CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 September 2018

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The spirit of South Korea’s Catholics

by Michael Sainsbury
 
South Korea has been a bit of an outlier in Catholic Asia for decades both in terms of the size of its Catholic demographic—bested only in Asia by the Philippines and Timor-Leste—and the political influence they wield.
 
Remarkably, three out of seven of the country’s presidents have been Catholic since it began democratically electing its leaders in 1981.
 
The current president, Moon Jae-in, a practicing Catholic, is now  planning another historic inter-Korean summit with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in September in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
 
Under Moon’s stewardship, the Korean Church appears better placed than at any point since the 1950-53 Korean War to shape future social and political events.
 
An astonishing 32 per cent of the nation’s lawmakers identify as Catholic. While they are still outnumbered by Protestants, Buddhists and non-believers, this means Catholic representation in government is now proportionally higher than what we can see at a grassroots level, as just seven to 11 percent of the population is Catholic.
 
In broader strokes, roughly an equal share of South Koreans identify as Christians and Buddhists, but take a look at the cityscape in Seoul at night and it is neon-lit crosses that light the tops of buildings.
 
In contrast, across the border communist-run North Korea remains officially atheist. It still subscribes to its ruling dynasty’s juche philosophy of self-reliance despite recent moves to engage with South Korea and, more broadly, the United States of America (US) and the international community.
 
Yet in this new chapter of opening-up lie opportunities for the Church to help mend bridges, many believe, especially given South Korea’s history of religiously inclined leaders and its current president.
 
Former South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who passed away in 2003, was a practicing Catholic who left behind a legacy of engagement with the North due to his so-called Sunshine Policy.
 
He was succeeded by ex-human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, a lapsed Catholic from Gimhae near the southern coastal city of Busan who served for five years until 2008. He met with an untimely death when he leapt from a cliff near his home in May 2009.
 
He was succeeded by former Seoul mayor, Lee Myung-bak, a businessman with an eye for huge infrastructure projects who adopted a more hardline approach to Pyongyang.
 
Inter-Korean relations continued in a similarly hostile vein under the rule of Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former South Korean strongman, Park Chung-hee.
 
She appeared more inclined to witchcraft or shamanism than religion and was impeached in December 2016 after news broke that she had leaked state secrets to her longtime confidant, Choi Soon-sil.
 
Now South Korea has a new Catholic leader in the form of Moon, who was elected in May after Park was impeached and who is making headway in terms of forging a detente with the nuclear-armed North.
 
The two nations have spent the last 65 years eyeing each other with suspicion from either side of the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that bifurcates the peninsula, but there are signs that this protracted Cold War could be drawing to a close.
 
North and South announced on August 13 that the fifth-ever inter-Korean summit would be held in Pyongyang the following month. This would be the third time Moon and Kim have come face to face.
 
They last met on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, near the DMZ, on April 27, shortly before Kim’s historic meeting with US president, Donald Trump, on June 12.
 
With Moon’s announcement that he would be following in the footsteps of his former boss, Roh Moo-hyun, and mentor, Kim Dae-jung, to become only the third South Korean president to visit North Korea, change seems to be in the air.
 
This all underscores a growing sense of political activism by an Asian Catholic minority that has a long and celebrated history of being persecuted and martyred.
 
Historians say this has embedded in the South Korean Church a particular distrust of the authorities and a collective determination to fight oppression and injustice. Their eyes are now turning to the North.
 
In 1984, Pope St. John Paul II canonised 103 Korean martyrs, the first canonization ever held outside Rome.
 
In his homily in a Mass celebration for the country’s newly named saints, he remarked: “The splendid flowering of the Church in Korea today is indeed the fruit of the heroic witness of the martyrs. Even today, their undying spirit sustains the Christians in the Church of silence in the North of this tragically divided land.”
 
In recent decades, the Church has been active in all signal movements for change in South Korea.
 
