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Evangelical Movement Spreads Throughout South Korea

February 28, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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FRED DE SAM LAZARO, Correspondent, Twin Cities Public Television: It’s a classic landscape you see in former European colonies in Africa or Asia, but this missionary outpost rises amid rubber trees and sugarcane fields in the ancient kingdom of Thailand.

The church and the children’s home that it runs is headed by a missionary from Korea.

REV. JUNG WOONG KIM (through translator): As we look back, we realize that we owe a lot to Christianity, and we would like to share it with the rest of the world.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Reverend Jung Woong Kim’s native South Korea is better known as an exporter of cars and TVs, but Korea is second only to the U.S. in the number of Christian missionaries it sends to the rest of the world.

The nerve center of this new evangelism is the South Korean capital. At 4:30 on a frigid Monday morning in Seoul, the parking lot is full and the Onnuri Church at its 9,000-person capacity. In a city that also worships the work ethic, this is how tens of thousands of Koreans begin their workweek.

Onnuri Evangelical Presbyterian Church began 20 years ago and has seen massive growth, says Pastor Yongjo Ha.

REV. YONGJO HA, Onnuri Presbyterian Church (through translator): We started with 12 families 20 years ago and have grown into a mega-church of 45,000 registered members. This is the power and work of the Holy Spirit; it’s taking place in the heart of metropolitan Seoul.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And Onnuri is not even the biggest church in the bustling South Korean capital.

The Yoido Full Gospel Church claims to be the largest single church in the world. Its 800,000 members attend different services across 21 campuses.

CHURCH PASTOR: Everything is possible for he who believes.

Christianity's rise in Korea

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Perhaps a third of South Korea's 48 million people call themselves Christian. That's more than the number who subscribe to the traditional belief systems, Buddhism and Confucianism, combined.

Just a century ago, there were almost no Christians in Korea. Scholars cannot recall anywhere, at least in recent history, that a faith has spread so quickly. It could have much to do with Christianity's role in Korea's recent history.

The first missionaries, American Presbyterians, arrived in Korea in the late 1800s. They became closely allied with Korea's battle for independent from Japanese rule. They also built an impressive legacy.

SOUTH KOREAN HISTORIAN (through translator): They established junior high, college, medical facilities, and they evangelized the noble families. So when we were still under Japanese, those intelligentsia, they linked that believing in Jesus Christ is equal to working for Korea's liberation movement.

CHURCH PASTOR: ... and proclaim your word, there will be miracles...

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For many, it's not hard to believe in miracles. South Korea, ravaged by war a half-century ago, has achieved living standards equal to some European Union nations, notes Pastor Chong Gil Hong.

REV. CHONG GIL HONG (through translator): When I was young, Korea's GDP at the time was the same as Congo, and I could never imagine Korea as an industrialized country. It is just a miracle.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A miracle from God?

REV. CHONG GIL HONG: Yes, I believe.

(through translator): When we were hopeless, the Western missionaries came and they introduced us to the hope in Jesus Christ. So we have a very holy obligation to share this hope in Jesus Christ with those people who are still in their misery.

Helping North Korean neighbors

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nowhere is that misery greater than a few miles away in North Korea, he says. Behind the pomp and ceremonies, the North suffers from widespread famine and deprivation.

Care packages from the South, spearheaded by churches, have helped some. That assistance slowed down after the North's nuclear tests, says Pastor Hong. He leads a mission called the North-South Sharing Movement.

REV. CHONG GIL HONG (through translator): They were very upset and disappointed. There are fewer groups willing to help the North now. After the nuclear tests, some donors who promised to donate canceled their pledges.

REV. YONGJO HA (through translator): Of all the countries, North Korea is the one who uses food as a weapon. They manipulate people with food in order to control them.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many church leaders criticize the North and support hard-line policies, such as those of the U.S., which has pushed for strict economic sanctions. At the same time, they say the South, and especially its Christian churches, have no choice but to maintain humanitarian aid.

SOUTH KOREAN HISTORIAN (through translator): North Korea is run by a group of terrorists who own a nuclear weapon. And the Bush administration takes a more aggressive approach to them, but to us they are our families. We are all the same nationality. We have to embrace them, like a mother would embrace a prodigal son.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Some churches have gone way beyond sending aid to North Korea. The Durihana Mission Church, for example, is part of an underground network that assists defectors from the North.

CHURCH PASTOR (through translator): Let us pray for the six people who have left North Korea today for freedom.

Controversy over aid to defectors

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Several in this prayer group in Seoul are recent arrivals. We were asked not to show their faces to protect family still in North Korea. These women linked up with the Durihana Church after escaping first to China.

NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through translator): The woman who helped me escape had heard of Pastor Chun. We found the Web site and made a request for help.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Durihana has operatives in China, Mongolia and several Southeast Asian countries. We were asked not to mention this country for fear of antagonizing the host government.

That's already happened in China, where Durihana's pastor, Chun Ki Won, spent eight months in prison. China strongly opposes aid to North Korean defectors.

REV. CHUN KI WON, Durihana Church (through translator): They are leaving for China in search of food, but the Chinese government sees them as criminals, so China sends those defectors back and, as a result, these people are sometimes executed, imprisoned.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Some analysts worry that activities like Durihana's are encouraging defections and complicating the politics in what remains one of the world's most militarized frontiers.

Jeong-Min Suh is a professor of religious history at Yonsei University in Seoul.

JEONG-MIN SUH, Yonsei University (through translator): The South Korean government is very sensitive about annoying the North Korean government, and it is also worrying about possible conflict with neighboring countries, including China on the diplomatic front.

The general mentality among the public and Christians is, as long as such activities don't go overboard, it's OK. However, there are cases, like some so-called relief teams, who secretly enter the North and bring North Korean residents to China or other Asian countries purposely or in a premeditated way. That is not acceptable.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Pastor Chun insists he serves only those who've already escaped North Korea. He says the church's main goal is an evangelized, reunified Korea.

REV. CHUN KI WON, Durihana Church (through translator): The name "Durihana" comes from the Bible. It means "two become one."

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: If or when two nations become one on the Korean Peninsula, churches can count on an army of North Korean apostles. Durihana itself has resettled 600 people it hopes some day to dispatch not to distant countries, but to the land of their birth.