairs without foreign control or funding," Dr. Park says. "They practiced it from the beginning, advising but letting the Koreans preach and run the churches."

Christianity During the Japanese Colonial Period (1910-45)

During the Japanese colonial occupation, Christians were in the front ranks of the struggle for independence. Factors contributing to the growth of Protestantism included the degenerate state of Korean Buddhism, the efforts made by educated Christians to reconcile Christian and Confucian values (the latter being viewed as purely a social ethic rather than a religion), the encouragement of self-support and selfgovernment among members of the Korean church, and the identification of Christianity with Korean nationalism. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

During the Japanese occupation Christian churches were a sanctuary for those with Libertarian ideas. Korean Christians who refused to show reverence to the emperor as a divinity were imprisoned or ostracized. The March First Movement street demonstrations in 1919 erupted throughout the country to protest Japanese rule were led by Christian and Ch'ondogyo groups The leaders of the movement, predominantly Christian and Western in outlook, were moderate intellectuals and students who sought independence through nonviolent means and support from progressive elements in the West. The colonial authorities responded to the protests with violence, killing an estimated 7,000 Koreans. *

Clark wrote: “Christian organizations including churches and schools continued to be an attractive modern alternative to Japanese domination and the bankrupt Korean monarchial system that had failed prior to 1910. Students and graduates of missionary-run Christian schools were a leading group in the independence uprising against Japan that broke out in Korea in 1919, further associating Christianity and independence in the minds of many Koreans. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Christian schools continued to offer modern education in subjects such as philosophy, science, history, and Western languages in addition to required religion courses. In addition, it seemed that Christian churches and organizations, though they existed under the colonial regime and had to obey Japanese rules, nonetheless had a certain amount of protection through their links to foreign churches. The Japanese were reluctant to persecute Christians too openly for fear of attracting the notice and condemnation of the international community. Although it is important not to discount the authentic spiritual experience of Korean Christians under Japanese rule, it must also be assumed that the number of Christians grew to a significant level — a tenth of the peninsula's population in the mid-1950s — because of all these various factors.

Growth of Christianity in Korea in the 20th Century

Jane Lampman wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “Japan colonized the peninsula from 1905 to 1945, and attempted to "Japanize" the population. In the midst of great suffering, Christianity apparently met people's spiritual needs. While some Koreans were Confucianists or Buddhists, "mostly [they were] shamanists and animists," Eileen says. "People often lived in fear of evil spirits." The faith also grew rapidly as it became closely identified with the Korean independence movement. Some native Christians were imprisoned by the Japanese for pro-independence activities, including refusing to worship Japan's emperor. Missionaries were seen as supporting the movement. Sam's father was forced to leave the country in 1936 when he refused to send his students to the Shinto shrines.” [Source: Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007]

Clark wrote: “In the years leading up to World War II — as militarism overtook Japanese politics and the imperial government set its course for war, first in China and then against the West — the Japanese stopped caring about public opinion in the West and began to assert much more oppressive control over the Korean people. They embarked on a campaign to turn all Koreans into good and loyal subjects of the Japanese emperor, forcing them to speak Japanese as their "national language," for example, and eventually attacking their family identities by assigning Japanese names to the Koreans. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“One of Japan's steps in this campaign of cultural genocide was to force Koreans to worship the gods of imperial Japan, including dead emperors and the spirits of war heroes who had helped them conquer Korea earlier in the century. They claimed that the Koreans and Japanese were "one people" and should worship the same deities under the Japanese Shinto religion. They did this even while making Korea into a police state, drafting thousands of Koreans to do forced labor in Japan, and turning Korea into a staging area for their war with China, which they began in 1937. Koreans, of course, resented this bitterly but were powerless before the modern weapons of the Imperial Japanese Army.

“For Korean Christians, the requirement to worship at Japanese shrines was more than an insult: it seemed like a violation of their own Ten Commandments to worship any god other than the Christian God. Thus Christian religion and Korean national consciousness merged, and many Christians who refused shrine worship were sent to prison as disloyal subjects. As war came to the Pacific in 1941, Korea subsided into a sullen obedience.

Christians in North Korea

A large number of Christians lived in the northern part of the peninsula where Confucian influence was not as strong as in the south. Before 1948 Pyongyang was an important Christian center: one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 people were converts. Following the establishment of a communist regime in the north, however, most Christians had to flee to South Korea or face persecution. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

No one knows how many Christians remain in North Korea. Two-thirds of Korean Christians lived there before the war, but many fled to escape Communist rule. Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, was the son of pious Christians. Communists loyal to Kim Il Sung persecuted Christians along with rightists and Japanese collaborators.

