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(30) Cardinal Kim Su-hwan who led major changes in Catholic Church

2012/03/21 | 783 views |  | Permalink | Source

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Cardinal Kim Su-hwan presides over a mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul in this photo taken in 1993. He was the first South Korean to become a Roman Catholic cardinal. / Korea Times file

By Andrei Lankov

When in 1968 Fr. Stephen Kim Su-hwan was made the head of the Korean Catholic Church, insiders immediately understood that major changes were to occur in the near future. They were correct: Under the leadership of Kim Su-hwan the Korean Catholic Church became a powerful force in Korea's democracy movement.

The first Koreans were converted to Catholicism in the late 1700s and, remarkably, this happened without the direct involvement of missionaries. A number of young Korean intellectuals were influenced by the Christian treatises which were imported to Korea from China.

The authorities did not like the new religion, so the Korean Catholics suffered occasional outbursts of brutal persecution (it is not incidental that the Korean Catholic Church has so many martyrs). Each time hundreds and thousands of church followers were slaughtered and tortured to death, but the catacomb church survived until the 1880s when the old bans on Christian activities were finally lifted.

Nonetheless, throughout the colonial period Korean Catholicism kept its distance from political activism. The French school of thought dominated the Korean Catholic Church from the early 1800s for over a century, and this was a conservative one, overtly hostile to revolutionary and reformist activities. The proper place for paradise was heaven, and attempts to build an imperfect copy of paradise on earth were not to be supported.

This policy presented a striking contrast to the attitude Protestant missionaries adopted when they began to arrive in Korea from the 1880s. The Protestants were firmly on the side of reform and progress. They opened schools, introduced modern science, established hospitals, and strove to educate the new elite.

However, post-1945 the tables turned. In Korea of the 1960s and '70s support for political activism and the democracy movement was largely the domain of the Catholics, while Protestant communities usually (not always, of course) remained passive.

The major goal of the democratic movement was to overthrow or transform the authoritarian regimes which ruled the country from 1948 to 1987. However, the Protestants tended to be positive towards these authoritarian regimes or, at the very least, were willing to turn a blind eye to many excesses of the dictators.

First of all, the new regimes were very supportive of Protestantism. Syngman Rhee, the founding father of both the South Korean state and South Korean authoritarianism, was a zealous believer who even attempted to make the common prayer obligatory at the opening of National Assembly sessions. The 1948 cabinet, incidentally, had 21 ministers, nine of whom were Protestants.

Second, the Protestants were strongly connected to the United States and deeply anti-communist. They suffered greatly at the hands of the North before and during the Korean War, and they believed (correctly, I note) that any South Korean authoritarian regime is far better than that of Kim Il-sung. For them, the local dictatorships were a bulwark against communism.

The Catholics were in a different position. If anything, they were annoyed by the pro-Protestant biases of the post-1945 governments, and they were ready to stress that support for human rights or workers' interests did not necessary transform a person into a communist sympathizer.

The involvement of the Catholic Church with democratic opposition first began in the 1950s. In the initial stage it probably had more to do with factional politics than with principles. The foremost leader of the opposition in the late 1950s, Chang Myon, was a Catholic, and he had good relations with Ro Ki-nam, the Bishop of Seoul from the early 1940s (yes, he got in his position with the tacit approval of the colonial authorities). Ro soon came to be known as the "political bishop" because of his frequent critical statements on the dictatorial tendencies of Rhee.

By the late 1950s Chang Myon emerged as the major alternative to Rhee, and in 1960, when he was overthrown by a popular revolution, Chang Myon became the country's prime minister ― that is, its chief executive.

Ro, in spite of his frequent attacks on Rhee's abuses of power, was, first and foremost, a skillful political operator and power broker, not a fighter for some social cause. However, he laid foundation for political activism which had been so long absent from the traditions of the Korean Catholic church.

It was during his tenure that the first socially oriented Catholic groups like the Young Catholic Workers' Association were established. Initially these bodies kept a low profile, but in the turbulent 1970s these groups played a major role.

In 1968 Ro retired, giving way to Kim Su-hwan. The cardinal's father was a poor potter. He plied the trade which had been associated with Catholicism since the heroic days of the catacomb church in the early 1800s (potters' hamlets were usually located in remote areas, hence presenting the best environment for an underground missionary). The cardinal's family had a long Catholic background: his grandfather was killed during the last persecution of the Christians in the 1860s.

When in 1968 Kim Su-hwan was made cardinal aged 46, he was the youngest member of the College of Cardinals. In due time, he would become the oldest member of the college.

Once at the helm of the Korean Catholic Church, Cardinal Kim began to steer it towards greater social activism. Prior to his appointment, he was the head of the Young Catholic Workers' Association, and once in power he began to support the workers' attempts to establish unions and wage strikes, much to the dismay of both factory owners and the authorities.

In the early 1970, Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun of Wonju began to dabble in politics in a much more serious manner. He gave money to student activist groups whose members criticized the authoritarian rule of President Pak Chung-hee. This support led to his arrest in July 1974 and to mass public outcry, supported and encouraged by Kim. Chi received a 15-year prison sentence. This led to the creation of the Priests' Association for the Realization of Justice. The arrest of a bishop was an unprecedented action indeed, and under the growing pressure the government had to release Chi less than a year. The "Bishop Chi affair" demonstrated the growing radicalism of the Korean Church and its newly found political strength.

From 1972 to 1980 the country lived under the dictatorship of General Park Chung-hee. The record-breaking economic growth was one part of Korean life in those years ― political persecution was another.

Myeongdong Cathedral, the major Catholic church of the country, also served as a shelter for all kinds of anti-government activities. It was there in March 1976 a group of priests signed the Protestant-Catholic Declaration for National Salvation. It demanded Park's resignation, and five Catholic priests were soon jailed for their involvement.

The cathedral played the role of the opposition's safety haven a number of times. During the great pro-democracy rallies in the summer of 1987, Myeongdong Cathedral was a usual gathering point for demonstrators. When on June 10 some 500 protestors, largely students, found refugee inside the cathedral, and there was a chance the police would storm in, Cardinal Kim said that the priests would go to the front lines to resist a forced entry and protect the students. Dozens of nuns also came to the cathedral, ready to play the role of a human shield in case of a police attack.

The attack did not happen, the generals soon resigned from power and Korea became a democracy. The role played by the Catholics and Kim in this change was truly remarkable.

Cardinal Kim Su-hwan died in Seoul in 2009, aged 87.

Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at

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