9 Things You Should Know About Christianity in Korea

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in met in a historic summit to discuss peace between the two nations. The meeting has inspired cautious hope the end of the civil war is near and that religious freedom will once again flourish on the peninsula. Here are nine things you should know about Christianity in the divided land of Korea.

1. Christian teachings were first brought to Korea in 1603. The faith was brought not by foreign missionaries, but by Korean diplomats who came in contact with Roman Catholicism in Japan and Manchuria. In 1758, King Yeongjo of Joseon officially outlawed Catholicism as an “evil practice,” and a mass persecution of Korean Catholics was ordered by queen great-grandmother Queen Jeongsun in 1801.

2. In 1884, Dr. Horace Allen, a medical missionary under the American Presbyterian Board, became the first resident Protestant missionary in Korea. Three months after his arrival, Allen was called on to treat Min Yong-ik, a high-ranking official and cousin of the Empress. The king was so grateful to Allen that he appointed the doctor as physician to the royal court and allowed him to open a hospital. The king also gave the first official approval by the Korean government for missionary work in the country.

3. In 1900, only 1 percent of the country’s population was Christian. But that began to change after the “Pyongyang Revival” or “Korean Pentecost” in 1907, the first important religious movement for Korean Protestant Christianity. As Kirsteen Kim, professor of theology and world Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary, says, “The revival had lasting effects on Korean Christianity and on Korea. Indigenous Christian rituals such as sagyeonhoe (Bible study and the Bible-examining meetings), saebyoek gido (dawn prayer meetings), and tongseong gido (collective audible prayer) were formulated as part of Protestant practice. Korean Christian leaders led nationwide educational movements with the vision of making Korea a Christian nation.” The success of Christianity in the city of Pyongyang led to it being called the “Jerusalem of the East” in the missionary community.

4. In the early 1900s, the Presbyterian mission in Pyongyang developed a number of influential institutions, including Union Christian Hospital, Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Union Christian College, the first four-year college in Korea. Forty universities and 293 schools were started by Christians, including three of the top five universities in the country. Kim Hyong Jik, father of the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, was a Presbyterian and a student at the Sungshil Academy as a teenager in the 1910s and attended school on the Union Christian College campus.

5. According to Pew Research, as of 2012 South Korea had low levels of government restrictions on religion and social hostilities toward or among religious groups. Religious restrictions in South Korea are lower than in the United States, and significantly lower than the median level of religious restrictions in the Asia-Pacific region.

6. Almost one-third (29 percent) of South Koreans are Christian, while a plurality of South Koreans have no religious affiliation (46 percent) and just over one-in-five are Buddhists (23 percent). The majority of Christians in South Korea belong to Protestant denominations and only about one-quarter is Catholic. (In comparison, almost three-fourths (71 percent) of Korean Americans are Christian, including 61 percent who are Protestant and 10 percent who are Catholic.)

7. Despite having a relatively small population, South Korea is second to only the United States in the number of missionaries it sends across the globe. (In comparison to the United States, South Korea has a population—59 million—equal to California and Florida.) According to the Korean World Mission Association, in 2016 there were more than 27,000 Korean missionaries ministering all over the world. More than half of Korean missionaries serve in Northeast Asia, the United States, the Philippines, Japan, India, Thailand, Southeast Asia, Cambodia, and Russia. “Koreans are natural evangelists,” says Samuel Moffett, professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. “They love to tell the good news.”

8. The United Nations estimates that less than 1 percent of the 25 million people in North Korea are Christian. The North Korean regime reviles Christianity and considers it the biggest threat among religions, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says, because it associates that faith with the West, particularly the United States. The regime actively tries to identify and search out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members, even if they are not similarly religious.

9. The USCIRF notes that tens of thousands of prisoners facing hard labor or execution are Christians from underground churches or who practice in secret. In December 2017, the War Crimes Committee of the International Bar Association issued a report about crimes against humanity in North Korea’s political prisons. The report noted that “Christians are heavily persecuted and receive especially harsh treatment in prison camps”; prisoners are “tortured and killed on account of their religious affiliation” or for participating in Christian meetings, reading the Bible, or encountering Christianity outside North Korea; and “Christians (or those suspected of being Christians) [are] incarcerated in specific zones within the prison camp at which prisoners were subjected to more severe deprivation.”

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