There are more Christians in South Korea than any other Asian country expect for the largely Roman Catholic Philippines. More than one fourth of South Korea's 51 million people are Christians. Evangelicals are the fastest growing religious group in South Korea. Some of them have been quite active sending anti-North Korea, pro-Christian balloons into North Korea.

According to the CIA World Factbook (2015): Protestants makes up 19.7 percent of the population, followed by Buddhists 15.5 percent and Catholics 7.9 percent.According to the 2016 census conducted by the Korea Statistical Information Service, of the 44 percent of the population espousing a religion, 45 percent are Protestant, 35 percent Buddhist, 18 percent Roman Catholic, and 2 percent “other.” [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019; CIA World Factbook, 2020]

South Korea boasts some of the world's largest churches, including the largest, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which is housed in a 10-story building and has 700,000 members. It began with only 40 members after the Korean War. At least two dozen other churches have congregations between 20,000 and 50,000.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Koreans distinguish between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity, calling Catholicism "ch'onjukyo" (religion of the Lord of Heaven) and Protestantism "kaeshinkyo" (the Reformed religion). They also use the word "kristokyo" (Christian) to mean "Protestant." These distinctions reflect the way Christianity came to 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. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

In Seoul, one can find Catholic, Union Church (interdenominational), International Union Church, Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventist, Latter Day Saints/Mormons, and Lutheran churches. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Why Christianity Caught in Korea and Not Elsewhere in Asia

Christianity failed to take hold in Japan and China, where 19th-century missionaries were seen as agents of Western imperialism. But it spread quickly in Korea, where American missionaries introduced education and health care to people neglected by their own government and helped Korean nationalists fight against Japanese colonial rulers.

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.

Suki Kim wrote in the Washington Post: “I remember looking through the window of our fifth-floor apartment in Seoul as a child and finding the night sky peppered with bright-red neon crosses. When I moved to America in my teens, the first faces to greet me were those of the Korean American evangelical Christians at John F. Kennedy International Airport, eagerly awaiting new arrivals with Bibles and taped sermons. [Source: Suki Kim, Washington Post, July 25, 2007]

“It is peculiar that a country claiming to pride itself on its 5,000-year-old philosophical traditions has embraced Christianity with such unabashed eagerness. Roman Catholicism on the Korean Peninsula dates to the late 18th century, and the first Protestant missionaries from the United States arrived a century later. Unlike the Philippines, the most Christian country in Asia, South Korea was never colonized by a Christian nation. Many scholars, somewhat unconvincingly, theorize that Koreans turned to Christianity as a way of fighting for independence from on-and-off conquerors China and Japan, neither of which took to Christianity with similar zeal.

“My deeply Confucian grandfather used to scoff at churches as the foreign devil. When my grandmother became ill and asked to be taken to a local minister who was said to have brought medicine from America, he reluctantly accompanied her after carefully wrapping the Bible the minister had given my grandmother with newspaper, lest someone in the neighborhood see him carrying it. At the door of the church, family members say, he turned his back, letting her limp across the threshold alone.

“People such as my grandfather are rapidly dwindling in today's Korea. It is said that South Korean missionaries will go to the ends of the Earth in search of those most unwilling to be converted. As Christianity has taken firmer hold in the past few decades, riding the boom that has turned South Korea into one of the world's leading economies, competition among churches has turned fierce. Deploying missionaries abroad has become one of the quickest ways for a church to broaden its reputation and attract members. The more volatile the area, the holier the mission.”

Churches and Christian Worship in Korea

Both Catholic and Protestant lay Christians seek material and spiritual richness through fervent prayers. Both churches celebrate Christmas Day and Easter in their churches. Both Christmas the Birth of Buddha day are national holidays. According to AFP: “Churches, big and small, have proliferated across cities like Seoul and some are extremely wealthy with large congregations whose members hand over up to 10 per cent of their salary every month.”

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Christian churches are ubiquitous in urban and rural areas. Some offer services not only on Sundays but also at predawn hours on weekdays. Leading Christian churches have huge new buildings that can accommodate several thousand worshipers. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The Buddhist and Christian clergy derive their power from their knowledge of scripture. Another source of power for the clergy of major religions is the wealth their churches have accumulated from the contributions of followers. The activities of the Christian clergy include not only sermons but also routine personal visits to the homes of their congregants.

Jane Lampman wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “Today, thousands of Koreans rise to attend prayer services in huge city churches at 4:30 a.m. before heading for work. "Their prayer life is remarkable, and the whole congregation prays together," Sam says. "In the country churches, you sometimes have to ring a bell to get them to stop." [Source: Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007]

South Korea Neon Crosses: Beacons of Hope or Light Pollution?

Red neon crosses are a common sight atop churches in South Korea. At night in South Korean cities you can see them everywhere. Church leaders say they are an important symbol of faith, but critics see them as an annoying source of light pollution.. Government officials say they are powerless to do anything more than make recommendations. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, August 20, 2011]

Reporting from Seoul, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “For a quarter of a century, Kim Un-tae has found comfort in the red neon cross that sits atop the steeple of the Protestant church he founded here. For the 70-year-old holy man, the soft glow of the religious icon has always signified that his faith was open for anyone willing to enter the doors of his church. "It's like a coastal lighthouse for passing ships in the dark," Kim said. Yet critics say church crosses like Kim's are just another form of light pollution.

