Papal compassion a wake-up call for torn Korea

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Papal compassion a wake-up call for torn Korea


Pope Francis, second from left, speaks yesterday with Kim Bok-dong (in a wheelchair), a former sex slave for Japan’s Imperial Army, at a Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul. Kim asked the pope to help persuade Japan to apologize and compensate its former victims. [NEWSIS]

Pope Francis flew back to Rome yesterday, wrapping up an historic and inspiring five-day visit that Korea will be talking about for a long time to come.

Apart from the fact that many Korean Catholics and non-Catholics were swept up in the so-called pope syndrome, as the media has labeled it, observers are keeping an eye on what kind of impact the pope’s moves and messages will have on politicians, policy makers and opinion leaders in Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

Of course the pope came on a religious mission with no political motives, as emphasized by the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson in a final briefing held Sunday night in the press center at the Lotte Hotel, Sogong-dong, central Seoul.

Yet the Korean people are talking about how the pope reached out to the weak, the poor, those in mourning, the physically challenged, the elderly and the young, among other socially vulnerable groups - and asking whether that isn’t also what the political, social and religious elites should be doing amid acute and prolonged divisions within the country and mistrust and resentment among regional neighbors.

It’s understandable that Koreans are hoping for inspiration for the Korean government, National Assembly and other authorities from the pope’s actions, as Korea’s comfort women and victims of the ferry disaster clearly received the kind of consolation that no leader in Korea has provided.

And in that context, it doesn’t really matter that one Vatican motive with this visit was to emphasize its increased focus on Asia, in particular China and North Korea.

Nonetheless, pundits cautiously emphasized that what the pope gave to Korea was a message of reconciliation and peace, not a breakthrough or solution to prolonged, thorny issues. And that’s where his job ends. They say it is Korea’s job to find breakthroughs and solutions to those issues.

The Korea JoongAng Daily examines the significance and legacy of the first papal visit to Korea in 25 years.

The issues addressed included calls for an apology to women who were forced to be sex slaves of Japanese soldiers during World War II in Korea and elsewhere aimed at the Japanese government; and the power struggle between Korea’s conservatives and liberals on passing a bill aimed at finding the truth behind April’s deadly ferry sinking that resulted in 300 people - mostly students - killed at sea in the sinking of the Sewol ferry.


1. Pope Francis gives a thumbs-up as disabled children perform for him during a visit to the Kkottongnae rehabilitation center for disabled people in Eumseong, North Chungcheong, on Saturday. [AP/NEWSIS] 2. Pope Francis meets Kim Young-oh, whose daughter perished in the Sewol sinking and is on a hunger strike to push for an investigation into the tragedy, before a Mass at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Saturday. [NEWSIS]3. Pope Francis, third from right, talks with Han Yang-won, second from left, chairman of the Association for Korean Native Religion as he meets with South Korea’s religious leaders at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Monday. [AP/NEWSIS]Pope Francis, foreground left, celebrates a Mass in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in hanbok, or Korean traditional clothes, beatifying Paul Yun ji-Chung and 123 other martyrs in Seoul on Saturday. Paul Yun Ji-Chung, who was born in 1759, as among the earliest Catholics on the Korean Peninsula. [AP/NEWSIS] 5. Pope Francis, center, poses with youths from various Asian countries as he arrives at a lunch meeting with them at Daejeon Catholic University on Saturday. K-pop star BoA stands on the right. [REUTERS/NEWS1]6. Pope Francis in the unborn children garden during his visit to Kkottongnae on Saturday. [AP/NEWSIS]

‘Comfort women’ get comfort

At around 9 a.m. yesterday, songs from a choir - including one titled “Our Wish is Reunification” - filled Myeongdong Cathedral, a 116-year-old cathedral that functions as the church for the Archdiocese of Seoul and is treasured by Koreans as Korea’s Historic Site No. 258.

Seated close to the altar were seven Korean “comfort women,” which is a euphemistic term for women who were forced to be sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Pope Francis - the head of the 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic Church - entered the cathedral to preside over a Mass dubbed by the Holy See and the Korean Catholic community as the “The Mass for Peace and Reconciliation.”

As the pope made his way to the altar, he stopped at 89-year-old Kim Bok-dong, who was one of the sex slaves. The people in the cathedral and all those watching the Mass through a live stream on television held their breath and the tension increased.

The Pope held Kim’s hands.


“The issue of comfort women has not ended yet,” Kim said. “Please help so that it can be resolved soon.” Kim handed a butterfly-shaped badge to the Pope, symbolizing the wish of those ladies who suffered indescribable pain as young girls to be free from violence and discrimination.

The Pope put the badge on his chasuble. The badge glittered throughout the 30-minute Mass.

