[Series I] Background of Christian Democratic Movements in Korea

Background of Christian Democratic Movements in Korea

Written By HONG, Young-Gi (Ph.D.)
The Senior Pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.


Recent academic study of the relationship between religion and politics made it hard to claim that religion has no influence on public affairs (e.g. Yamane, 1997), even before the increasing prominence of religiously-linked conflict in the daily news in recent months.  Across a wide range of historical contexts, religions and religious groups play a significant role shaping political culture and influencing political behavior.  Religion often provides comprehensive norms, especially for a society in which it has a prominent place, and builds a mind-set capable of carrying out action based on those norms.  Religion sometimes functions as an independent influence that generates important material or human resources.  Religion is of scholarly interest because of its role in political socialization quite apart from any theological interest it may have (Smith, 1974).

Cross-national research shows a strong positive association between the percentage of Protestants in a society and the level of democratization (Woodberry, 1999: 1).  However, to understand what is going on, we need more detailed empirical investigations of the effects of religious norms and influences in political settings in specific countries and contexts.  (Freston, 2000).  This paper will look at the Korean evangelical churches and politics.

Until the mid-1980s, South Korea was, like many countries, a country with a rapidly growing economy but without democracy.  However, it has changed dramatically since 1987.  The South Korean political system has undergone a profound transformation since electoral democracy and civil and political rights were instated in 1987, after more than two and a half decades of military-dominated authoritarian rule.  (Diamond and Kim, 1999:2)  The first stage of democratization seems to be complete, but how and to what extent has Korean democracy been consolidated?  And what has been the role of the Korean Church, especially evangelical Christians, during democratization?

This chapter discusses how evangelicals have contributed to the democratization of Korea.   So far, Korean evangelicals’ role in democratization has not received the scholarly attention it deserves.  Accordingly, this paper draws heavily upon original empirical research, including my observations, interviews, and examination of related documents  as well as a thorough review of the useful, though sparse scholarly treatments that have appeared so far, and the writings of Koreans pastors, civil society activists, and theologians.

The chapter argues that Korean Christians have played a significant role in the democratization of Korea.  While the Korean progressive Christians contributed to the democratic transition up to 1987, since 1987 evangelical Christians have contributed to the consolidation of democracy through evangelical political leadership and the movement of civil society since 1987.  The paper proceeds by briefly examining the historical trajectory of Korean church in the democratic movement up to 1987; it then analyzes the role of evangelicals in the development of democracy, focusing on (1) the people uprising of 1987 (democratic transition), (2) evangelical Christians’ electoral behaviors, (3) evangelical Christians role in political society as important political actors (and specifically that of President Kim Young-sam), and (4) the civil society activities of evangelical Christians.  Finally, I evaluate the contribution of Korean evangelical Christians to the consolidation of democracy and discuss further implications of evangelical political action for the strengthening of Korean democracy.



1) It is hard to define evangelicalism.  But in this paper, evangelicals are used to refer to those Christians who stress conversionism through Jesus Christ, biblicism accepting the authority of the Bible, activism advocating evangelistic activities, and crucicentrism focusing on the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ (cf.  Bebbington, 1989: 2-19).  They are distinguished from so-called the progressive group of Christians who put priority on social action over individual conversion through Jesus Christ in Korean context.  It could be argued that we can find evangelical Christians in the progressive Christian circles, as they participated in politics from their faith conviction in Jesus Christ.  For evangelicals, social action is only meaningful in the light of evangelistic concerns.  The term “evangelicals” may connote wider sense than one expects.

2)  When I quote interview contents, it wlll be shown as (I: number).  I means Interview and number indicates whom I interviewed on the interview list back. 



1.  Paving the Way to Democracy up to l987:  Historical and Theological Background of Christian Democratic Movements

The trajectory of Korean Protestantism is quite unique among Asian countries.  The timing of Protestantism suited Koreans, who were suffering in turbulent times, very well.  Since the its inception in Korea, Protestantism has been coupled with the values of modernity, which embraced and encouraged education, knowledge, a sense of equality and freedom, and nationalism for the Korean people.

During the Japanese rule (1910-1945) Korean Christianity forged a strong link with Korean nationalism.  The Independence Movement in 1919 heightened the credibility of the Korean Church in the eyes of the people, for the Korean church inspired the national spirit its active participation in the independence demonstrations.  15 of 33 signatories in the Declaration of Independence were Christians and among the 9,458 people imprisoned for participating in the demonstration were 2,087 Christians (Yi, Man-yol, 1991: 349).  This was all the more astonishing given the fact that Christians comprised only about 200,000 people, a mere 1.3 percent of the total population of 16 million at that time.  Around the 1920s nationalist sentiments ran high in Christian circles.