“Tens of thousands of churches dot South Korea, most with their own red neon crosses. In Seoul, where several churches crowd onto a single block, illuminating their crosses until midnight or later, the beacons combine to color the urban night like a carnival come to town. "Looking from above, the night scene of Seoul looks like that of a graveyard," one Internet user complained in a posting. The glare of neon lights atop restaurants, motels and retail stores has become such a blight that legislators this year passed a law to limit what they called "excessive illumination from artificial light." Park Young-ah, a lawmaker with the ruling Grand National Party, worried about the long-term health effects of such glare. "Systematic control of light pollution and standards for the appropriate level of light do not exist," she wrote in her bill proposal.

“Churches were originally included in the legislation, but massive protests and lobbying efforts staged by numerous church councils made politicians back down. "We really didn't expect the religious groups to interpret the bill to be anti-Christian and react like this," said Park's spokesman, Noh Chang-hoon. Kim Un-tae insists that any effort to dim the night crosses is a "foolish" attack on religious freedom. Because the mission of the church goes beyond the pursuit of capital gain, their leaders should not be subjected to a blanket government law, he reasoned. "We don't like to use the word exception, but yes, we do believe that one should be made," said Kim, who years ago left his church to become director of the Christian Council of Korea, which represents 50,000 churches nationwide.

“South Korea's churches originally had tolling bells to attract worshipers, but most eventually changed to neon crosses, usually red, to signify the blood of Christ, officials say. The propensity of the crosses moved photographic artist Cha Zoo-young this year to document the spread of the icons. He took thousands of pictures of South Korean urban landscapes, many filled with competing red crosses. His public showing of his work, criticized by churches, was meant to "talk about the fact that we should not blindly follow religion," he said. One blogger who calls himself Cha documented his own battle with church officials who refuse to dim their cross. "It's so much like daytime at night that I'm chronically sleep-deprived," he wrote.

Protestants in Korea

About 70 percent of the Christians in South Korea are Protestants, and three-quarters of the Protestants are Presbyterians. Korea has four times as many Presbyterians as the United States. The Protestant faith was introduced in the 1880s and caught on because many people found it more appealing than Buddhism or Confucianism.

The 2016 census by the Korea Statistical Information Service that found 45 percent of the 44 percent of the population espousing a religion were Protestant, included Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church, Moonies) as Protestants. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019; CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Protestantism has grown very rapidly in recent decades, surpassing Buddhism in terms of the number of adherents in the 1990s. According to “Proselytizing appears to be an integral part of their religion for many Christians and Korea has the distinction of being the second highest exporter of missionaries in the world, after the United States. Evangelising their brothers and sisters in the North is an important goal for many South Korean Christians, as is spreading Christian doctrine through good works in other parts of the world, as well as the other half of the peninsula.” [Source:]

In Korea, foreigners are often asked the religion as well as age and marital status. “Even though there is an assumption among Koreans of all generations, but especially older ones, that most Westerners, especially Americans, are Christian, some of the more fundamentalists among them feel compelled to guide us toward the ‘righteous’ path. It is not unusual to be stopped on the streets of Itaewon in Seoul (where many foreign residents live and tourists visit) or approached in coffee shops, etc. by ‘missionaries’ offering to ‘save’ us.

According to The Economist: South Korea’s 9 million or so Protestants included members “of many stripes. Yoido Full Gospel Church’s 1 million members form the largest Pentecostal congregation on Earth. Belief’s farther shores include the Unification Church, soon to mark the anniversary of its founder Sun-myung Moon’s "ascension". The late Yoo Byung-eun, the shifty and versatile tycoon behind the ferry Sewol which sank in April, killing 304 mostly teenage passengers, had also founded his own sect (and the website, now in other hands); its followers hid him during Korea’s largest-ever police man-hunt.” [Source: The Economist, August 13, 2014]

Evangelical Protestants in Korea

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: “Evangelical Christians proselyte house to house, distribute pamphlets and church-emblazoned tissue packets on street corners, and cycle through town blaring sermons and homilies through bullhorns, urging you to either accept Jesus, or be prepared for the Devil’s wrath below. It is very rare to spend more than a few days in Korea without being preached to. “We think of Korea as the Second Jerusalem,” says Hong Su Myeon, an older volunteer at Somang Presbyterian, a megachurch in Gangnam. He says Korea is leading a wave of evangelization around the world. At the same time, Hong says, “It’s true that [a lot of] Christianity is corrupt. But there are a lot of hidden true pastors working hard, and their passion for God is why we are so successful in Korea.” [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Christian “zeal is so enormous that it overshadows the 23 percent who are Buddhist, and the 46 percent who say they have no religion at all... Protestant services are rarely subdued in Korea, with people falling into trances, speaking in tongues, and loudly proclaiming their allegiance to God – in hopes they will reap the benefits not just in the next life, but in this one too. “It is kind of amazing” how zealous Korean Christians are, says Dr. Hwang Moon-kyung, Professor of History at the University of Southern California. “They give you the impression that South Korea is a very religious country when in fact it isn’t. But the ones who are religious tend to be very fervently religious.”