“I am satisfied,” Kim told JoongAng Ilbo after the mass. “I think the Pope listened to our stories.”

Lee Yong-su, an 87-year-old former sex slave who also attended the Mass, said she got the peace of mind she needed. “The Pope personally gave me a rosary. I will always pray using this rosary.”

Kang Il-chul, 87, was also at the Mass: Throughout it, she held a painting called “Flower Destroyed Unbloomed,” which was drawn by the late Kim Soon-duk, a fellow former sex slave. Kang and other ladies managed to deliver the painting to the Pope after the Mass through the organizing committee of the papal visit. The ladies hope the painting will be hung in the Vatican.

Those seven are among the 54 elderly women who claim to have been taken to frontline brothels by the Japanese. Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China, were mobilized to perform sexual services for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Despite repeated demands, Japan has neither provided a sincere official apology nor adequate compensation.


Peace and reconciliation

Besides the former sex slaves, the Pope also greeted others at the core of social conflicts and troubles in Korea before he made his way to the altar for the Mass attended by about 1,500 people.

They included laid-off workers of Ssangyong Motor; residents of the southeastern provincial city of Miryang, who have been protesting a state-run power provider’s plan to build transmission towers for high-voltage power lines through their area; and residents of a village called Gangjeong on Jeju Island who have been opposing the construction of a naval base there.

North Korean defectors and multi-ethnic families were also invited to the Mass.

Most of the invitees were “those who need peace and reconciliation and those who work for this cause,” Hur Young-yup, spokesman for the organizing committee of the papal trip, told reporters Sunday.

This scene - something that will probably end up in the history books of Korea - is a summation of the challenges that Korea faces today: Division of the country; unresolved historical issues with the Japanese colonizers who ruled Korea between 1910 and 1945; disasters and accidents that many believe could have been prevented if the country’s authorities had done their job right; labor-management issues; ethnic minorities.

Although relatives of the victims of the deadly Sewol ferry sinking in April weren’t at the Mass yesterday, they received yet another message of condolence from the Pope through a different channel.

The Pope wrote to those still missing in disaster, the committee announced yesterday. In the letter, the Pope listed all 10 victims who are still missing.

“I deeply regret that I was not able to personally visit and comfort everyone who is suffering,” the pontiff began in the letter written in Korean with his signature at the bottom. “However, I never forgot to pray for the deceased, the missing and all their families during my stay in South Korea.”

The letter, together with a rosary offered by the Holy Father, will be delivered by a local priest on Tuesday to the families who are still waiting for the bodies of loved ones to be recovered at a southeastern port near the accident site.

The pontiff’s letter was a response to the ones he received from the bereaved families during his visit. The Pope was given the letters on two separate occasions: One during his meeting with representatives of the survivors and grieving families shortly before he led a Mass on Friday in Daejeon, and the other at the beatification ceremony in Gwanghwamun Square, downtown Seoul, from a father who is on a hunger strike to demand an independent investigation into the Sewol sinking.

Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesperson for the Vatican, also stressed to reporters Sunday that the Vatican felt two things most deeply: that Korea is in pain due to the division of the peninsula, and that new scars were left by the ferry disaster. Lombardi said that the pontiff expressed deep interest in the issue and did so three times during the visit. The spokesperson said this means that the Pope is with those who mourn and sympathizes with the pain of the families and the survivors.

Message to the politicians

One source within the Blue House told the JoongAng Sunday, “As soon as Pope Francis became the pope, President Park Geun-hye sent then-culture minister Yoo Jin-ryong as an envoy as well as an invitation to visit Korea. She also met with the people of the Vatican twice personally to send such an invitation.” The Blue House viewed a visit by the Pope as a historic event as the Pope is such a “superstar.”

As Pope Francis reached out to those who suffered from conflicts and divisions in Korean society, some people cautiously raised the possibility that he was sending a message to Korean politicians, whose power games only prolonged or exacerbated conflicts that needed to be solved for their own gains. Could that message influence politicians in some way or another?

“Pope Francis’s reference to ‘culture of death’ is, in a way, a dropping of a silent bomb on the Korean people,” Kang Young-ahn, a philosophy professor of Sogang University told JTBC. “It remains to be seen how big the impact will be. It could go up in the sky as a balloon leading to nothing, or drop in the soil and give rise to a tree.”

Yet most pundits interviewed by the JoongAng Sunday expressed caution over any political impact from the visit. “The pope almost always becomes a political figure wherever he goes,” Cha Yong-gu, a history professor at Chung-Ang University said, “but the pope’s remarks should be viewed as bringing up issues as a religious figure.”

Ma Sang-yun, an international relations professor at the Catholic University of Korea agrees: “Most destinations of papal visits are countries suffering from ideological conflicts or internal wars,” he says, “and naturally, the pope’s messages are not siding with any specific party but urging reconciliation and peace in general terms.”

