South Korea’s very real differences from a totalitarian society give the lie to the widening belief that its present restrictive regime differs little from the repressive conditions that prevailed during the Japanese occupation (1905–1945) or that presently exist under North Korean Communism.
The land with the largest population percentage of Protestant Christians in Asia, South Korea has not curtailed religious liberty of public assembly to worship, to preach the Gospel, to evangelize openly, and to make converts. This is in marked contrast to North Korea, where the disappearance of church buildings is propagandistically attributed to American saturation bombing during the Korean War, while suppression even of an underground church is assured by the requirement that five families lodge together in communes where each family is officially responsible for policing the others. South Koreans voluntarily reject atheistic Communism as a malevolent totalitarian system. They enjoy various rights like that of private property, though they lack freedom of political criticism, dissent, and protest.
It might therefore be understandable if Christians were to forgo other considerations in order to safeguard the noteworthy freedoms they have, in view of South Korea’s accelerated emphasis on national order and security in the aftermath of Communist victories in Indochina and of Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean demand for American withdrawal and the reunification of Korea on his own terms. At what point does one torpedo a ship full of friends because of pointed disagreements with much that its captain—President Park of South Korea—does?
South Korean security precautions must, moreover, be viewed in terms of the fact that its capital, Seoul, tenth largest city in the world, is only twenty-five miles from the North Korean border and two seconds from military air strike across the demilitarized zone, where acoustical engineers recently detected seventeen underground infiltration tunnels dug by North Koreans.
Yet the Gospel of Christ contains more than the assurance of divine forgiveness and new life; it includes also the seed of human dignity and freedom. To obscure this essential fact is no less to imperil the human soul than to neglect personal evangelism. William Carey went to India to preach the Gospel, but he never hesitated to protest the burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres. In South Korea today Christian protest is directed at inhumane treatment of political prisoners and at other restrictive measures that demean the value of human life.
The potential collision course between government restriction and Christian freedom involves multiple fronts: lengthy imprisonment of thirty-two political prisoners without fair trial and the execution of eight of these without public evidence warranting the death penalty; use of torture in interrogating political prisoners; removal by special decree (Number Nine) of every right of public dissent against government policy; harassment, detainment, or confinement of family members and relatives of political prisoners who gather to pray for the government and the nation; official requirement of student anti-Communist demonstrations; restrictions on a free press and other mass media, such as the stationing of South Korean CIAThe CIA mentioned throughout this article is a South Korean agency, not its well-known U. S. counterpart, with which it has no connection. agents in the editorial and news rooms of the Christian Broadcasting System’s HLKY, oldest private station in the country, as well as at all other major networks; unconfirmed reports that CIA agents have asked for advance copies of sermons in order to allay political criticism.
Use of torture is difficult to prove, and no documented case of it has been presented in over a year. Temporarily imprisoned groups of students have insisted that one or another of their number was mercilessly tortured, but, while many have doubtless been roughed up by interrogators, personal confirmation of physical torture is quite another matter. More probably, taped recordings of physical torture were played in adjoining rooms (a form of psychological torture?) to create an impression of what awaited those who did not fully cooperate with government investigators. Yet the refusal of South Korean authorities to release the bodies of executed political prisoners to their families for private burial has fanned the worst possible suspicions about physical torture.
The harassment of a particular series of prayer meetings was ventured because government agents viewed them as acts of political criticism and hence as indirectly serviceable to the Communist threat. Of the aforementioned thirty-two political prisoners, none except for one Catholic was a Christian; some of their families, however, who have become believers were forcibly prevented by CIA agents or police from attending the prayer gatherings that on the day after the executions attracted some 500 persons and that represented the last continuing expression of public concern over their relatives’ fate.
The Park regime tends to interpret separation of church and state to mean not that a church has liberty to pursue all legitimate concerns but rather that Christian leaders and workers should be uncritical of the political order. Even the opposition political party has been stripped of all effective public dissent by a recent emergency decree that under severe penalty prohibits any public criticism of the present regime.
After a shutdown lasting several months, universities and seminaries have been reopened under prospect of permanent close in the event of political protest. Campuses are now required to enroll students in military exercises that prepare a student militia; faculty members are involved in related duties as leaders of company squads or as advisors. To discourage campus political activity, CIA agents and representatives of the education ministry have long kept a watchful eye on all schools; since hostile demonstration has been banned as a precondition for reopening the institutions, however, military training has become a compulsory part of the academic program.
The militarization of Korean universities and seminaries is causing many educators growing concern lest the campuses be lost as intellectually critical centers of society. To be sure, the Korean academic ideal is more that of the literati than of the intelligentsia, but even a regimented literati is a worrisome prospect. While assurance is given that there will be no interference with academic administration, government spokesmen (by telephone or in personal conversation) pressure presidents of educational institutions to dismiss specific faculty members or expel specific students for political rather than academic reasons.
The present regime is consequently losing credibility among university and college students as unnecessarily restrictive of liberties and as inadequately protective of justice; such a mood gains popularity more easily among a younger generation that knows only discontents with its own government than among an older generation that fought Communist tyranny. It would be misleading, however, to attribute all student criticism to moral concern; some students have an elitist spirit critical of all historical reality, and some simply want the same campus freedom that earlier students had. Others, however, feel that the South Korean government made needless concessions during the Japanese annexation period and that the regimentation inherent in present policy offends the Korean character. Some students wanted for questioning—the possibility exists that these include a few Communist plants no less than South Korean CIA agents—are now hiding out from authorities determined to uncover and deal with every public expression of political opposition.
