Catholic Church in South Korea after the Korean War
1. Context of the Times
Since the South and North Korea signed the Agreement of Armistice in July 1953 the division of the Korean peninsula had been further reinforced. Both South and North Korea had endeavored to overcome the War damage and consolidate their respective political and social system. In this context the urgent task of the South Korean society was to overcome the War damages while coping with the ever-possible 'threat' of invasion of the North.
Directly after the cease-fire, it was a widely developed idea that the South needed a strong leadership in order to cope with the threat of invasion of the communists and a foreign assistance in order to restore war damage. Consequently, Rhee Syngman's government placed emphasis on anti-communist and pro-American political line and kept continuing to cling tenaciously to power even during the post-war period. In this context his dictatorial regime was strengthened more and more until this illegitimate and dictatorial government collapsed by the April 19th Democratic Revolution in 1960.
A government led by the Democratic Party was formed as a result of the 'April 19th Democratic Revolution' and Chang Myon was elected to the Prime Minister. The new government was given a heavy responsibility to realize the democratization and industrialization of the country. To meet these goals the Democratic Party strived hard. However their efforts failed by the military coup in May 16th, 1961 led by General Park Chung-hee. The social and political situation from the cease-fire in 1953 up to the military coup in 1961 had made indeed a considerable impact on the development of the history of the Church in South Korea.
2. Growth of the Church in South Korea
In this period that South Korea was recovering social stability, the Church in the South gradually restored church facilities destroyed during the Korean War and developed missionary activities. In this context number of Catholic organizations emerged while catholics committed themselves generously to various activities. The Catholic Conference of Korea which was established in 1948 vigorously engaged in the activities with renewed spirit. They created opportunities for new progress both in direct and indirect mission by reinforcing various activities such as education, medical works, publications and social welfare etc.
Also various new religious institutes made inroad into South Korea for mission. Their activities made substantial contribution to the growth and maturity of the local Church. The cease fire was a good opportunity for all the domestic religious institutes to grow and develop fully. The activities of the religious institutes made rapid development in the South Korean society.
In the background of the development of the Church in South Korea in the 1950's, we must note the commitment and dedication of various kinds of apostolic organizations and devotional associations. Among these the Legion of Mary introduced in Korea in 1953 from Ireland was the most typical one. The contribution of the Legion of Mary consisted of the successful inducement of the participation of the faithful in the mission and activity of the Church unlike the existing associations which were limited on their individual devotion. Indeed the Legion of Mary movement made a considerable contribution to the growth of the Church in South Korea and today it has as many as 260,000 active members throughout the country as of 1996. Also the J.O.C., which was introduced in 1957, played a significant role in labor world while the nation moved toward the full industrial development.
During the Korean War the Church in South Korea had developed active relief work for war victims with the support of the humanitarian aid of the Churches abroad and it continued even after the armistice. However the foreign relief gradually diminished, so the local Church had to rely on its own initiatives and efforts. For instance the Church launched the Credit Association in 1952 in an effort to help the faithful to overcome the extreme poverty which was a direct result of the War. It helped effectively to strengthen the faithful's willpower and self-support and gradually developed into a credit organization run by and for ordinary people. Today it has developed into one of the most important banking organizations in South Korea. Besides the Church was interested and actively engaged in the area such as training and vocational schools.
With all these efforts, the Church in South Korea made a remarkable growth. By 1953 the number of the faithful in the South amounted to 170,000 but by 1961 it reached 500,000, showing the increase of 16.5 percent of annual growth. 1958 was a special year because it recorded the increase of 24.18 percent. Among them found the so-called "rice Christians" meaning those who became Catholics because of the influence of the welfare works of the Church. However the phenomenon that is worth noting is that among the new Catholics found a number of intellectuals and middle class people who played a leading role in the society of that time. That was the beginning of the Church in Korea to become a middle class Church. However through this phenomenon the relative importance and role of the Church in Korean society could be enhanced.
In the 1950's, the expansion of the Catholic faith was evident from the fact that the Church was present in all the county seats including isolated islands. Also a noticeable progress was made in the field of education. It was at that time that the Catholic University of Seoul introduced the medical department which had provided important medical manpower to the Korean society. Also the Jesuit-run Sogang University in Seoul and Hyoseong Women's University in Daegu were founded in that period including many other intermediary educational foundations.
3. Catholic Church and Rhee Syngman's Regime
Rhee Syngman, who led the independence movement in America, returned to Korea, his native country, after its independence from the Japanese colonial rule and committed himself to the foundation of the new government. He eventually became the first President of the Republic of Korea. The relationship between the Catholic Church in Korea and President Rhee was relatively smooth because the anti-communist stance of the Church was in accord with his policy. Also Rhee, who did not have a strong political base in South Korea, wanted to get the support of the Catholics. So he did his best to give the Catholics a good impression of him.