“Evangelization spread with development” after World War II in South Korea .” The new factories often had chaplains, as did the military, which required three years of service from every young male Korean. The dislocation caused by rapid industrialization sent many Koreans scrambling for something to believe in. “If society changes very quickly on a large scale, some people soon become left behind, and those people have some emotional, and psychological feelings of deprivation,” says Song. As a result, they will often attend church, maybe one they learned about at work, or from a pamphleteer on the street. Many people had also left their villages for the big city, and found themselves alone and in need of a social group, in a culture where social groups are extremely important to identity. In many cases, the bigger the social group, the better.

““The ideology of the Christian religion, or Protestantism, is usually a poor Christian is not a Christian,” says Song. There is a pervasive belief, influenced by shamanism, that God wants you to be rich, and wants the Korean nation to be rich. Most Christians attribute South Korea’s rapid rise to prosperity to God’s work. In the present as in the past, Koreans will visit shamans, people who can reputedly speak to the spirits around you, not for care in the afterlife, but for good fortune now: for the success of a business, the healing of an ailment, a perfect score on a child’s exam. This shamanism has infused itself into Korean Christianity, where Koreans will pray for day to day health, wealth, and happiness, and Christian ministers will work to guarantee it.

“There’s always been this basic belief that the priest, namely the shaman, or in Christianity the minister, has this tremendous […] access to the gods, or God,” says Hwang. Cho, like many Christian ministers and most shamans, claims to be able to heal people spiritually of real medical ailments, notably paralysis. (“And he walks!”) The end of each service at Yoido involves the minister going through a long list of medical conditions, demanding they be gone.

Yoido Full Gospel Church and Evangelical Megachurches

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: “The most successful evangelist by far was Cho Yong-gi, also known as Paul or David Cho. In the late 1950s he founded Yoido Full Gospel Church, with, as he loves to boast, only six members. Now it’s the largest church in the world, with over 830,000 congregants. It takes up an entire river-front block in central Seoul, and is worth untold millions of dollars. There are dozens of other megachurches in Korea – Somang Presbyterian, Nambu Full Gospel, Assembly of God Grace And Truth, Myungsung Presbyterian, Kum Ran Methodist, Young Nak Presbyterian, Soong Eui Methodist – all of them with more than 40,000 worshippers every Sunday, some well in excess of 100,000. [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Dr. Andrew Park, professor of Theology and Ethics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio says the megachurches have a “vacuuming effect,” sucking up parishioners from smaller churches. “People like to gather together,” says Park, explaining the popularity of megachurches in Korea. “The more people gather, the happier people will be.” He also says there is often less pressure to be devout in a large church, because you are so anonymous. Large churches provide other tangible benefits as well. “If you belong to one of the big churches, […] that gives you a very strong feeling of belonging,” Song says. “And this church, because they are family members to each other emotionally, they help each other to make business networks, deal making, and so on and so on.”

“Many pastors have been eager to emulate Cho’s success with Yoido Full Gospel. Christianity has always equalled wealth in Korea, but in Cho’s case, it has equalled quite a bit of it. In 2014, Cho was convicted of embezzling US$12 million in church funds, receiving a fine and a suspended sentence, though his son went to prison. The church was torn apart as elder attacked elder (sometimes physically) and accusations grew that US$12 million was only the tip of the iceberg, and that Cho and his family had secreted away as much as US$500 million.

Throughout Korea, stories of the lavish, usually tax-free lifestyles of Protestant leaders have caused almost universal mistrust of the churches by non-Christians, and many Christians themselves are fed up with what they perceive to be widespread corruption behind the pulpit. A 2015 poll found that only 20 percent of Koreans generally trust Protestant pastors.

Catholics in South Korea

Catholics make up about 11 percent of the population. They are outnumbered by a margin of nearly three to one by Protestants. Even so Catholicism is regarded as the fastest-growing religion in South Korea. The number of Catholics nearly doubled between 1995 and 2005 from 2.95 million (6.6 percent of the population) to 5.14 million (10.9 percent of the population) in 2005. Buddhism and Protestantism, the No. 1 and No.2 faiths respectively, both saw a decline followers in the same period. [Source: AFP, November 2008]

Andrei Lankov of Al Jazeera wrote: “Korea is not known as a Catholic country. However, Catholics constitute a rather significant part of South Korea's population.” The 11 percent of the population “might be somewhat misleading since the actual influence of Catholicism in the country is much stronger than it might seem on the surface, as Catholics are overrepresented among the elite. Generally speaking, the higher one looks in Korea's social hierarchy, the more likely one is to find Catholics. [Source: Andrei Lankov, Al Jazeera, 18 August 2014]

