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Korean leader sees God’s work in his life


According to news reports, many South Koreans find the reunification fever sweeping their country a bit surreal after 55 years of division, of regarding their northern neighbors as mortal enemies. “Suddenly,” proclaimed The New York Times on June 19, “South Koreans are enthralled with all things North Korean.”

Clearly, both North and South are reaching out, with South Korean president Kim Dae Jung taking the lead, and North Korean president Kim Jong II doing his part -- even to the point of expressing his openness to a visit from the pope. Kim Dae Jung’s visit to North Korea June 13-15 was the first ever by a South Korean president to the North.

All of this may be confusing for the politically reserved. However, for the 75-year-old South Korean president, the successful summit with the Northern leader and the prospect of reconciliation represents fulfillment of a long-held dream, a Christian hope that has infused his embattled political career.

South Korea’s President Kim, a convert to Catholicism who once had a direct experience of Jesus as his political enemies prepared to drown him, regards his years of political trials as nothing less than a chance to participate in “God’s redemptive work.”

For 30 years until he was elected president of South Korea just three years ago, following three unsuccessful bids, Kim Dae Jung was a political outsider and a member of the opposition party. His election marked the first time an opposition leader had come to power since Korea was partitioned in 1945.

Attracted to Catholicism in part because it was the faith of John M. Chang, opposition party leader, Kim was baptized in his early 30s. Consciously merging his newfound faith with his political resistance, he took Thomas More as his baptismal name and asked Chang to be his sponsor.

Perseverance is perhaps the most striking quality of Kim’s career. He has suffered torture, years of imprisonment and house arrest, two exiles from his homeland and four assassination attempts, by his own count.

In the most dramatic assassination attempt, the one most relevant to his sense of religious mission, he was kidnapped from a hotel in Tokyo in 1973 by men working for then-president Park Chung-hee. Kim, as he described the incident in a 1993 interview, was “in a dead faint … on the verge of being thrown into the sea in the darkness of the night.”

“I used to pray twice a day,” he said, “but at that crucial moment I didn’t and was only thinking about how I could save myself.

“At that moment, Jesus Christ stood beside me. I firmly held his sleeves, honestly begging for my life. A few seconds later, red beams of light flashed through my blindfold, and I heard a boom, boom! Then there was the sound of planes approaching and somebody calling my name.”

His life was spared.

“All my hard trials experienced in the past -- imprisonment, frequent detention, torture and forced exiles -- happened in the process of God’s redemptive work,” he said in 1993, “and in that sense, I think, I have also participated in God’s salvation project.”

Such an outlook is not unusual for Koreans, according to scholars of Korea’s contemporary religious history. For instance, Andrew E. Kim, writing for Korea Overseas Information Service, finds that Korea’s long history of political vulnerability to Chinese and Japanese control, Japanese colonialism and then the Korean War has provided fertile ground for Christianity and its theology of salvation-in-history.

Christianity, first introduced to Korea in the late 1700s, has grown faster in South Korea than in any other country. Though estimates of the Christian population vary, reliable data-gatherers say it increased from 4 million in 1974 to 22 million -- nearly half the population -- in 1997. About 3 million of those are Roman Catholics.

An intriguing aspect of Korea’s introduction to Christianity is that it came through laymen rather than missionary priests. Around 1770, Chong Tu-won learned about Christianity through Catholic literature encountered on a visit to China. He brought it back to Korea, where it was studied by scholars with a strong interest in Western civilization.

Although Korean Catholics are often described as conservative, the label hardly fits President Kim. “I firmly belief that God exists and lives in a variety of forms, also in Buddhism, Confucianism and other religions,” he said. About 2 percent of Asia’s population is Christian.

This article is based on wire stories, including UCA News and Catholic News Service.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000