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The Catholic content of President Kim’s Nobel Prize

Forgive a certain parochial tone here, but in virtually all the news accounts of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s Nobel Peace Prize, there was scant attention paid to the significant role his Catholic faith has played in his formation.

President Kim is the first Korean to receive a Nobel Prize and was cited for his tireless efforts for peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, the last frontier of the Cold War.

Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, retired archbishop of Seoul, who first nominated Kim as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, said, “The award is an honor not only for President Kim but also for the entire Korean people. President Kim’s efforts for democracy and human rights were finally recognized internationally.”

Shortly after the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Kim as this year’s laureate, he said that he would share the peace honor with victims of South Korea’s past authoritarian regimes, and his supporters at home and abroad. “I will continue to make efforts for democracy and peace on the Korean peninsula and throughout Asia and the world,” he said.

Kim faced many trials, including attempts on his life and years of imprisonment and exile under past military regimes. In those tumultuous years when South Korea was under the authoritarian grip of President Park Chung Hee, Kim successively became a dissident, an exile, a death-row prisoner and, again, an exile. Through it all, he was a determined human rights campaigner and a champion of democracy.

The darkest moments came in 1973 when the exiled Kim was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel by agents of the South Korean government and was about to be dumped, bound and blindfolded, into the sea when agents from the United States intervened to save him.

Kim ties his current passion for peace and reconciliation to a spiritual experience he said he had at that time. As his political enemies prepared to drown him, God intervened, he said. “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 a strong religious outlook is not unusual for Koreans, according to scholars of Korea’s contemporary religious history. Andrew E. Kim, writing for Korea Overseas Information Service, notes 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.

The Catholic church in South Korea during the past four decades has been a rallying point in Korean society for human rights causes.

Christianity, first introduced to Korea in the late 1700s, has grown faster in South Korea than in almost 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 scholars with a strong interest in Western civilization studied it.

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.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000