“This all appears a bit strange because in most non-European countries where Catholics are influential nowadays, Catholicism was first introduced by colonial powers. Such countries are mostly former colonies of Europe's Catholic nations (namely Spain, Portugal and France). Korea, on the other hand, was colonised by a decisively non-Catholic, and for that matter, non-Christian country: Japan. The phenomenal success of Catholicism in Korea can only really be understood through the 200-year history of the Korean Catholic church. It is its position in the political and social spheres which brought the unexpected success it enjoys today. See

Cardinal Kim

Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922-2009) was South Korea’s first Roman Catholic cardinal and an outspoken critic of authoritarian rule. A philosophy student who became a priest, he was at the forefront of South Korea’s pro-democracy movement and efforts to oust its dictators. According to the Los Angeles Times: Known for his warm, wry smile, Kim was appointed cardinal in 1969 by Pope Paul VI and went on to become an advocate for democracy....In 1987, while the nation was mired in anti-government protests, Kim allowed student activists to take refuge in Seoul’s main cathedral. His efforts helped launch South Korea, which had been ruled by strongmen for more than a generation, on the road to democracy. [Source: Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2009]

“Kim was born in the city of Daegu in 1922, one of eight children, and attended high school in Seoul. He studied philosophy at Sophia University in Tokyo in the early 1940s and at Catholic University of Korea from 1947 to 1951. After serving briefly as a parish priest and as a secretary in the Archdiocese of Daegu, he traveled to Germany to study sociology. At 46, he became the youngest member of the College of Cardinals. Kim was an advocate of the poor and took an active part in social and democracy issues, opposing the violent suppression of labor unions.

David McKittrick wrote in The Independent: Kim “had a number of distinctions within the Catholic Church: he was the youngest person ever appointed to its College of Cardinals, and he became its longest-serving member. He was also the first South Korean Cardinal. But in wider terms his importance lay in his trenchant and outspoken insistence that democracy should prevail in a turbulent country prone to the emergence of military dictatorships. At one tense moment, the military authorities ordered him to hand over pro-democracy students who were taking refuge in his Myungdong Cathedral. “If the police break into the cathedral, I will be in the very front,” Kim told them. “Behind me, there will be reverends and nuns. After we are wrestled down, there will be students.” He explained later: “I thought that allowing police to enter the cathedral compound to take away students was the critical juncture that would decide whether Korea went along the path to democracy or extended military regimes.” The government called off the police and a violent crisis was averted. [Source: David McKittrick, The Independent, February 16, 2009]

800,000 Koreans Welcome Pope Francis to Seoul in 2014

In August 2014 an estimated 800,000 Koreans gathered at Gwanghwamun plaza in downtown Seoul to greet Pope Francis for what has been described as largest gathering of people in Korea’s long history: The Pope urged the crowd to listen to the "cry of the poor" and beatified 124 martyrs - people who had died for their Catholic faith in the 18th and 19th centuries. [Source: Andrei Lankov, Al Jazeera, 18 August 2014]

Afp reported: “An estimated 800,000 people, most of them invited church groups from across South Korea, attended the open-air ceremony in hot, humid conditions at Gwanghwamun plaza – the city's main ceremonial thoroughfare. The centrepiece of the pope's five-day visit, the beatification mass was the subject of a massive security operation, with bridges, roads and subway stations closed, and police snipers posted on the roofs of surrounding office buildings, which had their windows sealed.

“According to the Church, around 10,000 Koreans were martyred in the first 100 years after Catholicism was introduced to the peninsula in 1784. "They knew the cost of discipleship ... and were willing to make great sacrifices," Francis said in his sermon after the brief beatification ceremony, which gives the martyrs the title "blessed" and marks their first step towards sainthood. "They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for," the pope said.

Continuing the theme that has dominated his visit, the pope said the lessons to be learned from the martyrs were as important as ever in an era marked more by selfishness and greed than sacrifice. "Their example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded," he said.

Among the vast crowd, only 200,000 who pre-registered were allowed to pass through dozens of metal detectors placed along a 4.5-kilometre (three mile) long security ring around the main plaza. Some arrived hours before dawn, and whiled away the time reading the Bible in small groups. As the sun rose, Gwanghwamun boulevard was already crammed with people for a one-kilometre stretch north of City Hall.

“The papal stage, topped with a giant cross, stood at the top of the boulevard, backed by the giant tiled roof of the Joseon dynasty Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the 18th and 19th centuries, unrepentant Catholics were generally paraded from Gwanghwamun southwest to Seosomun Gate where they were publicly executed. Pope Francis began the day at a martyrs' shrine at Seosomun and then made the journey of the condemned in reverse to Gwanghwamun, riding in an open-topped vehicle and waving to the ecstatic crowds on either side. "It was so moving. The Pope felt like such a caring, kind grandfather-figure," Lee Young-Hee, a 58-year-old housewife, told AFP. "My heart is swelling. The weather was hot but all I could feel was happiness," she said.