Clark wrote: “When the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into occupation zones in 1945, North Korea was the part with the most Christians. These, however, were regarded with suspicion by the new Communist regime. The Christians were organized, and they did not always obey the new government. Communist youth organizations attacked Christian meetings and Christians organized to fight back. North Korea dealt with its troublesome Christians by creating a state church — a Christian League that it decreed would be the new owner of all church property, all schools, and to which all Christians must belong or face accusations of disloyalty. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“A trusted Christian member of the new Communist elite in North Korea was appointed chief of the Christian League and other Christian pastors and leaders were forced out of their jobs. Christians soon joined other "class enemies" of the North Korean state — big landlords, businessmen, those who had served the hated Japanese — in their escape to the friendlier atmosphere of the South. Many of them had suffered fierce persecution twice at that point, first under the Japanese and then under the Communists.”

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: Many Christian preachers were from the north – Pyongyang had been a hotbed of Christianity before the Korean War – and when they fled south they brought with them a virulent hatred of communism. Conservative, evangelical Christianity meshed well with the authoritarian, development-minded dictatorships, and the two forces reinforced each other. [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Protestants have returned to Pyongyang. The Economist reported: They are “ running the private Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which since 2010 has been educating North Korea’s future elite; strictly no preaching. Given Korean Christians’ energy and tenacity, it is a sure prophecy that one day the Pyongyang skyline will be as studded with neon crosses as Seoul’s.”[Source: The Economist, August 13, 2014]

Growth of Christianity in South Korea After World War II

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: When the Japanese left in 1945, the church was in high standing. The first South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, was a U.S.-educated Protestant. Even Kim Il-sung, first ruler of North Korea, had been a Presbyterian as a child. Following the Korean War, South Koreans came to view the Americans as saviors, and the Americans’ religion, Christianity, as a source of strength and wealth. Protestant leaders in South Korea “became very much familiar with the so-called American-style Protestant religion, sort of an American religion,” says Dr. Song Jae-Ryong, professor of Sociology at Kyunghee University, and President of the Korean Association for the Sociology of Religion. They adapted American evangelical themes and worked hard at turning South Korea into a Christian nation. “In some sense, America became a substitute for the traditional role taken by China,” Grayson says, that of a protective big brother. This affected how Christians saw themselves, and made America out as “a model of a Christian state.” [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Clark wrote: “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “After the Korean War that lasted from 1950 to 1953, Korea remained divided and Christians had to stay in the South even though they were natives of the North. Whether Catholic or Protestant, they looked back on a history of suffering and martyrdom and clung fiercely to the faith for which they had given so much. However, not all Korean Christians thought alike, and the controversies and disputes that broke out among them were signs of two things. The first was their commitment to being "right" in their religion and the criticism of others who were seen to be "wrong," and the second was their restless energy and passion for preaching and converting others to become members of the church. Both these factors — commitment and aggressive recruiting — helped the church to swell in astonishing numbers in the quarter century between I960 and 1985.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Several other circumstances contributed to the rapid growth of Christianity in South Korea. One was the urbanization that accompanied Korea's industrial revolution. The tide of farm people who migrated to the cities meant blocks and blocks of tiny apartments among strangers and the need to discover new communities to belong to. Churches were ready-made communities for Korea's new urban working class, and they welcomed the incoming workers and provided them with emotional, and even economic, support along with the religious.

“Another circumstance was the Catholic and Protestant commitment to human rights at a time when South Korea was suffering under a strict military dictatorship. When the South Korean army took power in 1961, it set the country on a path toward modernization, often forcing people to cooperate when they did not want to do so. For example, factory wages were kept low so Korea could make things that could be sold cheaply overseas. This was good for Korea as a country but bad for industrial workers who needed better wages and working conditions in order to survive. South Korea also enforced the National Security Law that gave stiff prison sentences to people suspected of sympathizing with North Korea. People who criticized the military government in the South were accused of helping the enemy in the North, and so even democratic dissent in South Korea violated the National Security Law.

“Christians actively supported people who were persecuted under this law, demanding not only democratic reforms that would permit free speech, Yongnak Presbyterian Church, Seoul, begun by North Korean refugee Christians, now with a membership exceeding 40,000. freedom of religion, and human rights but also demanding that Korean workers be treated more fairly with better wages. Christians took these stands because of their religion's respect for individuals in the sight of God. The state harassed and even imprisoned them as disloyal South Koreans. Thus many Catholic and Protestant Christians suffered government persecution again, some of them for a third time.