From the early 1930s the Japanese attempted to impose the Shinto faith, popularly known by the worship of the Japanese emperor as the divine descendant of Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, as a way to bind their whole intended empire together.  In 1935, the Japanese ordered all educational establishments, including Christian schools, to participate and worship in Shinto Shrine ceremonies.  After strong resistance, the two largest denominations, the Presbyterians and the Methodists involuntarily complied with the order.  The Japanese authorities also tried to undermine the strength of other denominations by removing foreign missionaries from authoritative positions.  In 1937, they warned Koreans not to have any contact with foreigners.  Accordingly, by late 1940s, nearly ninety percent of the missionaries left Korea, and the remaining missionaries were harassed incessantly by the Japanese government (Kim, Andrew,  1995).

While many Christian leaders protested against the oppressive policy of Christianity of the Japanese government, and were arrested, tortured, and put to death, many other major denominations stayed away from the movement of nationalism:  This brought about internal conflict of the Protestant Church after 1945 because some church leaders had been closely involved with the Japanese during the colonial period.  In addition, the passive stance these churches had taken toward Japanese rule tended to be continued in a “conservative” acceptance of military rule, and a lack of sympathy with democratic protest movements, in the period after liberation.


1.1   Korean Christianity After the Liberation (1945)

After the liberation from the Japanese rule (1945), and especially after the Korean war (1950-53), the Korean Church faced three ongoing tasks:  the removal of the vestiges Japanese influence (Minjok Chonggi: National Spirit), democratization (Minju), and unification (Tongil).  The post-1945 period of the Christian Church owed much to the missionary and colonial inheritance:  fundamentalism, denominationalism, a dichotomy between religion and politics, and the legacy of the nationalistic movement.  Protestantism as characterized by denominationalism and fundamentalism has been influential and typical in the development of the Korean Christianity on the post-1945 period.  The majority of the Korean churches took it as axiomatic that (as the missionaries had taught them to think) the churches should stay away from politics, keeping Christian activities centered on worship, bible-teaching, evangelism and spiritual life and keeping them quite separate from the state and its activities and problems.

Theological fundamentalism and liberalism showed inconsistency and ambiguities in their political/social role in the Japanese rule.  The former reinforced the attitude of apolitical attitude, but resisted the Japanese rule on the basis of this faith at the latter stage of the rule.  The latter, the liberal Christians, played did participate in political and social matters, but often cooperated with the Japanese; for instance, they shared an anti-communist bent with pro-Japanese groups.

From early on, there was unusually high percentage of intellectuals among Protestants.  The Japanese government refused to hire Protestant intellectuals, however, who in turn participated in the nationalist movement.  After 1945, this helped the church expanded its social/political influence when the U.S.  was encouraging Korean nation-building.  The government and the church had good relations with the U.S., and the church felt at home with its privileges and freedom.  Many elites after independence were either people who had helped the Japanese rule or those who had good connections with the United States.  The Korean Church did not feel a need of autonomy from U.S.  governance and deeply depended on the U.S.

During the Syngman Rhee regime, Rhee used anti-communism as an ideology with which tp control politics, religion, culture, and economic activities; and he showed scant interest in the democratization.  Rhee was a Methodist elder, ordained in 1956, so lots of Protestant Christians participated in the Liberty Party that Rhee led.  (See Table 1.)  Many Christian leaders supported Rhee simply because he was a Christian.  As Rhee gained near-absolute power, his regime became a corrupt and arrogant clique that remained aloof from the people.  But many Christian leaders continued to support him despite the corruption.  During this period, most Korean churches began to assume conservative political and social roles.



We can suggest several reasons for the conservatism of the Korean church.  (1) The Korean church inherited a tradition of conservative theology from the early missionaries.  (2) The Korean church received support from the countries that had sent missionaries, mainly the U.S., which promoted anti-communism and pro-Americanism in the Korean church.  (3) Christians had more middle class and elite members and thus were privileged by government policies.  (4) The Korean church was dominated in its internal church structure by the leadership of the conservative leaders and pro-Japanese groups.  For example, pastor Chun Pil-sun, the president of Presbyterian Tong-hap (1959), pro-Japanese, was in the center of the support.  (5) Internal church politics (church split, property) absorbed the attention of the churches, so they had little time to think about the country’s social reality as a whole.  (6) The Korean church was ethically naive: Because Rhee was a Christian president, many refugees from North Korea supported his anti-communism.  (7) Many political leaders were conservative Christians who did not want the church to participate politically.

