Catholicism flourishing in South Korea

Winter Olympics provide 'an extraordinary opportunity' for North and South

Pope Francis rides through Gwanghwamun Square Square in Seoul on Aug. 16, 2014. Photo: Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)
The Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception (also known as the Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. Photo: Nghia Khanh/Shutterstock

With the world’s attention focused on the Korean Peninsula for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Catholic Digest sought the expertise of Victor Gaetan, senior international correspondent at the National Catholic Register, who has reported on the Church in South Korea.

Pope Francis visited South Korea in 2014; St. John Paul II made two trips (1984 and 1989).



Q: What is the state of the Catholic Church in South Korea?

A: The Catholic Church in South Korea is the fastest growing Church in Southeast Asia. Approximately 30 percent of the 52 million population in South Korea, is Christian, and 11 percent is Catholic. Interestingly, some 25 percent of the South Korean parliament happens to be Catholic, and some 35 percent of the military leadership in South Korea happens to be Catholic. And you can see similar trends in the media, the justice system, and among intellectuals who serve in all kinds of positions.

It is an interesting case study, because the Catholic Church in South Korea is a homegrown church. It didn’t come from the outside, via missionaries, as was true in many parts of Asia. The Koreans discovered the Bible, read the Bible and sent a number of people to China in the 17th century to learn firsthand about the Catholic faith. Among the first Catholic Koreans, was a young man ordained in China — St. Andrew Kim, who returned to his homeland in 1845. One year later, he was tortured and beheaded, so he was martyred for the faith, as was his father.

Pope Francis during his 2014 visit to South Korea. Photo: Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)

Q: How has Catholicism been important to democracy in South Korea?

A: The Catholic Church in South Korea has encouraged social justice work. The Church has supported the activist students who demonstrate for human rights, for social justice, for peace, for reconciliation with the North rather than provocation or military action. The Catholic Church has played an enormous role from the late ’60s, through the ’70s and ’80s during the military dictatorship in South Korea. During those years there were many Catholic activists and among them was the current president of South Korea, President Moon Jae-in.

Moon himself was arrested twice for participating in social justice activities and demonstrations and was encouraged by other Catholics as were thousands of students during the ’70s and ’80s until the end of the military dictatorship in 1992. During those decades, Pope John Paul II supported directly through different statements the democratization of South Korea, human rights, and reconciliation and peace with the North.

Q: How does President Moon’s Catholicism affect how he governs South Korea?

A: President Moon’s Catholicism is very important. It is crucial. It’s very interesting to note that the South Korean Catholic Church is the most respected institution in South Korea, according to polls. And that is because of this background of the Church being active and at work regarding human rights, democracy, social justice, peace and reconciliation. President Moon’s Catholicism is definitely helping determine his diplomatic stance. Seeking dialogue, encounter and reconciliation are pillars of his diplomacy and foreign policy, as they also guide the Catholic Church.

President Moon is the third Catholic president of South Korea and he was the chief of staff of another Catholic president, Roh Moo-hyun, another student activist for democracy in his youth who governed from 2003–2008. This administration tried new approaches to North Korea. For example, Moon was involved in the creation of an industrial complex established on the north side of the demilitarized zone where some 50,000 North Korean workers were collaborating with South Korean administrators and engineers. The Kaesong Industrial Region continued for several years successfully.

The concept of putting together such a joint industrial site allowed North Korean workers to be introduced to South Korean methods and to become productive in different industries. The workforce was changed every so many months so there would be another round of North Koreans sent and another round of a few hundred South Koreans. All wages paid to the North Koreans went straight to the government, though. This mingling and communication between the North and the South went on from 2002 to 2016 until it was cancelled by President Park, President Moon’s predecessor, following a North Korean missile test.

Q: Can you describe the state of the Catholic Church in North Korea?

A: As to the North Korean Church, we don’t have official numbers. The numbers that we have are not reliable because they come from the North Korean government, which says 3,000 Catholics are in the country. Whatever it declares to be a Catholic Church is controlled by the state-run Korean Catholic Association, not recognized by the Vatican, and it’s not recognized by the South Korean Catholic Church.

There is an underground church that could include thousands of Catholics praying secretly at home, but the liturgy is totally suppressed, there is not one Catholic priest known to be in the country, and people who are suspected or found to be practicing or in possession of religious materials are punished. Before the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945, over 50,000 Catholics lived in the territory now known as North Korea.

There is a cathedral in the capital of North Korea, Changchung Cathedral, opened by the government in 1988 to replace a cathedral destroyed during the Korean War. The last bishop was imprisoned in 1949 and disappeared. The new cathedral has crosses but no crucifix and is set up like a regular church, but it’s opened only to visitors who ask to be taken, probably as a show to demonstrate that there is such a church. Visiting priests must pay to say Mass in the cathedral, and are not allowed to talk to people who appear in the pews. Some South Korean priests I interviewed suspect the people might even be “extras” brought there by the government.

Q: How are this year’s Olympics unique for North and South Korea?

A: The Olympics represent an extraordinary opportunity, for the North to engage with the South and vice versa. But they are not competing against each other, that’s the interesting part. They are a part of the same team. Before the Olympics opened, a popular singer from the North came to visit potential performance venues in the South and she became an instant star among the South Koreans, who are very eager for reunification according to recent polls.

You put together sports, the one team, the music — including very nostalgic and patriotic songs from before communism — and you begin to unify separated brothers and sisters, as the Korean people are. The shared experience of the Olympics is creating a momentum for reconciliation. As President Moon said, you have to continue this momentum as part of the process of dialogue.

Read Gaetan’s coverage for the National Catholic Register about the Church in South Korea here. 

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