[Viewpoint] A religious free-for-allIn 1866, Heungseon Daewongun Yi Ha-eung - regent of Joseon and father of King Gojong - persecuted and killed thousands of Catholic believers.
Yet some 30 years later, in 1897, the scene was quite different. Daewongun decided to visit August Mutel, bishop of Korea, who was suffering from dysentery. Church officials invited Daewongun to swing by Myeongdong Cathedral, which was under construction, when it was finished.
And Princess Min - Daewongun’s wife and King Gojong’s mother - was christened in 1896.
It was an odd about-face, as a regent who had once attempted to eradicate Catholicism from the Joseon Dynasty paid a visit to an ill bishop, and as the church invited to Myeongdong Cathedral the “murderous” ruler who had massacred innocent people because of their religion.
Time can change things, and the Christian religion teaches to love your enemy.
But most of all, the driving force behind the changes was a large shift in international dynamics. As the Joseon-U.S. Amity Treaty was signed in 1882, Joseon chose the path of openness and reform, and freedom of religion was partially allowed.
A similarly incomprehensible event happened on June 17 of this year when 527 leaders affiliated with the Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Won Buddhist and Chondogyo religions held a press conference in which they called for an inter-Korea summit meeting and humanitarian assistance to North Korea.
The press conference was held under the title “Gathering of Faith Praying for National Reconciliation and Peace” and attempted to reflect both progressive and conservative views.
Why are these religious representatives making such demands when the families of the victims of the Cheonan incident are still mourning and the government has begun defense reforms that define North Korea as the main enemy?
You can look at the motive of the press conference from the perspective of religion, humanitarianism or pacifism. But it can also be interpreted from a very realistic level: religious influence. Today, the Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic religions boast millions of believers here in Korea. That’s a sea change from several decades ago. Just after the liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation, each religion had only several hundred thousand believers.
These religions further bolstered their influence here as the changing internal and international circumstances worked in their favor, and they have so far adapted well to the shifting situation.
Conservative religions and denominations contributed to industrialization, and the progressive side contributed to the democratization of the country.
Now, the remaining question is how to respond to the potential unification of the Korean Peninsula and its aftermath.
Believers might think that a religion’s influence depends on divine intention and planning. However, from a more secular point of view, a religion that adjusts to the environment and the spirit of the time tends to flourish.
Religions that make more contributions to unification and conform better to the situation after unification will thrive, while those that fail to adapt will deteriorate.
Unification can change the topography of religion. When the peninsula is reunified, North Korea will be the “golden market of religion.”
The Web site Adherents.com offers statistics on the number of believers of 4,200 religions around the world. The site categorizes the juche (self-reliance) philosophy as a religion, saying it has the 10th-largest population of believers in the world.
In that sense, North Korea is not a country of atheism but a nation of juche religion. As the day of unification draws nearer, the juche philosophy is likely to be replaced by another religion, atheism or agnosticism in the near future.
The topography of religion after unification might depend on what each religion does now.
Yoido Full Gospel Church is building a hospital specializing in heart surgery in Pyongyang. The motivation is to prepare for a possible question that North Koreans might ask themselves after unification: “What did South Korean churches do for us?”
After unification, not only the religious map but also the political topography will change. The people who reside in North Korea today are potential believers and potential voters.
North Korean voters might ask a similar question to South Korean political parties after unification: “What did the Grand National Party or Democratic Party do for us?”
The late 19th century and the early 20th century were turbulent times characterized by peculiar events. The king shaved his head, and the king’s mother became a Catholic. Having been deprived of sovereignty, Koreans suffered greatly in the first half of the 20th century.
We are likely to witness strange events again in the course of unification. Let’s not be alarmed if we find ourselves straddling the rope between war and peace. Let’s prepare for all possibilities.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
By Kim Hwan-yung