In sum, a failure to get away from the missionary and colonial heritages caused divisions among the Korean churches and robbed the Korean church of a prophetic voice about socio-political reality.  The authoritarian orientation of the church leaders within church structures, that is, an anti-democracy within the church’s own organization, also had a negative influence on Korean politics (Yi, 1995).


1.2   Different Theological Streams’ Views About Social Involvement

With the emergence of Park regime in 1960, the Korean Church experienced a great change.  The ruling ideology of Park regime was economic growth, for instance the Sae Maul (New Town) Movement, a seeking material affluence apart from spiritual values.  The emphasis Korean society has placed on materialist, growth-oriented priorities ever since the 1960s affected thinking of the Korean church, causing Pastor’s concentrate on numerical growth as the criterion of their success; difficult issues like economic and political implications of the gospel were neglected – partly because of the Church’s conservative, implicitly a-political, theological legacy, but partly because of their difficulty and lack of obvious rewards.  Since the government sought rapid industrialization and urbanization as the basis of economic growth – which was, to be sure, an urgent practical task, it was able to behave undemocratically, ignoring human rights, and exploiting and suppressing labor, under the protection of its political power.  The Korean church either had to conform to these government value (emphasizing church growth but neglecting social concerns) or seek to resist social injustices.

The theological positions of denominations become clearer from the 1960s on and three divergent streams emerged in the Protestant Church:  a cooperative position towards the government (conservative churches, e.g. Presbyterian Hap-tong); medium position (Presbyterian Tong-hap and Methodist); and progressive position against military government (e.g.  Presbyterian Kijang which developed Minjung Theology).   While the majority of Korean churches remained silent about military autocracy, some progressive churches, together with Christian students and democratic activists, initiated an intense democratization movement resisting the autocratic government from the early 1970s.  In Bellah’s (1965) term, “creative tension” began to exist between the Korean church and politics.

Contrasting theological positions became a dividing line among the Korean churches since the late 1960s.  However, as we shall see later, any simple, fixed, dualistic understanding of the Korean church (dividing it neatly into progressive and conservative positions) is misleading in understanding the dynamics of Korean democratization.  As we will see, churches that had different positions toward social movements stimulated and influenced each other, in their views and methods, working together in the end to promote democratic consolidation in Korea.


Minjung theology, influenced by the Latin American liberation theology of the 1960s, was developed around 1975 among a small group of Korean theologians.  Etymologically “Minjung” means the mass of the people, or the masses, or just the people.  Minjung theology is a political hermeneutics of the Gospel and a political interpretation of Korean Christian experiences (Suh, 1981: 19).  Minjung theology reappropriates paradigms from the Bible, church history, and Korean history from the perspective of minjung.  This was the contextual Korean theology in progressive Christian circles aiming at applying the Biblical message to the Korean context and alleviating the suffering of the poor arising from political and social oppression.  Adherents argued that a rereading of the Bible made it clear that Jesus was a revolutionary who died for the oppressed.  Minjung theology thus provided justification for – and indeed mandated – Christians’ participation in secular politics in support of democracy and the popular masses.  For further detail, see So (1983) and Na (1988).


1.3   The Role of the Korean Church in the Democratization Movement

Repressive rule suppressed and stunted civil society, which had no power against the government in the 1960s and 1970s.  (Yu, Sok-chun and Park, Byong-young, 1992)  Voicing normal demands for political democratization, or economic equity could even be a source of grave personal danger.  Under these conditions universities and churches were the almost the only places where the critical task of protest could be undertaken.  These retained some open organizational space for political protest, because of the high respect that professors and pastors command in Korean society.  The moral prestige of the church was powerful and influential and added weight to critiques made in that context.