However, the relationship between the Church and Rhee began to breakdown by 1952. Rhee's Administration's misrule and dictatorship provoked discontent and hostility of the people and he had to cope with this legitimate resistance. The resistance against him was initiated and led by the Catholic-run "Gyeonghyang Sinmun", a daily newspaper. In 1951, the Prime Minister Chang Myon, a devout Catholic who was backed by Msgr. Paul Rho Gi-nam, Bishop of Seoul, resigned from the office and fully involved himself in the anti-dictatorial movement. Then, Rhee Syngman came to consider the Catholic Church as an enemy and launched a campaign to suppress it. But Chang Myon was elected to the vice-president in 1956 and became the leading figure of the dissident movement This increased the antagonism of the Rhee's Administration against the Church.
The hostility and repression by Rhee and his associates against the Gyeonghyang Sinmun were intensified, and finally suspended its publication. They accused Bishop Rho Gi-nam, the publisher of the Gyonghyang Sinmun, as being "a political bishop" or "a dissident bishop" and started to attack the Church blatantly from October in 1957. Rhee's political persecution became salient to the point that he ordered the nullification of the election of all Catholic candidates at the general election for the National Assembly. Also Catholic public officials were forced to resign their post or downgraded.
In addition to that he even sent the Justice Minister to the Vatican and asked the Church authorities to replace bishop Rho Gi-nam. Consequently, the Vatican sent Cardinal G.P. Agagianiani to Korea to investigate the real situation.
A severe conduct of the Rhee's Administration was a challenge to the Church while the government confronted with the prophetic mission carried out by the Church leaders and Church publications. As the Church was committed fully to fighting against dictatorship and risked suffering and persecution, the social confidence and popularity of the Church were increased even more. That was one of the main reasons for the rapid expansion of the Catholic Church in the second half of the 1950's.
4. Catholic Church and Political Power of the Democratic Party
The relationship of the Rhee's Administration with the Gyeonghyang Sinmun and Chang Myon was regarded as the relationship of the Church and the government. The Church, not denying her awkward relationship and conflict with the government, had to use all means at its disposal to survive under this pressure. Meanwhile, the majority of Catholics supported Chang Myon with affection and zeal.
The struggle of the Gyeonghyang Sinmun and Chang Myon against the dictatorship was regarded as part of the Church's prophetic role. The April 19th Democratic Revolution in 1960 caused the downfall of the Rhee's dictatorial regime. The Church cheered the victory of the people and supported the revolutionary movement against the dictatorship. Catholic students' resistance movements and the priests who were in charge of them were very dedicated in taking care of the victims at their personal risk. Many Catholics followed this initiative and helped those who were injured in the course of the revolutionary struggle. Such participation of Catholics in the democratic movement spread to many parishes and cities including Busan and Masan.
With the victory of the democratic revolution the Constitution was revised and the Cabinet was reshuffled. Also the Gyeonghyang Sinmum was reissued. The Catholic Church which had made its social position clear appealed to the public to support Catholic candidates at the general election. As a result the Democratic Party headed by Chang Myon won in the election and he became the Prime Minister according to the revised Constitution. The Church's support for Chang Myon was almost exclusive.
Under the Chang's Administration, the Church tried to reflect on the mutual relationship between "religion and politics" and the duty of the Catholics as citizens. Consequently the Church clearly understood that the separation of Church and State does not mean the separation of the faithful and the state. Then the Church emphasized on the duty of the faithful to express their political opinions according to the Church's social teaching and recommended the faithful and clergy to make a positive social participation. In this context, the Church made a significant contribution to raising the social consciousness of the Korean faithful in the beginning of the 1960's. The Church encouraged the faithful to live as active elements of history both as Catholics and as Korean citizens.
Since the armistice of the Korean War the Church has made rapid progress. However right after the armistice the Church was under the rigid control of the Rhee's Administration. The repressive control of Rhee over the Church was directly connected to Chang Myon, head of the opposition party. Rhee's regime was overthrown by the rise of the Democratic Party.
In a sense, under the government led by the Democratic Party, the Church enjoyed opportunity of making mature approach to problems relating the future of the Korean people with a broader perspective. The historical experience of the Church at that time reflected the social teaching of the Church. Along with the "memory of blood" of the persecution era, the "memory of social participation" of that particular time has become an important traditional value in the history of the Catholic Church in Korea.