Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Korea Yesterday and Today: Martyrs, Heroes, and Challenges

On this feast day of the 103 Korean Martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1984, I want to draw attention to the beautiful ancient land of Korea (and also refer to my column in Magnificat for the month of October 2022). Today is an important day for the Korean Catholic Church, which has a significant and growing presence in Korean society today (in South Korea, Catholics make up 11% of the population).

The Korean peninsula is homeland to a great distinguished people with a united history and culture for more than a millennium. It was Koreans themselves who first acquired the Chinese writings of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, studied them on their own, and then approached priests in Beijing in 1784 and asked to be baptized. These lay people – led by Blessed Paul Yun Ji-chung – began sharing the Gospel with others in Korea, so that by the time the first Catholic priest arrived from Beijing a few years later, there were already 4,000 converts! The new church endured a series of persecutions beginning in 1803, in which thousands of Catholics gave their lives for their faith.

Two groups of Korean martyrs have been documented by name and raised to the honors of the altar. Today we celebrate the group of 103 martyrs from the anti-Catholic persecutions of the middle of the 19th century, including the first native Korean Catholic priest, Saint Andrew Kim Taegon, and a leading lay person, Saint Paul Chong Ha-sang (who was himself the son of one of the original lay Catholics who were martyred in the previous generation). There is also a second group that represents Korea's earliest Christian community: they are 124 martyrs (including Blessed Paul Yun Ji-chung, mentioned above, and Blessed Augustine Jeong Yak-jong, the father of Saint Paul Chong), who were beatified by Pope Francis in 2014.

Korea continues to endure the consequences of their national tragedy in the 20th century, which began with the Japanese conquest and colonization in 1910. On August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union entered the Pacific Theater of World War II with a massive invasion of Manchuria. One and a half million Soviet troops swept down from Siberia into Japanese held territories before the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. They entered the northern regions of the Korean peninsula and occupied the area after Japan's surrender, and after agreeing with the United States to "divide" the administration of newly liberated Korea at the 38th parallel (latitude, north of the equator).

There is more about modern Korean history in the article below. While present-day "North Korea" has no Catholic population, the Church has grown remarkably in "South Korea," gaining many contemporary converts who have played important roles in the complex public life in the South. I have written about the conversion of South Korea's first Catholic President, whose full name was Thomas More Kim Dae-jung. The whole story of "D. J. Kim" is a long one, and not lacking in heroism and inspiration in itself.

As always, I only tell the beginning of the story here. During and after my work on this article, I read the entire 1000+ page memoir of D.J. Kim (who died in 2008), which was recently translated with the title Conscience in Action. It is very long, and requires some understanding of the complex history of post-war South Korea. It's not the first book I would recommend to someone who is not already familiar with Korea, its history, and its recent crises. For me, however, reading five years into my still-immersive East Asian Studies Project, D.J. Kim's memoir was a fascinating resource, shedding much light on the significance of Korea today, and allowing me to hear in his own words the dramatic story of the man who has been called "the Asian Nelson Mandela," who was a devout Catholic democratic political activist, prisoner under a repressive South Korean dictatorship, freely elected President at the age of 75, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to draw North Korea into a constructive relationship through prudent and practical interactions. He cannot be blamed for the fact that his efforts did not bear immediate enduring fruit.

Korea is historically, ethnically, and linguistically one country, one people. The "demilitarized zone" (DMZ) at more-or-less the 38th parallel remains like a kind of 21st century "Berlin Wall." North of it are Koreans who suffer in poverty under the domination of a reckless totalitarian State, born from Soviet Communism and now a criminal, bizarre, militarized regime with increasingly dangerous nuclear weapons and enigmatic intentions. In the South, Koreans live with democratic institutions and political freedoms, great wealth, information technology and their own multimedia "brand" of pop culture that is influencing the whole world, but also with many facets of a sterile secularism learned from the West.

Korea is a dramatic and important place, sure to be prominent in the future of the 21st century. But more on that another time. Here below is the article on Kim Dae-jung appearing in October 2022 Magnificat.