Institutionalized Korean politics (i.e. politics operating in the realm of the state) – political parties, and the National Assembly – thus effectively separated from civil society for forty years.  Accordingly, institutionalized politics lacked any power or ideology which could undergird a transition of regimes.  The prime mover of political change, therefore, was to be found in movement politics, which in turn was alienated from the people and had no regular or sanctioned channels through which voice demands through institutional politics to the state.  Students and professors in the universities and ministers in the churches performed the role of organizing protest and giving force to movement politics (Cho, Dae-yop, 1999: 129).  They carried out their struggle for democracy by campaigning against the authoritarian regime through prayer meetings, fasting, and mass demonstrations.

The organized democratization movement, one with some continuity in participants, started from about the 1970s (Cho, Hee-yon, 1990).  After the formation of Democratic Recovery People Committee (DRPC, Minju Hoibok Kukmin Hoi'ui), consisting of Christian pastors, professors, political activists in 1974, this organization became a center of the anti-autocracy movement and led a Cheya (out of office) movement.  This DRPC was extended to form the Democracy People Coalition (DPC, Minjuju'ui Kukmin Yonhap) in 1978, and to form the People’s Coalition for Democracy and National Unification in 1979.

Organizations with their core in religious groups provided the organizational structure for the democracy movement during this period.  In the restrictive conditions that made most criticism of the government illegal under the repressive Yushin System, organization of the movement through church organizations, which were legal and very difficult for the regime to assail, was very important for the democratic movement at that time.  Some Christian churches and cathedrals frequently served as sites of meetings, prayers, and demonstrations, since police were much more hesitant about breaking up anti-government activities taking place on sanctified ground.  (Chang, Yun-shik, 1998: 42).  The National Council of Churches Hall, Myongdong (Catholic) Cathedral, the seat of Cardinal Kim Su-han, and the National Council of Churches Hall were religious sites famed as places used by the democratization movement.  Many activists and student dissidents participated in the Federation of Christian Youth for the Defense of Democracy (Minju Suho Kidok Chongnyon hyop'uihoi), Catholic Labor Youth Coalition (Katolic Nodong Chongnyonhoi), Industrial Mission Committee (Sanup Sonkyohoi), and the Christian Academy.  Dissident church leaders took the initiative in organizing civilian anti-government groups.  During this time the democratization movement was focused on human rights and labor movement and the implementation of a new democratic constitution.

Korean Christian involvement in democratization developed in a quite different context from that in Western and Latin American countries (Choi, Chong-chul, 1992).  A main characteristic of the Western and Latin American counterparts (such as the Christian Socialist Movement, the Social Gospel Movement, Catholic Action, etc.) is that they were a defensive counteraction to the trend of Christians forsaking their religion and the growth of radical labor and socialist movements (Kang, 2000a: 226).  They arose and developed "afterwards" and "against" the preexisting forceful social movements.  Meanwhile, the Christian social movements in Korea were formed "prior to" the social resistance movement and helped "promote the growth" of the latter in its own development process (Kang, 2000a: 226).  Chung Chol-hui (1995) argued that the social origin of Korean democratization movement lay in the context of micro-mobilization and the frameworks of meaning (such as Minjung theology) pioneered in the church and the university.


1.4   Gradual Change in Evangelicals’ Political Consciousness

However, the democratic movement had no real popular, or mass, basis because of the severe repression of the military government, and the restrictions this placed on open communication.  Furthermore, the democratic movement of the progressive churches was not widely supported by many evangelical Christians.  During the 1970s and the early 1980s, the democratization movement of progressive Churches and Christian students was regarded by the evangelical churches as showing an at best sectarian and one-sided character, closely linked to dissidents, and not approved by the evangelical (and thus, not by most) churches or church members.  Evangelical churches thought that the Christians protesting against the military regime were collaborating with radical, anti-government forces (students) who dreamed of radical social reform, and even seemed linked to communist influence.  The dominant attitude of the Korean Protestants toward citizen political activities was a negative one.  In 1982, one survey showed that only 5.5 per cent of the Protestants answered that the church should carry out organizational anti-movement against social wrongs and violation of human rights  (Institute for Modern Society, 1982: 153-155).  Furthermore, a Gallup survey (1984: 178-180) found that only 19.1 per cent of the Protestants answered positively on the issue of Christian participation in political, economic, and social problems.

However, in the course of time, Korean evangelical churches began to examine themselves in the light of theology and became gradually concerned about their socio-political responsibilities.  We can suggest several factors that affected the gradual emergence of political consciousness of Korean evangelicals from the early 1980s on.

