Establishment of a Divided Era and the Church
1. Context of the Times
When World War II ended the world entered into the Cold War era. The confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union made a critical impact on the Korean peninsula. During the confrontation between the two superpowers the Korean peninsula became a showdown area of the Cold War world and the 38th parallel became the dividing line between the opposite camps of communism and capitalism.
Many patriots were involved in the movement for independence and nationalism, and fought hard in order to prevent the division of the Korean Peninsula. However, all their efforts ended in vain. As a result of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and also because of some politicians who took advantage of the Cold War situation. Finally, South and North Korea came to establish separated government in their respective territories in 1948. The future war was already predicted. Indeed, the Korean War broke out in 1950 and until the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, the Church had to undergo a terrible upheaval.
From 1948 to 1953 it was a period of settlement of the Cold War system on the Korean peninsula. During this particular period, the Church's attitude was that of someone who is sitting by and watching with anti-communist ideology while the divided governments were established in the country. That can be said to be one of the characteristics of the Catholic Church in Korea at that time.
2. Establishment of Separate Governments and the Church in South Korea
The government of the Republic of Korea was established on August 15, 1948 in the South, while the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was formed in the North on September 9 of the same year. Democratic powers in the South were furiously opposed to establishing an independent government in the South and the leftist camp joined them. A campaign was launched to boycott the general election to stop the establishment of an independent government in the South and to urge a need of unified government. Meantime the rightist camp headed by Rhee Syngman was pushing hard to hold a general election to establish a free democratic nation in the South.
On the other hand, the Church in South Korea worried seriously about the risk that the South could become a communist nation, because the documents from the Holy See warned the faithful of danger of communism. Moreover, the fact that Catholic Churches in Eastern European countries were persecuted by communism made the Korean Catholics more fearful. South Korean Catholics realized the danger of communism approaching when they saw multitudes of Catholic refugees of the North who came to the South escaping from the communist regime. In this particular context, the Church in the South made clear its anti-communist position. Consequently, anti-communist ideology was advocated widely in Catholic media and pulpits.
The Catholic Church in the South never took any official position against the establishment of an independent government in the South which brought the division of the country. The Catholic media rather clearly expressed its support for the independent government seeking freedom of religion at least in the South. The Church in the South encouraged the faithful to participate actively in the general election and the Catholic media tried to stress on the meaning and importance of free election advising them to choose their representatives. Also it tried to promote the participation of the Catholics in politics. At that time, Chang Myon, a devout Catholic, backed by the Catholics, went into politics and grew into a matured competent politician. Politicians of the rightist camp, including Rhee Syngman showed a friendly feelings for the Catholic Church. In such a climate, quite a number of Catholics participated in the establishment of the nation by committing themselves to the politics. The National Constitution made by those people guaranteed the freedom of religion and the government regarded religion activities kindly.
3. Church in North Korea
In North Korea, the Council of the People, which became the foundation of the North Korean government, was formed by that time. Soon after the South Korean government was declared, the People's Republic was born in North Korea. The communists in the North pretended to claim a unified government, but in fact, they were seeking for an independent government under the communist system.
The situation of the North Korean Catholics was quite different from that of their South Korean counterparts. Most of them were under repression since the national liberation in 1945 and were very much against the communist regime. At that time, the Joseon Democratic Party was working as a national party and it carried out activities against the Joseon Workers' Party which was the Communist Party. In this context, some prominent North Korean Catholics joined the Joseon Democratic Party. However, during the establishment of the people's government, those of nationalistic tendencies were gradually excluded from the political realm and Catholics were not given any political opportunities.
This situation of the Catholic Church in the South and the North does not reflect the official position of the Church as a whole. However, the Churches of the South and the North were treated quite differently by their newly formed governments. While the South Korean government considered the Catholic Church as a supportive power and backed their activities discreetly, the North Korean government defined religion as the opium of the people and repressed it. Catholics who refused to join the Korean Christian Association initiated by pro-communist people were considered as impure and dangerous elements. Immediately after the establishment of the government of the People's Republic, controls and restrictions upon the Catholic Church were intensified.