“Organisers had been concerned about the relatives of victims of April's Sewol ferry disaster, who have been camped out in Gwanghwamun for weeks to push their campaign for a full independent inquiry into the tragedy, which claimed 300 lives – most of them schoolchildren. In the end, 600 family members were invited to attend the mass, effectively incorporating the protest into the event. As he passed by, the pope stopped and stepped down from his vehicle to greet the relatives, including Kim Young-Oh, whose daughter died in the disaster and who has been on a hunger strike for more than one month. "I am a Buddhist but I think the Pope can help us," said Choi Keum-Bok, a construction worker who lost his son in the disaster. After the mass, the pope toured a hilltop community for the sick and disabled in Kkottongnae, around 80 kilometres south of Seoul. The sprawling facility has been held up as a model of the Church's commitment to the vulnerable and marginalised, although critics say it ghettoises its residents.

Later, Pope Francis urged Catholic youth to renounce the materialism and reject "inhuman" economic systems that disenfranchise the poor. “Francis took a high-speed train from Seoul to the central city of Daejeon, where Catholic youths have been meeting for the Asian version of World Youth Day. In his homily, Francis urged the participants to be a source of renewal and hope for society."May they combat the allure of a materialism that stifles authentic spiritual and cultural values and the spirit of unbridled competition which generates selfishness and strife," Francis said in Italian that was translated into Korean. "May they also reject inhuman economic models which create new forms of poverty and marginalise workers." [Source: AFP, August 15, 2014]

Christianity and Politics in South Korea

Some clergymen and priests in Christian churches have been outspoken advocates of human rights, critics of the government, sympathizers with the union movement and at the forefront of efforts to push for reforms and even revolt in North Korea.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945 Christians were in the front ranks of the struggle for independence and 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. *

Churches have traditionally been rallying points for political dissent and church memberships often rise and fall with political instability (with new members increasing during times of upheaval). Christian churches played a major role in the pro-democracy movement of the mid-1980s. In the years of prosperity and political freedom in the early 1990s church membership declined dramatically. Some churches lost 10 percent of the congregations and 30 percent of their revenues.

Some Christians are also involved in pro-North Korean activities. In 2010, a prominent South Korea pastor arrested after returning from an unauthorized visit to North Korean. The BBC reported: Han Sang-ryol paid a two-month visit to communist North Korea, to which Seoul bans unauthorised trips. The pro-reunification pastor was reportedly given a warm reception in the North. But he faces criticism in the South, amid severely strained ties between the two Koreas. 'Han Sang-ryol's homecoming was "highly unusual". He crossed back into South Korea at the truce village of Panmunjom and was immediately taken away by authorities, witnesses About 200 North Koreans reportedly gathered on the northern side of the border to bid farewell to the pastor, who arrived on 12 June. About the same number of anti-reunification South Koreans were on the south side of the border village, along with about 1,000 riot police. North Korean media said Mr Han met the number two leader, Kim Yong-nam, during his visit, and gave speeches denouncing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. [Source: BBC, 20 August 2010]

Tensions between Buddhists and Christians

There have been tensions between Buddhists and Christians in South Korea. In 2008 Buddhist monks complained that the administration of President Lee Myung-bak had a pro-Christian bias. AFP reported: “Then of thousands of South Korean Buddhists rallied in central Seoul yesterday in protest at the alleged pro-Christian bias by the Government of President Lee Myung-bak. A crowd estimated by police at about 55,000, including thousands of grey-robed monks, packed the City Hall plaza for the rare protest, which began with the beating of a giant drum. Organisers said Buddhist temples across the country simultaneously rang bronze bells. [Source: AFP, December 17, 2012]

“Buddhists have been uneasy over what they see as Christian bias since Mr Lee, a Presbyterian church elder, came to power. They were unhappy when he included members of his church network in his first cabinet. An online map published by two ministries, showing Seoul's churches but not major Buddhist temples, also sparked anger. Earlier, seven activists wanted by police following protests against US beef imports took refuge in Seoul's Jogyesa temple. Tensions grew late last month when police stopped a car carrying Jigwan, head monk of the Jogye Buddhist order, outside the temple and searched the boot. President Lee apologized but Buddhists were not appeased.

▪“Tensions between Buddhism and the Christian Church have deep roots in South Korea. Historically the dominant religion, Buddhism has been eclipsed by Christianity which grew at an incredible pace in the 20th century, especially after the 1950-53 Korean War. Thirty per cent of the population describe themselves as Christian, making South Korea one of the most Christian countries in Asia, ranking third after the traditionally Catholic Philippines and East Timor. Buddhists now comprise a little over 20 per cent, and there is some resentment in the Buddhist community over South Korea's embrace of a particularly evangelical style of Christianity that places a strong emphasis on proselytising and missionary work.

In 2011, on the rather benign issue of tourists lodging at Buddhist temples, “the Korean Association of Church Communication issued a statement arguing that there was "room for conflict" in the government subsidising a program associated with one particular religion. "There clearly is a problem with financially supporting missionary events by specific religion," it said. The official Templestay website stresses that the program is mainly aimed at providing a cultural experience, rather than an effort to promote religious belief.

Christian Groups and Anti-Gay and Anti-Discrimination Legislation in South Korea

Both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Korea tend to be on the conservative side. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches are well represented in Korean Protestantism. At Catholic churches, women often cover their heads with a white mantilla. Members of Christian groups prevented an initiative to create a comprehensive antidiscriminationbill that would specifically include religious affiliation and sexual orientation as protected classes.