Educators fear that compulsory anti-Communist demonstrations will be self-defeating, since voluntary and intellectually persuasive considerations will be dwarfed, particularly among those who consider political reflection, analysis, and criticism crucial; moreover, imposition of controls may seem to the student generation to narrow differences between two regimes of totalitarian disposition. Even more distressing is the fact that, as some observers fear, South Korean educational, military, and economic policy may soon become aspects of a nationalistic blueprint for a specific future already being shaped.
Quite apart from its modern Christian heritage, Korea has had a long tradition of right of remonstrance under Confucianism, the state ideology from the fourteenth century to the Japanese occupation. In Confucian practice young scholars who passed civil-service exams selected lines from the classics as texts through which they emphasized the ruler’s moral responsibility and criticized government policy in the presence of the king. Rulers who were ethically irresponsible and neglectful of the people not infrequently exiled such critics and sometimes ordered their execution.
Nonetheless, Korean tradition was far less concerned with individual rights than with human rights in general, and not even the problem of minority rights was considered vital.
The Christian missionaries espouse and practice a higher view of personal dignity and freedom in view of the image of God in man and the divine purpose, which limits civil government. But the missionary’s proper role in promoting human rights is now widely disputed. In more developed countries, the World Council of Churches actively champions civil liberties. Quite apart from the fact that it sometimes does this in the controversial context of a Marxist criticism of society, is it equally proper for missionaries to champion human freedoms in developing countries bound to ancient cultures and non-biblical religions? Where Communism is a threat and national security a high priority, should the missionary exercise the same role as elsewhere?
The posture of the foreign missionary in Korea as elsewhere is somewhat different from that of the nationals. Most missionaries are from lands that recognize the right of public demonstration and political protest. The Korean government has been increasingly vexed by adverse missionary assessment of restrictive policies. It deported George Ogle, for example, a Methodist missionary who, besides promoting industrial social change by enlisting factory chaplains to organize labor unions, also ventured prayer meetings with relatives and friends of political prisoners. Korean authorities viewed these prayer meetings, which originated in Ogle’s home, as possibly subversive because they provided a context for political criticism of government policy and thus might fuel obstructive demonstration. Ogle was one of eight American Christian workers who in a hooded demonstration on the grounds of the American embassy protested U.S. support of the South Korean government with its repressive policies. American authorities approved the demonstration in advance; sharing the sense of South Korea’s need for military readiness, they nonetheless seem unconvinced of South Korea’s need for unreasonably stern political repression.
Missionaries who complain to visiting U. S. leaders or who express displeasure to U. S. embassies about foreign diminution of human rights are readily considered obstructive to national policy by American allies. What is most serviceable in such representations, of course, is a factual report of what is actually happening. Wherever the United States supplies generous military and economic aid to foreign countries that abbreviate human rights and even harass legitimate Christian enterprise in violation of full religious liberty, citizens in America ought to unite in expressing to the American president, to Congress, to the State Department, and to the U. S. ambassador abroad their convictions about universal human dignity and freedom. America has won such rights at great cost on the home scene, and the struggle for their ongoing perpetuation there is a matter of daily headlines. Totalitarian-expensive powers are not American allies worthy of uncritical support and defense. Indifference to diminishing rights will only encourage the rise of abuses on the American scene also. Christian conscience has good reason to assert its claims. The American press—both secular and religious—takes an increasingly dim view of political restrictions in South Korea, and this stance reflects not only Anglo-Saxon political traditions but Christian concerns also.
South Korea like every other nation must earn the trust of its allies. In the aftermath of the American failure in Indochina, however, threatened and insecure Asian nations are reluctant to entrust their future mainly to a foreign power. South Korea is also well aware that the United States is defensively leagued with Spain and other countries whose political postures differ greatly from American democracy, and it is no secret that even the United States itself speaks with multiple voices. Yet respect for foreign self-determination does not require suppressing American witness to the dignity and rights of human beings, and the Christian community least of all ought to condone the unjustifiable diminution of these rights.
South Korea’s President Park sees himself not as a despotic ruler but as an embattled hero whose anti-Communist leadership has held North Korea at bay, has brought remarkable economic progress to South Korea, and has cost him the assassination of his wife. The most precious and memorable gift that Park could give to South Korea would be the precedent of a peaceful transition of power in 1978 when his term expires, for the good of a land whose growth and gains have in numerous ways outstripped its present vision and leadership. Some perceptive observers think that South Korea’s future now hangs decisively upon the directions taken nationally during these next five years. Whatever those directions may be, it is South Koreans themselves, and neither American expatriates nor global allies, whose determinations will be ultimately decisive. By breeding uneasy apprehension and fear among the South Korean citizenry, the present policy of the Park regime actually defeats the very confidence and hope it seeks to instill.
CARL F. H. HENRYThe author, lecturer-at-large for World Vision International, recently completed a ten-week Asian lecture tour, in part at the Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission in Seoul.
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