TIME South Korea

South Korea Dismantles ‘Propaganda’ Christmas Tree Tower

A giant steel Christmas tree lit up at the western mountain peak known as Aegibong in Gimpo, South Korea on Dec. 21, 2010.
A giant steel Christmas tree lit up at the western mountain peak known as Aegibong in Gimpo, South Korea on Dec. 21, 2010. Lee Jin-man—AP

North Korea, which is officially atheist, had long seen the tower as religious propaganda

A South Korean Christmas tree tower that shone near the border of North Korea has been taken down, about a week after officials from the two countries convened for the first time since 2007.

The tower, which stood approximately 2 miles from the North Korean line, was first mounted in 1971, the BBC reports. The North Korean government, which is officially atheist, had long seen the tree as religious propaganda, because South Koreans often lit the tree up during the Christmas season and mounted a cross at its peak.

South Korea stopped lighting the tower in 2004 as relations between the North and South improved, the Guardian reports. In 2010 and 2012, however Christian groups again lit the tree tower in the wake of attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.

South Korean officials, however, said the tree was not taken down to reconcile differences between North and South Korea, but rather as a precaution because it could collapse.

[BBC]

TIME Bizarre

These Very Weird Portraits Are Actually Alive

Artist Seung-Hwan Oh allows mold to grow on his negatives, distorting the images.

Seung-Hwan Oh is truly dedicated to his photo project, “Impermanence.” To produce his unique portraits, the photographer covers the positive film in light-sensitive emulsion-consuming microbes before immersing them in water. Over the course of months or years the silver halides destabilize and the resulting mold obscures the portraits. For Seung-Hwan, “this creates an aesthetic of entangled creation and destruction that inevitably is ephemeral.”

Seung-Hwan has been working on Impermanence for four years but only has 15 final images to show for his hard work. He is highly selective, and there is a very low probability the mold grows in the way in which he would like. He uses only one out of every 500 pictures he takes.

Impermanence began in 2010 when Seung-Hwan learned about how fungus threatens to destroy historical film archives. For him, he uses the reaction to “. . . deliver the idea of impermanence of matter applying this natural disaster into my work.” Impermanence is an ongoing project, and can be viewed in full on his site.

TIME South Korea

South Korea Must End the ‘Rampant Abuse’ of Migrant Farm Workers, Says Amnesty

Rice Harvest In South Korea Ahead Of Import And Export Price Indices
A South Korean farmer is silhouetted as he sits on a sack of rice on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. SeongJoon Cho—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Far from the glitz and glamour of Seoul, a migrant underclass endures horrific abuse

South Korea’s farming industry is rife with exploitation of migrant labor, according to a report by Amnesty International released Monday, which alleges violence, squalid housing, excessive working hours, no regular rest days and mandatory unpaid overtime.

Moreover, the rights group says that the Seoul government is directly complicit in ongoing abuses through its Employment Permit System (EPS), which involves some 20,000 migrant agricultural workers from poorer nations such as Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country,” said Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific migrant-rights researcher at Amnesty International, in a statement, decrying a “shameful system that allows trafficking for exploitation and forced labor to flourish.”

Many migrant laborers build up enormous debts equivalent to two years’ salary in order to be included in the EPS scheme, according to Amnesty’s Bitter Harvest report, which is based on dozens of interviews with migrant workers in 10 different locations across South Korea.

While EPS employers have the right to sack migrants without justification, those employed under the scheme have no right to quit or change jobs without a release form, leaving gaping avenues for exploitation. Migrants who quit without permission are labeled “runaways” and are liable for arrest and summary deportation.

“My boss told me that he will never release me and will use me for three years and not allow me to extend my contract,” a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman, who claimed not to have been paid by her employer, told Amnesty.

Other migrants told of physical abuse. One Cambodian worker described being set upon after he sat down in a field due to a sore back. “The manager became furious and grabbed me by the collar,” he said. “The manager’s younger brother held me by the neck while the manager beat me.”

Many migrants spoke of only being paid for days worked during harvest-time despite signing three-year contracts, leaving them destitute and unable to find alternative employment during the harsh winters.

