Catholicism's Role in the Democratization of Korea

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
Members of Christian rights group "Release International" take part in a protest outside the North Korean embassy in west London, Jan. 20, 2012, calling for personal and religious freedom in North Korea.

Interest has been growing recently in South Korea toward Catholicism with reports that Pope Francis will be visiting Seoul in August this year and that Archbishop Yeom Soo-jung has been appointed the country’s new cardinal.

Today, only 10 percent of South Koreans are Catholic believers. Nonetheless, Catholics have had a significant political, social ,and cultural impact on the country.

North Koreans have long been taught that Catholicism and all other religions are ideological “opium” and inherently anti-socialist and North Korea’s propagandists commonly argue that religion is an ideological tool used by the exploiting class for evil purposes.

An objective view of religion, however, quickly demonstrates that such arguments are baseless.

I personally have no religion, and hold a rather critical view of Catholicism and all other religions. That being said, though, I do not deny that religion can play a very important role in people’s lives.

Links to foreign culture

A quick glance over Korea’s history shows that interest in Catholicism among Koreans has been directly linked with their interest in foreign culture and modern scientific technology. Catholicism began to spread in Korea from the late 18th century during the Chosun era.

People interested in Catholicism at the time were mostly those who read religious texts like the Bible, along with books concerning physics, geography, and the outside world. Liberal-minded members of the elite class, the yangban, and others made up a large majority of Catholic believers during this period.

North Koreans are largely unaware of this, but most founders of North Korea’s communist movement like Kim Il Sung were the sons and daughters of Protestant or Catholic believers.

Of course, there were many Protestant and Catholic believers in Korea’s Independence Movement as well. For example, An Jung Geun, a famous independence fighter, was a Catholic.

While there were many believers of “Donghak” (Eastern Learning) among those who led the uprising on March 3, 1919, many of them were also Catholics or Protestants.

Catholics and Protestants largely disappeared in North Korea after a Soviet-style authoritarian government took power in the country.

The North Korean government claims that there are Catholic believers living in the country and that a Catholic church has been in Pyongyang since the 1980s, but it is a well-known fact that the Catholic mass held there is nothing more than a political stunt.

Threat to power?

The North Korean government suppresses Catholicism because it threatens the political monopoly over the country by the Juche (Self-Reliant) Ideology. Moreover, South Korean history has shown that religious forces are a key element in democratization.

The North Korean media says that Catholicism and other religions are anti-socialist, but during the military rule period in South Korea, Catholics helped the democracy and labor movements.

There were many cases where striking laborers and demonstrators hid in churches to avoid being caught by the police. North Koreans may have a hard time believing this, but the South Korean police many times knew these strikers and demonstrators had hidden in a church but could not enter the premises to arrest them.

Kim Sou-hwan, the Catholic cardinal during the period, was an ardent supporter of the democracy movement.

While I do not have a religion, I nonetheless have little choice but to praise Catholics in South Korea for their positive historical impact on the country’s history.

Translated by Robert Lauler.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.

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