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: “Protestants remain a powerful conservative force, picketing LGBT Pride events, demonstrating against North Korea, and even protesting against the introduction of halal meat in some stores, a move meant to attract tourists from Muslim countries. In 2009, some evidence for evolution was removed from high school science textbooks because of pressure from religious groups, and a full third of Koreans – more than the number of Christians – do not believe in evolution. [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Media reported that in October 2019 President Moon met with religious leaders – including Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong of Gwangju, Chairman of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Korea and the highest ranking Catholic official in the country – and called for them to support the creation of a proposed comprehensive antidiscrimination law that would specifically include religious affiliation and sexual orientation as protected classes. According to media reports, although the NHRCK, international groups, and many lawmakers in the ruling Democratic Party supported an initiative to create a new law, other parliamentarians, including those in the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), opposed it due to the outspoken objection to LGBTI protections from Christian groups, notably the CCK. The CCK also stated such a law would make the country “a paradise” for Muslims. The NCCK stated it publicly opposed all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. An NCCK representative said, however, it did not directly engage on a comprehensive antidiscrimination bill to avoid division among member churches with varying viewpoints. The Jogye Order of Korea Buddhism lobbied the National Assembly to work towards creating an antidiscrimination law. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

In November 2019 LKP Representative Ahn Sang-soo proposed a revision to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea Act that would remove the NHRCK’s authority to investigate discrimination based on sexual orientation and would define gender as “biological male and female.” According to media, Ahn said the existing law “legally and actively protects and promotes homosexuality” and discriminates against those who oppose homosexuality on religious or other grounds. Forty members of the 300-seat legislature, predominantly LKP representatives but also members of the Bareunmirae Party and the Democratic Party, signed Ahn’s proposed amendment despite criticism and protests from domestic and international human rights groups.

Deadly Exorcisms and Adultery by Christian Pastors in South Korea

On July 29, 2019 the Suwon District Court found Shin Ok-ju, head pastor of the Grace Road Church, and five other church officials guilty on charges of violence, child abuse, and fraud in connection with a 400-member church-owned compound in Fiji. Former members of the church said they were instructed to beat each other to “drive out evil spirits” and were not free to leave the compound. The court sentenced Shin to six years in prison. A district court spokesperson told media the other five officials received penalties ranging from a suspended sentence to 44 months in prison. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

In 2012, a pastor and his wife were accused of killing 'possessed' children The couple said the children had been ill, which they believed was caused by the invasion of evil spirits. They cut the children's hair to chase the spirit out and then starved them, only allowing them to drink water for about ten days, and prayed for the resurrection of the children after they died. [Source: Paula Hancocks, CNN, February 15, 2012]

Paula Hancocks of CNN wrote: The couple told police the children — aged nine, seven and three — had been ill, which they believed was a sign they were invaded by evil spirits after eating too much on Lunar New Year. Local media reports said the parents had beaten the children with a belt and a fly swatter numerous times. The pastor, named only by his surname Park, and his wife, Cho, told police they tied the children's arms and legs with stockings. All three died on February 2, the first around 2am, the second at 5am and the third at 7am, according to police in the town of Boseong, more than 186 miles (300 kilometers) south of Seoul.

The bodies were found nine days later by Park's brother-in-law. Police said the couple was praying in the hope of resurrecting the children. Their eight-month-old daughter who survived has been taken into care, police said. Park, 43, and Cho, 34, told police they opened a church in Boseong in March 2009 with a congregation of 10, but were accused of being a cult.

In 2011, AFP reported: “A South Korean Christian pastor was jailed for 18 months for having a decade-long affair with a woman whose wedding he had officiated at, a court said. Adultery in South Korea is a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison but most offenders usually receive only suspended jail terms and imprisonment is quite rare. The 51-year-old pastor, whose name has been withheld for privacy, had a secret affair with the woman, 41, for more than 10 years after conducting her marriage ceremony. She and her husband were both followers of his church. The woman was also given a year-long jail sentence. “The pastor, who officiated at the couple’s wedding, should have prayed for their happy marriage life,” the court in central city of Cheongju said in a statement. “Stern punishment should be meted out to the accused who greatly disturbed basic social order and left bitter feelings of betrayal among many others.” The adultery trial started after the husband pressed charges against his wife and the pastor. The couple have subsequently been divorced. [Source: AFP, November 26, 2011]

Korean Missionaries

South Korea has about 16,000 missionaries in 173 countries, second only to the United States. "Korea had a mission movement from the very beginning, with students from among the earliest seminary graduates going to Japan, Mexico, California, and Siberia," Timothy Kiho Park, a Korean who directs Korean studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif, told the Christian Science Monitor. [Source: Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007; [Source: Suki Kim, Washington Post, July 25, 2007]

South Korea became become a large source of Christian missionaries very quickly. Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “Koreans have joined their Western counterparts in” the Middle East, Africa and Central and East Asia. “Imbued with the fervor of the born again, they have become known for aggressively going to — and sometimes being expelled from — the hardest-to-evangelize corners of the world. Their actions are at odds with the foreign policy of South Korea's government, which is trying to rein them in here and elsewhere. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, November 1, 2004]

“It is the first time that large numbers of Christian missionaries have been deployed by a non-Western nation, one whose roots are Confucian and Buddhist, and whose population remains two-thirds non-Christian. Unlike Western missionaries, whose work dovetailed with the spread of colonialism, South Koreans come from a country with little history of sending people abroad until recently. They proselytize, not in their own language, but in the local one or English. "There is a saying that when Koreans now arrive in a new place, they establish a church; the Chinese establish a restaurant; the Japanese, a factory," said a South Korean missionary in his 40's.”