Amnesty International has urged the South Korean government to ensure reasonable work conditions and allow EPS workers to take up alternative employment while complaints are being investigated, among other reforms.

“If South Koreans were trapped in a similar cycle of abuse, there would rightly be outrage,” adds Muico.

TIME South Korea

South Korean Ferry Captain Says He Was ‘Confused’ During Sewol‘s Fatal Sinking

Lee Joon-seok
Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol, arrives at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea, on June 10, 2014 Hyung Min-woo—AP

Captain Lee Joon-seok is on trial for negligent homicide

The captain of the ill-fated South Korean ferry that capsized in April killing more than 300 people told a courtroom this week he was “confused and not in his normal state of mind” when the accident occurred.

Lee Joon-seok made the claim repeatedly during his trial in the South Korean city of Gwangju, where he is on trial and charged with negligent homicide, reports the BBC.

Lee says he ordered the vessel to be abandoned but his command was not followed by crew members; however, prosecutors claim this contradicts an earlier statement the captain made to police, the BBC says.

Most of the passengers killed when Sewol capsized, en route to the resort island of Jeju in April 16, were high school students participating in a field trip. The public and politicians alike have lambasted the captain for abandoning his ship while hundreds remained aboard.

Days after the ferry capsized, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye said the captain and his crew’s actions were “unforgivable” and “murderous.”

[BBC]

TIME South Korea

A U.S. Citizen Who Tried to Swim Into North Korea Has Been Arrested

He reportedly wanted to "meet with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un"

South Korean soldiers have arrested a U.S. citizen attempting to swim across the Han River into North Korea.

A Defense Ministry spokesperson told Agence France-Presse the man, in his 30s, was detained Tuesday night and handed over to the relevant authorities.

“I was trying to go to North Korea in order to meet with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” the American told investigators, according to an unnamed government source cited by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Crossing the heavily militarized border between the two countries, which are officially still at war, is tremendously dangerous. In September, South Korean troops shot dead a compatriot trying to swim to the North. In 1996, a naked and apparently drunk American crossed a river into North Korea from neighboring China on a dare. He was detained for three months on espionage charges before then New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson secured his release during a visit to Pyongyang.

Three U.S. citizens — Kenneth Bae, Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle — are currently in North Korean detention. Miller was sentenced to six years’ hard labor on Sunday for “hostile” acts against the regime after allegedly tearing up his tourist visa at immigration in May.

TIME could not immediately reach the U.S. embassy in Seoul for comment.

[AFP]

TIME South Korea

Pope Francis Meets Asian Youth and Sewol Ferry Survivors

Pope Francis Visits South Korea - Day Two
Pope Francis speaks in Daejeon, South Korea, on Friday, August 15. He is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. Getty Images

He also took to Twitter to urge young Koreans "to see the things in life that really matter"

Pope Francis has said his first Asian mass before a 50,000-strong crowd in the South Korean city of Daejeon, which is playing host to Asian Youth Day — the largest gathering of young Catholics on the continent. The Associated Press (AP) reported that crowds crying “Viva il Papa” greeted him as his open-sided vehicle entered the soccer stadium where the service was held Friday morning. K-pop singers and rappers warmed up the crowd before the pontiff’s arrival.

The pope also met a group of survivors and family members of victims of April’s Sewol ferry disaster, in which almost 300 people, mostly high-school students, were drowned. He will be given a large cross carried by relatives who undertook a 21-day pilgrimage to Jindo Island, near the location where the Sewol capsized, AP said. Pope Francis expressed this hope that the tragedy would bring “all Koreans together in grief and confirm their commitment to work together in solidarity for the common good.”

Later in the day, the pontiff tweeted in both English and Korean, encouraging young people “to see the things in life that really matter.” He also paid a visit to a shrine dedicated to the first Korean to be ordained a Catholic priest, St. Andrew Kim Taegon, who is the patron saint of South Korea and was executed in 1846, at the age of 25, after running foul of the ruling Joseon dynasty.

On Saturday, the pope will hold a ceremony to beatify 124 Korean Catholics martyred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

South Korea is a rare outpost of Catholicism in Asia. This is the first papal visit to the region since 1989 and reflects what many believe to be the Vatican’s hopes to grow the church in the region.