As such, it will be keen to play a part in any thawing of relations with the North.
Indeed, Catholic missionaries from the South, notably the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, have striven, often successfully, to provide whatever aid they can to the impoverished North—often delivering this in person.
 
There is plenty of irony in the Christian history of the peninsula’s 75 million or so people, some 25 million of whom reside in the North.
 
At the dawn of the 20th century, just 10 years before Imperial Japan invaded the peninsula at the onset of 35 years or colonial rule, then-capital Pyongyang was hailed as the Jerusalem of the East due to its rapidly escalating Christian population.
 
By that time, an estimated 30 per cent of the population of what is now the North Korean capital were Christian, in a country that was uniquely evangelised by lay missionaries rather than religious orders.
 
Indeed Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea’s ultra-repressive, abusive dynasty, was brought up as a Christian. He reportedly once played the organ in church, while his father was also said to be a God-fearing man.
 
Yet Kim, who seized power in 1948 and later battled the South with the support of China, would later reinvent himself as a de facto deity based on his juche ideology, a blend of communist precepts and cult-like beliefs.
 
He kept a firm grip on power until his death in 1972. The Communist Party-run Korean Catholic Association (KCA) is said to have barely 1,000 members. 
 
Most believers in the country are so-called underground Christians, as there are only five state-sanctioned churches in the country, all in Pyongyang. They are the Catholic Changchung Cathedral, three Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church.
 
The North Korean dynasty has proven ever more repressive over the years in terms of its treatment of various religions, putting it on par with the Mao Zedong era in neighbouring China.
 
Since 2013, Open Doors, a 60-year-old organisation that works against religious persecution and is based in the US, has ranked North Korea as the most oppressive nation globally for people with religious beliefs.
 
During World War II, studies estimated there were three times as many Christians in the north of the country than in the south. But as Kim Il-sung moved into power, hundreds of thousands migrated south and more evacuated during the Korean War.
 
More recent studies suggest that around 30 per cent of the South Korean population is now Christian, with Protestants outnumbering Catholics.
 
A 2015 census identified 3.7 million people as Catholic, or 7.9 per cent of the population. But the Korean Bishop’s Conference said in 2017 that it believed 5.7 million was a more accurate number, representing 11 per cent.
 
The census indicated that Protestants account for 19.7 per cent of the population, Buddhists 15.5 per cent, and those with no formal religious affiliation 56.1 per cent.
 
Scholars say a fair share of that last group subscribe to shamanistic or other traditional systems of belief and spirituality.
 
But warming ties between the two nations could spell good news for the Church in the North.
 
“This (year’s) meeting with Kim Jong-un and President Trump (was) huge,” son of the late evangelical leader Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, said.
 
“Christians are going to benefit in North Korea as a result of President Donald Trump,” he added.
 
Some critics saw his remarks as premature and said he may, like Trump, have jumped the gun in assuming ties would develop more easily and rapidly than likely given the North’s history of playing diplomatic poker.
 
The Church has struggled to make inroads in the country lately despite overtures from Rome, but maybe the answer always lay closer to home, with much now expected of its representatives in Seoul.
 
Pope Francis, for example, invited the KCA to send a representative to World Youth Day in 2013 during his first trip to Asia, but North Korea spurned the offer.
 
It is true that both Kim Jong-il and his son, Kim Jong-un, have allowed Vatican officials to visit the country. But this has largely been for the purpose of shaking the Church down for emergency food aid to the famine-stricken country.
 
Yet the Church can draw some hope and inspiration from having a pro-detente, Catholic president now running the show.
 
Moon’s parents were born in Hungnam, in what is now North Korea. They were among 100,000 civilians who fled the North during the 1950 Hungnam Evacuation, one of the US military’s biggest-ever civilian rescue operations.
 
Moon was subsequently born in a refugee camp on Geoje Island in 1953, the year the war ended in a ceasefire.
 
If the thawing of relations continues, he is very well placed to push for increased religious freedom as part of a package of concessions.
 
History suggests South Korean Catholics will be keen to back him. The question now is, will he raise the subject in September? UCAN