“In 1979, only 93 South Koreans were serving as missionaries, according to the Korea Research Institute for Missions. Compared with South Korea's 12,000, there are about 46,000 American and 6,000 British missionaries, according to missionary organizations in South Korea and the West. It was only in the last two decades, however, with the growth of the South Korean economy and its newly democratic government's decision to allow its citizens to travel freely overseas, that South Korean Christianity took on a missionary gloss.

“Today, an equal number of missionaries are born again or members of Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptists denominations, said Steve S.C. Moon, executive director of the Korea Research Institute for Missions. These missionaries, like their Western counterparts, tend to focus on activities that are evangelical, educational and medical, and their beliefs are far more traditional than those of newer sects like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the Korean-rooted movement. A typical case is the Presbyterian Onnuri Church, founded 19 years ago with the main purpose of training missionaries. It now has 500 in 53 countries, though it focuses on China, Indonesia and India, said Kim Joong Won, director of its missionary program.

But because of their short history of living overseas, some South Koreans expect that other cultures will behave the same way their own does and that Christianity will spread abroad as quickly as it did in South Korea, said Mr. Moon of the Korea Research Institute for Missions. "Western missionaries tend to carry a sense of guilt because of their imperialist past," he said. "But Koreans don't have that historical baggage, and they are not inhibited in reaching out to people with the Gospel. So in their missionary work, they tend not to consult the local people, but make decisions in one direction."

Korean Missionaries in China

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: Christianity, in the evangelical form championed by Korean missionaries deployed throughout China, is finding Chinese converts despite Beijing's efforts to rein in the spread of the religion. South Korea acts as a filter for Western values, experts say, making them more palatable to Chinese and other Asians. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, January 2, 2006]

“Historically, Christianity made little headway in East Asia, except in South Korea, whose population is now about 30 percent Christian and whose overseas missionary movement is the world's second largest after the United States. Today, in China, South Korean missionaries are bringing Christianity with an Asian face.

“Hwang In Choul, 35, a South Korean missionary here, also sees a direct link between South Korea's democratization and its influence in China. After restrictions on travel outside South Korea were lifted in the late 1980's, South Korea's missionary movement grew from several hundred to its current size of 14,000 missionaries. Mr. Hwang, who since 2000 has trained 50 Chinese pastors to proselytize, is among the 1,500 South Korean missionaries evangelizing in China, usually secretly.”

Korean Missionaries in Muslim Countries

Reporting from Amman, Jordan, Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “A South Korean missionary here speaks of introducing Jesus in a "low voice and with wisdom" to Muslims, the most difficult group to convert. Because religious visas are difficult to obtain in the Middle East, many come on student visas or set up computer or other businesses, and evangelize discreetly. One Korean who has worked here several years and spoke of evangelizing in a "low voice and with wisdom," said that over intimate meals with three or four Muslims he would let the conversation drift to Jesus. So delicate is his work that he never mentions words like "missionary" or "evangelize." Muslims who have converted to Christianity are never identified as such — a necessary precaution in a society where some families engage in so-called honor killings of relatives who have left Islam. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, November 1, 2004]

“Many missionaries also focus on bringing Arab Catholics or Chaldeans into the evangelical fold. "There are so many ways to do our work," said the missionary in his 40's, who works in a local church in Amman and delivers English sermons that are translated into Arabic. "Just as American missionaries did in Korea by building schools and hospitals, there are many ways here," he said. "One important group is Iraqi refugees. They come here. They are tired physically and spiritually. They are so lonely. We help them. They realize they are being helped by Christians. Then they ask about Jesus."

About 30 missionary families have settled here in Amman. "People expect missionaries to be from America or Europe, so Koreans can do their work quietly," Mr. Haritounian said. "Because of the bad image of Americans now, it will be more difficult for American missionaries to work here." Dennis Merdian, 50, an American missionary, said that in one difficult project he and a South Korean counterpart agreed immediately that it would be better for the South Korean to take the lead. "He wasn't carrying the American government with him," Mr. Merdian said.

Shadi Samir, 28, a Jordanian pastor who has worked with South Koreans and recently visited Seoul, said he had seen inexperienced missionaries commit cultural blunders. "They come here full of energy and go out on the streets where they approach women and tell them Jesus loves them," Mr. Samir said. "By making such mistakes, they create problems not only for themselves and other Koreans, but also for us." Kim Dong Moon, a missionary who works in the Middle East and also writes about the missionary movement, said some South Korean missionaries had been deported from the Middle East and ended up on blacklists. "There are some pushy Korean missionaries whose approach is: 'Come to the Kingdom of God now! Or, go to hell,"' Mr. Kim said recently in Seoul.