Rhie Won-bok, contemporary cartoonist and Deokseong Women’s University professor, also cautioned against political parties “interpreting the pope’s messages to their liking.”

“This visit, I think, was more pastoral than political,” Lombardi assessed on Sunday. “As many of you are looking for questions or information about the situation of North Korea, of China, and so on … If you have listened to the pope, it was not the character of this visit. It was a visit characterized by pastoral attention, evangelization perspective and so on.”

Given that the visit’s main purpose was the Vatican’s attempts to promote Catholicism in Korea and Asia in general - the pope is expected to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines next year - the pope couldn’t really be political, observers say.

As enthusiasm for Catholicism in Europe and South America has declined, Asia and Africa have emerged as a “blue ocean” for the Catholic community.

Although Korea has the fifth-largest number of Catholics in Asia, it ranks number one in Northeast Asia. Although observers don’t expect the number of Catholics in Korea to suddenly rise after the papal visit, they do say the ongoing upward trend of Catholicism in the country - which has been observed since the 1980s, when two papal visits took place - contrasts with the number of Protestants in Korea, which has been decreasing.

North Korea and China

Despite his attempts, Pope Francis was not able to embrace North Korea - just yet.

North Korea fired five short-range rockets toward the East Sea just minutes before and also after the much-anticipated arrival of Pope Francis.

North Korea claimed the firings had nothing to do with the pope’s visit.

“I wonder why the Roman pope decided to enter South Korea, picking this particular day of the rocket tests out of the numerous days in the 12 months of the year,” the Korean Central News Agency cited a rocket-technology engineer named Kim In Yong as saying.

In another sign of the North not being ready to deal with the pope, earlier this month the Archdiocese of Seoul said it invited about 10 North Korean Catholics to come see the pope in South Korea. But the North informed South Korean organizers they would not attend.

In a letter, the North’s state-run Korean Catholics Association (KCA) cited Seoul’s refusal to cancel an upcoming joint military drill with U.S. forces as the reason for its decision. “Under these circumstances, coming to Seoul would be an agonizing step,” the KCA letter said.

The Catholic Church, like any other religion, is only allowed to operate in North Korea under extremely tight restrictions and within the confines of the state-controlled KCA. It has no hierarchical links with the Vatican and there are no known Catholic priests or nuns.

According to the KCA, there are 3,000 followers in the North, but outside experts put the figure at around 800. Some analysts believe the organization is only intended to give the impression that North Korea allows religious freedom.

Bishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung serves as the archbishop of Seoul as well as apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, North Korea, as Bishop Hong Yong-ho of Pyongyang was kidnapped by the Communists in 1949. It was only last year that the Vatican declared Hong dead. Yet it appears embracing North Korea remains a real challenge for Yeom and the Vatican.

The best the pope could do was to invite five representatives of families whose loved ones were kidnapped by the North and 30 elderly Catholics who crossed the inter-Korean border into the South during the 1950-53 Korean War to the Mass yesterday.

The Vatican has not established relations with the North. Their first encounter was in 1982 when an acrobatic team from the North touring Rome requested a meeting with the pope. The meeting was arranged. But the team failed to show up.

Over the decades there have been signs of improved relations, although they’ve been small. In the 1990s, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli visited Pyongyang twice, the first time to console flood victims and the second to urge humanitarian cooperation. Also in the 2000s, Monsignor Celestino Migliore, Vatican Under-Secretary for Relations with States visited Pyongyang to seek humanitarian cooperation on three occasions.

BY kim hyung-eun []

In his own words

“Peace is not simply the absence of war, but “the work of justice” (Isaiah 32:17). And justice, as a virtue, calls for the discipline of forbearance; it demands that we not forget past injustices but overcome them through forgiveness, tolerance and cooperation.”

-Address at the Blue House, Aug. 14

“May they also reject inhumane economic models which create new forms of poverty and marginalize workers, and the culture of death which devalues the image of God, the God of life, and violates the dignity of every man, woman and child.”

-Homily at mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Daejeon World Cup Stadium, Aug. 15

“We especially entrust to her all who lost their lives in the sinking of the Sewol ferry, as well as those who continue to be affected by this great national disaster. May the Lord welcome the dead into his peace, console those who mourn, and continue to sustain those who so generously came to the aid of their brothers and sisters.”

-Angelus Message at Daejeon World Cup Stadium, Aug. 15

“Are there two Koreas? ... No, there is one, but it is divided, the family is divided ... There is hope and it is beautiful. Korea is a family, you speak the same language.”

-Interview with young Catholics in South Chungcheong, Aug. 15

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