American Missionaries in Korea After the Korean War

Jane Lampman wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “Dr. Moffett and his wife, Eileen, experienced” the Korean Christian miracle “ firsthand. As a son of the first long-term Protestant missionary in northern Korea, he was born in Pyongyang in 1916 and grew up there. Later, the couple spent 25 years serving as missionaries in South Korea, starting in 1955 after the Korean War ended. "Koreans are natural evangelists – they love to tell the good news," Moffett said. [Source: Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007]

“For example, Mrs. Moffett remembers a drive they once took into the Korean countryside in their jeep, stopping along the road to buy a watermelon. "After the transaction, the man looked up and said in Korean, 'Are you a Christian?' I said 'yes,' " she recalls. "Then he said, 'Oh, that's wonderful. If you weren't, I was going to tell you how much you were missing!' "

“When the Moffetts arrived after the war, "Korea was very much torn up, with only one paved road in what is now South Korea," Eileen remembers. The per-capita income was only US$80 a year. "Many people had no adequate housing, and some were starving at certain times of year before the next crop came in." The newlyweds headed to the rural southeastern area known as Andong, where they learned the language, helped provide food and clothing for the needy, and traveled around to serve the country churches. Despite desperate conditions, Eileen says, "the people were wonderful – so committed, of good humor, and devoted."

“For most of the couple's quarter century in Korea, Sam taught ministry candidates at the Presbyterian College and Seminary in Seoul, where the seminary founded by his father in Pyongyang was reestablished. It has since become one of the largest in the world. "Presbyterians are to Korea what Baptists are to Texas," he says with a chuckle. Eileen, who has a master's degree in Christian education, for seven years served as director of the Korea Bible Club Movement, a network of schools for some 50,000 underprivileged children. Even children who worked in factories during the day would come to school at night, she says. Christian chaplains active in factories and in the Army have been another key element in the Korean "miracle," as are the regular revivals held by churches.”

Catholics and the Democracy Movement in Korea

Kim Dae Jung, the president of South Korea from 1998 to 2003, was a devout Christian. He was very active in South Korea’s pro-democracy movement in the 1970s and 80s. His followers included dissident students, intellectuals, and progressive Christians. Most of his prison writings display both his Christian faith and his love for his family,

Andrei Lankov wrote in Al Jazeera: In the 1970s and 1980s, it came to be seen as the religion of the democratic movement that opposed the military dictatorships then in charge of the country. In the 1960s Catholicism came to be associated with the ideas of progressive change and the introduction of modern political ideologies. South Korea's Catholic church hierarchy began to drift leftward. This was a time when South Korea was run by a military dictatorship - remarkably efficient at managing the economy but also quite ruthless and brutal in dealing with political dissent and the country's labour movement. The Catholic church firmly positioned itself on the side of the pro-democracy resistance. A special role was played by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who in 1968 became the archbishop of Seoul. [Source: Andrei Lankov, Al Jazeera, 18 August 2014]

“Under the leadership of Cardinal Kim, the Catholic church took a remarkably active leadership role, always ready to criticise the government and its perceived brutal use of force against government opponents. Outraged, the KCIA, the South Korean political police, arrested Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun, one of Cardinal Kim's lieutenants and an outspoken critic of the military rule, but had to release him soon, bowing to pressure from local Catholics groups and from overseas.

“Catholic churches were frequently used as asylum for the participants in anti-government rallies and labour activists alike. While technically Korean law did not recognise the right of churches to play such a role, in practice the authorities did not want to start an open fight with the Catholic church and were usually very cautious.

“When military rule finally came to an end in 1987 and Korea at long last became a democracy, the Catholic church was widely credited for its role in this seismic change. Needless to say, such perceptions significantly boosted its popularity: Church leaders were seen as relevant, dedicated and ready to risk their life and freedom for a great cause. Indeed, while Catholic churches across the globe face increasing difficulties and dwindling numbers of believers, the Korean church is thriving. In the mid-1990s the Catholics constituted merely 6 percent of the total population, but in twenty years the number nearly doubled, reaching 10 percent.”

Protestant Growth Stalls, While Catholicism Growth Continues

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: “The appeal of evangelical Protestantism appears to have hit a wall. Attendance rates, and the number of Koreans claiming to be Protestants, have stalled. The democratization movement caused many young Koreans to resent the largely conservative, pro-regime roles most churches held. Corruption, internecine battles within the churches, and a singular focus on growth at all costs have also hurt church attendance. [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

“By contrast, the Catholic Church has continued to grow, largely because it is perceived as being progressive, anti-regime, above corruption, and more democratic, ironic as that might sound to reform-minded Westerners. Kim Dae-jung, a well-known dissident during the dictatorships who would later go on to become president and win the Nobel Peace Prize, was Catholic. Though there was a “minjung” theology among some Protestants, that emphasized democracy and freedom during the dictatorship, it was only preached in a minority of churches.

“But to the casual visitor, Christianity hardly appears to be fading. Park Yong-jin, a middle aged man waiting outside the Somang Church, says Korea is particularly blessed by God, above other countries, and that Christianity “helped Korea adapt to Western culture and devices for development.” When asked why Koreans are so passionate about their religion, he answered, “It’s in the Korean character. We are always passionate!” Standing near the steps of the same church, Park Ki-min says that Christianity for him is not about material wealth, or creating a business network, or boasting about the size of your congregation. “My goal is to wake up every day and feel grateful for God,” he says. “And that’s the right way to live.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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