First, the severe repression of the military government in the Kwangju uprising in 1979 (also known as the Kwangju Massacre) influenced the evangelical churches, making a great impression and left them with a sense of burden.  Second, the worldwide evangelical movement, starting from the Laussane Covenant of 1974 began to influence the Korean evangelical churches.  The Laussane Covenant and The Grand Rapids Report in 1982, which was a follow-up to Laussane Meeting, emphasized issues of social justice as part of the Biblical mandate, and these ideas were introduced to the Korean church in the mid-1980s.  Theological perspectives that put emphasis on the importance of churches’ social participation affected the minds of some key evangelical leaders, such as Kim Myung-hyuk and Chun Ho-jin.

Third, the oppression of the government began to be felt within the evangelical churches.  Religious leaders – like all charged with care of an institution they believe in – have a tendency to consider the institutional interests of the church before anything else, and act accordingly (O Kyong-hwan, 1990: 322-324).  The government’s policy of holding important national examinations on Sunday – including those by which people could qualify for prestigious civil service jobs – seemed to evangelicals to infringe their freedom of Sabbath observance.  Also the plan of the government to build shrines to Dangun (the mythic ancestor of the Korean people) all over the country was perceived by evangelicals as an idolatrous to threat to Christian principle and to believing Christians.  These strongly-felt issues were important contributing factors leading evangelical churches to participate in the demonstrations in the June 1987 struggle for democracy.  It can be argued that evangelical political consciousness was theological and institutional rather than directly political.  The form of evangelical church participation in the democracy movement consisted of holding a special prayer meeting or issuing a statement (which is a way of proceeding typical of how such Churches deal with any issues they take seriously).  For example, the Korean Evangelical Fellowship (KEF) issued a statement on Human rights in Korea in 1986.  This Declaration included the suggestions for the church, and for the government and politicians.  For evangelicals, however, the mode of social participation was indirect, different from that of progressive churches.  Some views aired, and suggestions about church participation show this:


We believe that it is wrong for the church to become political groups which have direct involvement in politics….This is not the inherent role of the church.  However, some radical religious groups made an error to add social disorder and confusion to the church and society by voicing radical reform in political forms.  We, evangelical churches, confess that we have not played a role of the salt and the light in Korean society.  (Kim, Myung-hyuk, 1998: 20-21)


Suggestions for the government and politicians asked for the political democratization and emphasized the need for the moral inspiration of the church.  They also demanded freedom of the press and extension of human rights.  Before the 6.29 declaration of 1987, the KEF had issued statements only 6 times; however, there were been 55 such statements from the 6.29 declaration up to 1998.  (Kim, Myung-hyuk, 1998).  As discussed below, this clearly showed the awakening of the political consciousness of Korean evangelicals after 1987.  Although there may often be a big gap between declaration and practice, declarations of this kind are meaningful social facts and actions.  Realizing how few declarations were made by the evangelical churches before that time helps make that clear.  Political awakening had begun to sprout among the generality of evangelical churches by the 1980s.

Many scholars agree that although politically and theologically liberal Protestants and Catholics make up a small percentage of Korean Christians, the major churches have offered a haven for the oppressed and an outspoken voice when others were silenced (Brouwer, Gifford, and Rose, 1996). One portion of the large Christian presence in the country has done a great deal to keep the democratic spirit alive.  The Korean churches led a democratization movement against authoritarian regimes and functioned as a cradle in which other protest movement was formed and nurtured.

The democratic movement in the 1980s had a turning point because of the Kwangju uprising in 1980.  The democratic movement in Kwangju involved a lot of participation by students and intellectuals.  There were also many religious groups among these: groups of the National Council of Churches, YMCA and YWCA, Catholic Farmers Federation, and Catholic Committee for Justice and Peace, and the like. The strong reaction of many to the brutal suppression of the Kwangju uprising became provided the impetus for the democratic movement in the 1980s.  It also contributed to the systematization of anti-Americanism, because of US connivance at the government’s brutality in Kwangju.  It became an important emotional root of popular protest against military autocracy: "people who participated in the democratic movement of the 1980s continued to look back on what had happened there and their sense of shame as living human beings was converted into hatred for the dictators" (Kim, Dong-chun, 1997: 99).  In this sense the June uprising of 1987, the climax of the democratic movement in the 1970s and the 1980s, is sometimes referred to as “the nationalization of Kwangju" (Kim, Dong-chun, 1997: 99).



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  2. Thanks for commenting. The Kingdom of God should be also established in the arena of politics. With God’s Blessings…

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