4. Korean War and the Church
The Korean War, which started on June 25, 1950, caused terrible damage to the Catholic Church in South Korea. Clergy and laity in leading position in the Church who remained in the territory occupied by the North Korean Army were captured. Some of them were put to death and Church buildings were destroyed. The number of priests and religious men and women both Korean and foreign who were captured by the communists amounted to 150 including five bishops. Most of them were killed and that was a serious loss for the Catholic Church. Activities that the Church was engaged in since the national independence were seriously affected by the War. Schools and publications which were run by the Catholic Church lost their normal function. The tragedy was that many Catholics felt being justified for their hatred and enmity against the communists who triggered the War.
Also the Church in North Korea was seriously affected by the War. Even before the War, the Ordinaries of the Apostolic Vicariate of Pyongyang and Abbacy Nullius of Dokwon were captured by the communists in 1949 and imprisoned. Later on the Apostolic Vicar of Pyongyang, the Most Rev. Hong Yeong-ho, disappeared and the Most Rev. Sauer, O.S.B., who was the superior of the Dokwon Benedictines, died in prison. Just before the Korean War broke in 1950, most of the priests, who were in North Korea and active in mission, were captured or killed or disappeared. The Dokwon Benedictines were asked to close their convent in 1949 and the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help had the same fate in 1950. During the War most of the Church buildings in North Korea were completely destroyed. No priests were left and the Catholics suffered very much.
On the other hand, the Church in South Korea survived and continued her mission. When North Korea was retaken by the ROK and UN Army, the southern Catholics took initiatives to restore the Church in the North. However, very soon, their efforts came to nothing because the war situation was reversed. Then the Church in the South continued to help the northern Catholics by taking care of refugees and by being involved in the pastoral care of the military. Military chaplains of the US Army took the responsibility of ministering to the POWs of the communist Army. The Church tried diligently to overcome the damage caused by the War and to carry out her missionary task with courage.
5. Settlement of McCarthyism and the Anti-Communist Movement
During the Korean War a great number of Catholics were engaged in the anti-communist struggle. Some of the Korean Catholics even attempted to take effective action against communism by organizing Catholic volunteers' army. Most of the faithful believed that fighting against communists was a meaningful action for the Catholics. Some went to the front ready to die as martyr. This attitude of the Catholics was deeply influenced by the anti-communist ideology that the Catholic Church stressed during the first half of the 20th century.
On the other hand, anti-communist feelings were wide-spread in South Korean society because it was believed that the Korean War was caused by a preemptive strike from the North. The Catholic Church and the faithful were no exception. They were part of this trend directly and indirectly. Their own experiences of the War joined the negative teaching of the Church against communism. Some of the Church leaders even said that the Korean War was a holy war against the atheism of the modern era, and the communism was an incarnation of the devil. People were ready to offer their lives for their country in martyrs' spirit. In such a climate the Catholic Church in South Korea continued to pursue McCarthyism, the radical anti-communism, and it has lasted partly to this day.
In the course of deepening of the Cold War era between East and West after the World War II, Korea found itself with two governments of different ideology. It became a crossroad where the East and West camps met and had to suffer conflict and war. In the process of the establishment of the two governments, the Church in North Korea suffered difficulties and upheaval while the Catholics in the South were continually on the alert against communism and wanted a non-communist government for they were aware of the reality of the Church in the North under the communist regime. Consequently the Catholic Church in the South supported a separate government from the North. In doing so, the Church leaders of South Korea overlooked the importance of building a unified nation. The Catholics, indeed, had no opportunity to learn about national causes though they lived in this important era.
Very soon after the settlement of the separate government in the South and the North, the Korean War broke out. During the Korean War, the Catholic Church in North Korea was destroyed, while that of the South survived and overcame the situation though it was seriously affected by the War. It was not only the Church that suffered from War damages, but all Koreans. The McCarthyism was widely prevalent in Korean society and the Church was very much influenced by it. The mentality of the Church leaders and of the faithful was under the domination of anti-communist ideology not only during the War, but for quite a long time afterwards. This anti-communist mentality handicapped them in their work for the authentic evangelization of the country and the world, and for the promotion of the dignity of human person.
Some Korean Catholics today ask the question as to whether the attitude of the Church during the period of the establishment of the divided government and the Korean War was in accordance with the teaching of the Gospel. The Church in Korea of today, based on this historical experience and her own self-examination, is trying to strengthen her spirit according to the gospel and to cultivate an attitude of true service for humanity and the Kingdom of God.