TIME South Korea

Pope Francis Arrives in South Korea With a Message for All of Asia

Pope Francis Visits South Korea - DAY 1
Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye upon his arrival on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pool—Getty Images

The Vatican says that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on Earth

Making the first trip to Asia by a Pontiff in 15 years, Pope Francis landed in South Korea on Aug. 14, beginning a five-day visit to one of Roman Catholicism’s few regional strongholds.

The Argentine, who made history as the first Latin American Pontiff, took the opportunity to hail the populous continent, where Catholic fervor is burgeoning in contrast to dwindling congregations in Europe. “As I begin my trip, I ask you to join me in praying for Korea and for all of Asia,” tweeted Pope Francis, whose visit will coincide with a large gathering of young Asian Catholics. In January 2015, he will return to Asia, with stops in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

While in South Korea, the Pontiff will pray for peace for a divided Korean peninsula. On Thursday morning, less than an hour before Pope Francis landed in Seoul — where he was greeted by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, North Korean defectors and families of those who perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April — North Korea fired three short-range rockets into the sea. Two more followed in the afternoon.

Much like in Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain years, Catholic churches served as safe havens for South Korean human-rights defenders standing up to the dictatorships that held sway from the 1960s to the late 1980s. But the roots of Catholicism in Korea go back further than that. During his five-day visit, Pope Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs, including those who were persecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries by Confucian-bound dynastic rulers wary of foreign faiths. Around 10,000 Koreans are believed to have been killed for their faith.

Asia currently boasts the fewest number of Catholics of any region of the world, with only around 3% of Asians identifying as Catholics, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center. But the Vatican claims that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on earth, outstripping even Africa. The greatest numbers live in the Philippines, with roughly 80 million Catholics, or around 85% of the national population. India counts about 20 million believers, and the faith is believed to be growing in Vietnam. Yet tensions between Catholic communities and adherents to majority faiths like Islam have erupted in South Asia and Southeast Asia, sometimes violently.

In South Korea, the Catholic congregation has grown to about 5.4 million, or roughly 10% of the population. President Park was baptized at a Catholic church although her official biography says she holds no religious affiliation. Protestantism remains a more popular religion, although the primacy of evangelical mega-churches appears to have waned from an apex in the mid-90s. (Other South Koreans are Buddhists.)

In China, the ruling Communist Party maintains an official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association that has to answer in part to atheist apparatchiks. The Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, since China refuses to recognize the Vatican’s sway over what have been termed “underground churches” or those professing loyalty to Rome. Nevertheless, a religious revival in recent years has seen the growth of many faiths, including underground Catholic worship as well as belief in the state-sanctioned church.

In a rare hopeful sign, Pope Francis’ plane was allowed to travel through Chinese air space on its way to South Korea, something his predecessors’ jets had not been able to do. Following papal tradition, Pope Francis issued a radio message to Chinese President Xi Jinping as his plane passed over the People’s Republic. “Upon entering Chinese airspace,” the Pope said, “I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Still, some Chinese Catholics who planned to join the Asian Youth Day in South Korea were dissuaded by Chinese authorities. On the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, foreign missionaries and charities (both Catholic and Protestant) have been facing scrutiny in recent weeks for what is officially illegal activity.

Meanwhile, on Monday, in Seoul, Pope Francis plans to hold a special mass praying for peace and reconciliation among the two Koreas. The same day, joint military exercises involving the U.S. and ally South Korea are slated to begin. North Korea will surely not be pleased.

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Goes to Korea: The Spiritual Meaning of Travel During Turmoil

The trip poses a new test for the Holy Father’s global spiritual leadership

Pope Francis is headed to South Korea on Wednesday, in the midst of what continues to be a particularly difficult month for the world.

Violence in Gaza and Israel continues to escalate. Religious minorities in Iraq are fleeing ISIS brutality. The Ebola virus is spreading through West Africa. Children are flooding the United States border to escape Central American violence. A civilian airliner was downed in Ukraine amid Russian separatist fighting.

