Age of New Discovery
1. Context of the Times
Korea had maintained diplomatic relations with China and Japan before the end of the 14th century when the Joseon Dynasty was founded. However diplomatic relations at that time were rather conventional and differed in practice from modern conventions.
In 1876 Korea began to have modern-style diplomatic relations with foreign countries. A Treaty of Commerce and Amity with Japan was signed as well as Treaties with the United States of America, Britain, Germany, Russia and France. This period is called the "Open Door Policy Era" while the period from 1876 to the fall of Joseon Dynasty in 1910 is called the "Open Port Policy Era" in Korean history.
Korea furthered its modernization during the?Open Port Policy Era.? In the process, some traditional Confucian scholars stood in strong opposition to the innovations. However, the course of history was oriented toward a new world and many Korean intellectuals looked to the Western system and civilization as the model of modernization. From then, the superior manner with which Korean people had considered the Western civilization as barbarous or backward was changed gradually. As a result, the negative attitude towards Catholicism as a Western religion altered and foreign missionaries were accepted. The Church in Korea attempted to use this momentum to obtain the freedom of religion.
2. Freedom of Religion
The most urgent task presented to the Catholic Church in the "Open Port Policy Era?was to ensure the freedom of religion. In fact the greatest concern of the Catholic Church since it was introduced to Korea in 1784, has been the freedom to worship God in peace without threat. However, for more than one hundred years this freedom was denied and the faithful endured hard persecutions. The martyrdom of the faithful was a crying expression of their desire for the freedom of religion and to worship God freely. When the freedom of religion finally was declared, it was seen as a victory of the sacrifices and martyrdom of those believers.
Official effort to obtain the freedom of religion begun after the Open Port Policy Era and it finally bore fruit. The process can be viewed in two steps: First step was tacit consent for religious practice by the government. In fact, the freedom of religion was virtually granted under the guise of toleration from 1882. Of course, laws banning the Catholic faith still existed and the Confucian scholars‘ movement against Catholicism continued. However, the government, though it was aware of the existence of the Catholic Church and the activity of missionaries, did not persecute it any further.
The Church has taken advantage of this situation to found schools in Seoul to educate the faithful and other students as well. However, such open activity was possible only with the permission of the government. Therefore the year of 1882 is considered as the start of tolerance for the Catholic Church by the government.
On the other hand, Korea concluded a Treaty of Commerce and Amity with France in 1886. As a result, French people‘s activity in Korea was legally guaranteed. So, French missionaries could make trips freely around the country with a visa though domestic laws still banned the Catholic faith. The Korean government tolerated the activity of French missionaries and the practice of faith by Catholic believers.
After the period of tolerance, the activity of the Catholic Church was officially authorized by the Korean government in 1895. Soon the government issued a decree of the amnesty for some of the upper class believers who died as martyrs in 1866. The Emperor Gojong allowed Bishop Mutel, the Vicar Apostolic of Korea, an audience with him and expressed his opinion with regard to the freedom of religion and his regret over the persecution of the Catholic Church. With this gesture of the Emperor, the Korean government officially admitted the freedom of religion. In 1899, the Korean government and Bishop Mutel signed the Treaty of Religion and State. This treaty was further complemented by the Mission Treaty of 1904.
The Open Port Policy, which was a response of the times, contributed much to obtaining the official authorization for the freedom of religion for the Catholics. However, it was the result of the persistent effort of the faithful and missionaries prior to the Open Port Policy Era. Along with the declaration of freedom of religion, the restriction of practice on Buddhism was also lifted and the Protestant Church could also commit itself fully to its mission work. All things considered, the movement for the freedom of religion that was carried out by the Catholics made a significant contribution to promote the civil rights of Korean people.
3. Life of the Faithful in the Open Port Policy Era
The Catholics of the Open Port Policy Era focused their efforts on obtaining the freedom of religion while continuing their mission work. As a result, the number of the believers increased from 13,625 in 1885 to 73,517 in 1910 or 7 percent of annual increase. Under the circumstance, the Church began to establish parishes in Seoul and major cities from 1882 and appointed missionaries to administer them. From 1885, they founded seminaries to train Korean priests and begun vigorous research into the lives of the Korean martyrs to establish the tradition of martyrdom of the Church in Korea.
Among the new Catholics were some remarkable intellectuals who sincerely sought the modernization of Korea. However the majority of new believers were poor farmers and some of them came to the Church with expectations of escaping from the exploitation of corrupt officials. Some believers who had gone into hiding during the persecution tried to recover their social positions and wealth they had lost during persecutions. For this reason the believers of that time often clashed with functionaries and the authorities. The government called this process 'gyoan' by which the Catholics could expand their freedom of religion and promote their social position. During the 'gyoan' the missionaries and government officials found themselves in conflicts.
Protestant missionaries begun to arrive in Korea from 1884. They developed a dynamic mission from as early as 1895 and the number of adherents in 1907 surpassed the number of Catholics who had more than a hundred year of history behind them. Because of their participation in education and medical services the Protestant Churches could success in spite of short history in Korea. Also, the Protestant Church had much greater human and material resources for their mission than the French missionaries on the Catholic side. The Catholics began to argue with the Protestants on matters of doctrine and matters related to church architecture. From that time relations between the Catholic and Protestant Churches went for the worse.