Tale of Two Koreas

Korea is much in the news these days, and disturbingly so. What is the status of the Church there? 

First, it is important to clarify which part of Korea is being discussed. Japan invaded and occupied Korea during World War II. The Japanese surrender in August 1945 ended the war. The victorious allies agreed to, or allowed to happen, a division of the Korean peninsula. The southern part became the Republic of Korea, most often called South Korea, and the northern part became the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, or North Korea. South Korea was to be built on democratic ideals. North Korea was communist. 

In 1950, the North Korean army invaded South Korea. The United Nations denounced the invasion, and U.N. members sent forces to support South Korea and repel the invasion. Most prominent among these members was the United States. President Harry S. Truman reasoned that if this invasion were permitted, then no country would be safe from aggression. 

Thousands upon thousands fought and died. In 1953, the war stopped. No peace treaty was signed, however. Tensions remain. 

Not everything has been rosy in South Korea. It has had its share of dictatorships, but nothing compared with the outrages in North Korea in terms of human rights and personal freedom. Barring none, North Korea is the center of governmental control and tyranny. 

For a while now, South Korea has experienced genuine democracy, and it has thrived. 

Catholicism came late to the Korean peninsula. The first missionary arrived in 1784. By 1857, 15,000 Koreans were said to be Catholics. A series of persecutions in the 19th century terribly affected Catholic life, but in 1883 freedom of religion became a reality. Times were bad, of course, under the Japanese occupation, especially for missionaries from countries at war with Japan. Seminaries were closed, as were many parishes and Catholic schools. 

After the war, Catholicism has not only survived, but it has increased both in its number of believers and its services. American missionaries have been conspicuous in this growth. Their dedication and productivity are reasons for American Catholics to be proud. 

Growth, of course, has been in free South Korea. Communist North Korea systematically has extinguished not only Catholicism in the sense of any public expression but religion in general. Woe to anyone in North Korea who openly professes any religion. 

The last Catholic bishop of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, disappeared 50 years ago. It takes no Albert Einstein to imagine what happened to him. Under these circumstances of repression, no statistics exist for the Church in the North. 

In South Korea, Catholics account for 10 percent of the population and are prominent in government and business. Of South Korea’s 11 presidents since 1945, six have been Christians, five Protestants and one Roman Catholic. (The current president professes no religion.) 

Three archdioceses and 10 dioceses serve the faithful, with 4,000 priests and 10,000 women religious. The ideal for the Church is for natives to compose and to lead the Church. This goal has been reached in South Korea. Many priests and nuns in South Korea are native Koreans, including all the archbishops and bishops. 

Of the three most recent archbishops of Seoul, the South Korean capital and largest diocese in the country, two have been cardinals, both born and reared in Korea. South Korea maintains full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. An apostolic nuncio resides in Seoul. 

South Korea is a bright spot on the Catholic map. North Korea tragically is totally dark. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.

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