Friday’s inter-Korean summit is renewing hope that North and South Korea could enter a new era of engagement. But one group of South Koreans has historically been uncomfortable with the thought of getting cozier with the North: Conservative Christians.
To make sense of that, understanding the peninsula’s recent history is crucial. The three-way conversation between the South, North and the U.S. might finally be heading toward peace and renewal, but it’s also informed by a complicated post-war legacy—one of military might, economic transformation and religious fervor, which has influenced how more conservative South Korean presidents have approached the North in the past.
For decades after the Korean War, which ended in 1953, Christian missionaries from the U.S. put down roots across the South. As Korean Christians began to prosper, they formed a powerful and politically-conservative cohort that is closely allied with the U.S. and staunchly opposed a renewed relationship with the North.
While this conservative political bloc would typically have been opposed to an Inter-Korean summit, U.S. President Donald Trump’s sudden support for engagement complicates those feelings.
“As long as the U.S. is supporting this diplomatic outreach, a lot of the people on the right can’t come out and oppose it openly. The one entity they trust in all of this is the U.S. government,” says Peter Ward, a Seoul-based columnist at NK News and a former researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Despite that trust, he says they are no doubt worried about what lies ahead.
A Giddying Transformation
Over the last four decades, South Korea has moved from a poor, largely agrarian society to one of the world’s largest economies. Its capital city, Seoul, has made its name as one of the most populous, technologically advanced cities on the planet. It’s a place where the subway is almost never late, where families live in “smart houses” and where school kids morph into flame-throwing superheroes at virtual reality cafes.
That same transformation also means South Korea has become a nation of much division, simply because Koreans’ lived experiences vary so much by generation. While the elderly likely lived through the devastation of the Korean War 65 years ago, the young may see no evidence of the war at all. The dramatic social and political change over a short period of time means that many middle-aged South Koreans grew poor and witnessed the bloody, pro-democracy movement that ended South Korean dictatorship in 1987. Meanwhile, South Korean millennials—despite the privileges of growing up in a developed, democratic society—are struggling with high costs of living and a newfound youth unemployment crisis.
Today, South Korea’s conservative Christians—who are typically older in age — harbor political views that are closely tied to living through a war that painted North Korea as the enemy and the U.S. as a crucial ally. As one article in The Diplomat summarized it, “Following the Korean War, South Koreans came to view the Americans as saviors, and the Americans’ religion, Christianity, as a source of strength and wealth.”
“Having the talks at all is great. It’s about time. But how will it end? I just hope South Korea doesn’t get fooled by the North,” said Kim Jung-pil, a 78-year-old Christian priest from Gwangju. “South Korean people in general are very divided into two political sides: conservatives and the leftists. Among them, the conservatives are very concerned right now, while the leftists are optimistic.”
Not all Christians in Korea feel this way—in fact, many supply aid and religious materials North—but conservative Christianity as a whole still tends to be aligned with anti-Pyongyang and pro-Washington ideology. As a result, they also tend to dislike President Moon Jae-in. After the impeachment of conservative former President Park Geun Hye in 2016, Moon represents a revival of the South Korean political left—and a reopened era of dialogue and cooperation with the North.
“[Conservative Christians’] view on the Moon Jae-in government tends to be very critical,” says C. Harrison Kim, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who studies socialism in East Asia and North Korea. “They think he is just a puppet or just too pro-North, giving up everything for the sake of the North Korean leader.”
How Christianity Became Political
In 1945, about 2% of South Koreans were Christian. Today, that proportion has risen to 27.6 percent, according to 2015 numbers from the Korean Statistical Information Service. That’s much higher than the 15.5 percent of Buddhists, despite the fact that the Korean peninsula has a much longer history with Buddhist, Shamanist and Confucianist thinking (more than half of the country has no affiliation).
Christianity arrived to the Korean peninsula long before the 19th century, but its miraculous growth really started in the 20th century. Just 1 percent of the Korean population identified as Christian in 1900, but by the end of that century, proselytizing Christian missionaries—particularly from the United States — built an estimated 293 schools and 40 universities on the Korean peninsula, including three of South Korea’s most elite universities today.
During brutal Japanese rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, many of Korea’s most famous freedom fighters were Christian (as was the father of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first leader). One could argue that this was the beginning of Christians notably entering a political circuit, but the true mainstream landmark was in 2008—when Hyundai CEO and devout Protestant Lee Myung-bak was elected as president.
“He represented not only the conservative party, but also the conservative Christians in South Korea. His church got incredibly wealthy and famous, and it was really a bizarre moment,” says Kim, the University of Hawai’i professor. “The whole Christian landscape in South Korea became really dominated by the conservative right-wing sector. The most powerful and wealthy leaders in South Korea came to be associated with these churches.”
When Lee took office, he largely shut down “the sunshine policy” era of aid to North Korea, which his more liberal predecessor—Kim Dae-jung—had started.
But now, the political tides have turned in South Korea once again, and the leftist Moon is working hard to set a new tone with North Korea. And in a time when conservative former-presidents Park Geun Hye and Lee Myung-bak are both in jail for corruption, it doesn’t appear as though conservative Christians will see an anti-engagement foreign policy anytime soon.
“I don’t hear them talking about taking back political power,” Kim said, “But I do hear them being really concerned about Moon Jae-in.”
This story is part of a collaboration between The GroundTruth Project and USC Annenberg’s Knight Program in Media and Religion, made possible with support from the Henry Luce Foundation.
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