Korean Missionaries in Some of the World’s Most Dangerous Places

The Economist reported: “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.” [Source: The Economist, August 13, 2014]

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: “Evangelical zeal to send missionaries to places most others would never go – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen – have caused headaches for the government. In 2007, after ignoring the government’s advice, 27 Korean missionaries to Afghanistan were kidnapped by the Taliban, and two were killed. In 2009, the Korean foreign ministry warned Korean Christians to stop missionizing in Arab countries, fearing it was making Koreans terrorist targets.” [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “In Iraq, eight South Korean missionaries were briefly kidnapped in April. Then, in June, Kim Sun Il, a 33-year-old man who had planned to do missionary work, was taken hostage and beheaded.” Until then, “the Presbyterian Onnuri Church Onnuri had a church in Baghdad where Kim Sun Il, who was beheaded, had gone to worship. "He is a martyr to God's glory," said Mr. Moon of the research institute. "Korean missionaries are eager to do God's work and glorify God. They want to die for God." [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, November 1, 2004]

“In Baghdad, South Koreans plan to open a seminary even after Iraqi churches have been bombed in two recent coordinated attacks.” South Korean missionaries in Jordan “wait to return to Iraq, which they left in June under intense pressure from the South Korean government. John Jung has been working with an Iraqi pastor, Estawri Haritounian, 40, to open a seminary at the National Protestant Evangelical Church in Baghdad.

"Saddam Hussein's regime allowed Christians to gather in private houses, so it was difficult, though possible, for us to evangelize," said Mr. Jung, who has been traveling in and out of Iraq for several years. "But now it has become even more difficult for Christians in Iraq. Christians are afraid of Muslims for the first time. We are frustrated we can't be in Iraq at this important time. But as soon as the security allows, we will go back to Baghdad."

“In Baghdad, Mr. Haritounian explained recently that the church had been founded half a century ago with the help of British missionaries. American missionaries replaced them later and were in turn succeeded by South Koreans. "We dreamed this dream, Pastor John and I, to start a seminary in Baghdad," said Mr. Haritounian, showing eight completed, though empty, classrooms. Mr. Jung, in Amman, said they hoped to start classes as soon as the security improved in Baghdad. "We'll start with only 15 students, but we hope to grow in the future," he said. Many in Amman said South Koreans had an advantage over others, especially now that the war in Iraq has aggravated anti-American feelings in the Middle East.

South Korean Missionaries in China Helping North Koreans

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: In Beijing, South Korean missionaries “defy the Chinese government to smuggle North Koreans to Seoul while turning them into Christians. In July 2004, nearly 460 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea, thanks to a smuggling network set up by missionaries in China. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, November 1, 2004]

“In China, South Koreans concentrate on converting the Chinese, as well as the ethnic North Koreans living in northeastern China. After they are smuggled out of China to South Korea, though, only about a third of the North Koreans continue practicing Christianity, missionaries said. Other South Koreans train North Korean Christians to return to the North to spread the Gospel. "North Korea, which is occupied by the devil Kim Jong Il, is the biggest target of our missionary work," said Kim Sang Chul, president of the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, a Christian organization.

Korean Missionaries Taken Hostage in Afghanistan

In July 2007, Taliban's abducted 23 South Korean Christian missionaries in Afghanistan and held 19 of them hostage for six weeks. Two male hostages were killed by their captors and two women hostages were released earlier. The 19 were only released after the South Korean paid US$20 million in ransom.

Suki Kim wrote in the Washington Post: “The hostages, members of Saemmul Church from Bundang, near Seoul, appear to have been somewhat naive. They were traveling from Kabul to Kandahar on one of the most dangerous routes in Afghanistan. They rode a charter bus often used by foreigners, immediately attracting attention, and they did not alert local police to their presence for fear of being questioned about their identity papers, the bus driver has said. Photos of some of the missionaries, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, have surfaced on the Internet; they are seen giddily posing in front of the government sign at Seoul's Incheon International Airport warning about the dangers of travel to Afghanistan. [Source: Suki Kim, Washington Post, July 25, 2007]

“This is not the first time South Korean missionaries have endangered themselves by entering war zones to gain converts.” In 2006, “more than 1,000 Korean Christians, including many children, entered Kabul for a peace rally, only to be deported. Proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has threatened to kill missionaries; yet South Korean Christians can't seem to take no for an answer.

“In highly wired South Korea,” there was fierce debate online. “Some devout Christians are calling the abductees martyrs, evoking the self-glorification of extreme Islamist jihadists. The head of Saemmul Church has been forced to apologize to the nation for sending ill-prepared congregants on such a mission.” Later the Washington Post reported: “In response to public anger over this seeming recklessness, the South Korean government, is demanding that the church and families of the hostages repay some of the costs of bringing them home, including airfare, medical treatment and the transport of the bodies of two missionaries slain by their captors.

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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