It is safe to say that global spirits are down, and it is a heavy overall context surrounding Pope Francis’ third international trip, a five-day visit to the southern half of a divided Korean peninsula. In Seoul, he will join Asian Youth Day, where thousands of Catholic youth from some 30 countries are gathered. He will also beatify dozens of 18th-and 19th-century Korean martyrs, meet with families of the recent Sewol ferry wreck, and give 11 speeches as he travels through four cities: Seoul, Daejeon, Kkottongnae, and Haemi.

On its face, the trip is important for some obvious political and religious reasons. It has been almost 20 years since a pontiff visited the continent. Pope John Paul II visited South Korea twice, in 1984 and in 1989, then the Philippines in 1995, but Pope Benedict XVI never made the trip. Pope Francis is expected to stress reconciliation and the problems of division, as he will be honoring Christians who died during periods of persecution. He also symbolically comes to minister to the Christians to the North as well, as the archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, is also the apostolic vicar for Pyongyang, meaning that he is appointed to guide the North Korean church as well, even if they are inaccessible.

Political relations with North Korea are off to an expectedly rocky start, as the country already turned down the invitation to send a delegation to Seoul for the Pope’s visit. Holy See spokesman Frederico Lombardi has made it clear that Pope Francis is not planning a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, and it does not seem likely that Pope Francis will announce that he is inviting North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean president Park Geun-hye to pray together at the Vatican—an approach he tried during a visit to Bethlehem to promote Middle East peace.

Francis’ trip will also be the first time that a pope’s plane flies through Chinese airspace. The Vatican does not have formal relations with Beijing, and the Chinese government did not permit Pope John Paul II to fly over the country in 1989, several months after the Tiananmen Square protests. It is customary for the Pope to send a message to the leaders of the countries he flies over, and so any message to China carries historic weight.

Religiously, Francis’ trip signals his continued focus on new regions of Catholic Church growth. Christianity in South Korea has grown exponentially in recent decades. In 1910, only 1% of the region identified as Catholic, Protestant, or with another denomination of Christianity. By 2010, that share had risen 29%, according to the Pew Research Center. Protestant Christianity, especially its evangelical and Pentecostal strains, is the more common variety: for every five Catholics in the country, there are about eight Protestants. But Francis is no stranger to evangelical strains of Catholicism, or to ecumenical moves bringing the two genres of Christianity together. It is a trend familiar to Latin and South America for decades, and so the first trip of the first Latin American Pope—one who personally knows the ins and outs of these two communities—has special meaning for a region that is experiencing similar change.

But there is another reason that this trip is important right now, and it is harder to quantify: the trip poses a new test for the Holy Father’s global spiritual leadership. It is easy for a religious figure to symbolize a new era of hope and peace when everything is peachy. It is another hallmark of spiritual influence altogether to inspire hope when violence abounds. What can a peace-making trip mean in the midst of such all-encompassing violence? Can he point to a hope that goes beyond mere words, to a hope that is somehow real?

How Pope Francis represents the answers those questions matters, not just for pilgrims in the Korean peninsula, but also for seekers across the world.

TIME South Korea

South Korean Protestants Rally Against Pope Francis’ Visit

South Korea Pope
Workers set a platform as they prepare for a special Korean reconciliation mass by Pope Francis at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Aug. 12, 2014 Ahn Young-joon—AP

Not everyone is happy about the Pontiff's trip

Around 10,000 South Korean Protestants gathered at a convention center near Seoul on Tuesday to protest Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the country.

The demonstration, organized by fundamentalist Protestants who view Catholicism as blasphemous, underscores tension among some denominations in South Korea, where nearly 30% of the population is Christian.

Participants in Tuesday’s protests, the Wall Street Journal reports, sought to undermine recent efforts by moderate Protestant leaders to reconcile differences with the country’s Roman Catholic establishment.

Pope Francis arrives on Thursday — making the first papal visit to East Asia in a quarter of a century — and will remain in South Korea for four days, during which he intends to beatify 124 Korean Catholics killed by dynastic leaders in the 18th and 19th centuries and also celebrate Asian Youth Day, a massive convention for the continent’s young Catholics.

There had been hopes that the Pope would be able to preach unity on the Korean peninsula, however these fell flat after authorities in Pyongyang declined his request to visit North Korea. The Associated Press reports that he will nevertheless issue a “message of peace and reconciliation for all Koreans.”

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