Over the past century, the world has been witness to the growth of Christianity throughout Western and non-Western nations alike. However, few countries can rival the expansion rate demonstrated by South Korea during the last several decades. Some within the Christian church would herald the spread of the Christian faith in Korea as a remarkable achievement. Yet, one must not forget to examine the full-scope of effects that Christianity has had on the native way of life on the Korean peninsula.
Religious tradition in Korea had been dominated by Buddhism and Confucianism; but, by the end of the 1800's, the number of Catholic followers began to escalate. The late 1800's through the early 1900's was a period of great political chaos with the Choson government, the last ruling Korean dynasty, falling under the power of Japanese colonization. The government, growing uneasy with the advance of Western influence over Asia, began to treat missionaries within their country with hostility.
One major source of conflict was the important long-standing tradition in Korea of paying homage to ancestors during the Dan-o festival. This practice of expression of ancestral respect had been an extremely valued practice in Confucian society. The Catholic church declared this custom to be paganism and converts were banned from taking part in the ceremony. The stand-off between the Confucian Choson dynasty and the newly emerging Korean Catholic Church served to escalate the fear of cultural disintegration due to Western influences.
In 1910, the Japanese annexed Korea and implemented a harsh cultural policy with the intent of wiping out the Korean sense of identity. Publication of Christian writings into Korea's native language, Hangul, allowed the people another means of keeping their language and writings alive. This brought together the mission of restoring the Korean government and spreading Christianity. By combining these two goals, the missionaries were able to manipulate the explosive anger of the Korean people against the Japanese for their own gains.
The Christian church experienced tremendous growth, the results of which are evident in contemporary Korean society. Korea, in the span of a few short decades, has become the home to the world's largest Christian church. The Yoido Full Gospel Church, led by David Yonggi Cho, has approximately 750,000 members. David Yonggi Cho is a popular speaker among many Christian groups in the United States.
In Seoul and its surrounding cities, Yoido Full Gospel Church has the ability to wield tremendous political power, due to the sheer number of its followers. In recent local government elections, many candidates chose to campaign on platforms emphasizing their relationship to various religious organizations in Korea. With new parties moving into the government, many special-interest groups are now gaining access to the channels within the developing bureaucracy. The Christians have proven themselves to be well-positioned political figures capable of marshaling their followers on any issue they believe action is needed.
Seoul has also been the playground of the well-known Unification Church led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. With membership circling the globe, a fervently faithful following, and a seemingly unending financial supply, the Unification Church has been very forward in its attempts to influence the politics of the emerging international system, both in its home country and abroad.
In the United States, the Unification Church has been a significant contributor to Radical Right. Using its extensive treasury and its establishments in all fifty states, the Unification Church has aided presidential, congressional, and local campaigns since the Nixon-era. In return, many of the Moon-supported politicians began to push for overseas interests that have proven to be very profitable for corporations affiliated with the Unification Church. Additionally, the Unification Church has shown itself to be a strong lobbyist in favor of a continued U.S. military presence in South Korea.
In the years following the Japanese occupation, Korea found itself in the unfortunate position of relying upon the U.S. and other countries for much needed foreign aid. Economic growth plans called for the development of Korea as a primarily exporting nation.Consequently, Korea's relationship with the U.S. became very important as investment capital and open exportation laws with the U.S. became Korean priorities. By increasing its influence with the United States government, the Unification Church has been able to meet many of its own objectives, as well as those of its allies.
Many churches in Korea are patterning themselves after the Unification Church and the Yoido Full Gospel Church in their efforts to reach a wider audience. The spread of Christianity in Korea has begun to have its effects in the international political sphere. The effect of religion on government has demonstrated itself to be dangerous in Korea where political rifts caused by religion are becoming more commonplace. Christianity has begun to destroy the Confucian cultural foundation upon which Korea was built by threatening the freedom of individuals who wish to practice traditional Asian religions.
Ju-lan Kim, who recently visited Korea, attends Simon's Rock College of Bard and interns with IFAS.