On March 1st, 1919 3PM at Pagoda Park in Seoul Korea, a student name Jae-yong Jung read aloud Korean Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that Korea has the right to exist as a free and independent nation from Japan’s colonization which lasted from 1910 to 1945. That student was reading a document written and signed by 33 Korean National representatives. The signers’ names are:
Son Pyung-hi, Kil Sun Chu, Yi Pil Chu, Paik Yong Sung, Kim Won Kyu, Kim Pyung Cho, Kim Chang Choon, Kwon Dong Chin, Kwon Byung Duk, Na Yong Whan, Na In Hup, Yang Chun Paik, Yang Han Mook, Lew Yer Dai, Yi Kop Sung, Yi Mung Yong, Yi Seung Hoon, Yi Chong Hoon, Yi Chong Il, Lim Yei Whan, Pak Choon Seung, Pak Hi Do, Pak Tong Wan, Sin Hong Sik, Sin Suk Ku, Oh Sei Chang, Oh Wha Young, Chung Choon Su, Choi Sung Mo, Choi In, Han Yong Woon, Hong Byung Ki, Hong Ki Cho.
Of the 33 signers, 16 were Christians. According to “Christianity in Korea” by Robert E. Buswell, the number of Christians arrested during the march 1st, 1919 Korean Independence movement were: Presbyterians 1461; Methodists 465; Roman Catholics 57; Others 207. Less than four months later, the number of Presbyterians in jail had increased to 3,804, among them were 134 pastors and elders.
These are stunning figures as History of Christianity in Korea was not long at this point. Korea boasts 5000 years of history and became self-evangelized only in 1784 AD when Seunghoon Lee, a Korean diplomat returned from China baptized and with various theological texts written by an Italian Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci. Upon his arrival he established a small church in Myungdong, part of Seoul which now is the site of MyungDong Cathedral, and Christianity began spreading from that small seed without any western or external missionary’s aid (not until first Roman Catholic missionary arrived in 1836 and written/translated bible were handed out in 1863 by a protestant missionary).
The persecution of Christians by the Korean government began in 1785 officially outlawing Christianity. It saw Christianity as a threat to the existing power structure since Christianity preached that all are equal before God. The persecutions of 1801, 1839, 1846 and 1866 led to the death of 10,000 Christian martyrs, including the execution of Andrew Taegun Kim in 1846 who was the first native Korean Christian priest in Korea.
Despite all these, Christianity not only survived but thrived in Korea partly because of its involvement in Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonization and the recovery effort from civil war (1950 – 1953) which saw the country divided north and south. Christianity in Korea embraced many socially radical ideas at the time such as teaching and using Hangul as written communication method (to that point Chinese characters were used as official written communication system), teaching Hangul to kids and women, starting women’s bible study groups, establishing Universities and hospitals around the country.
Church is no church if it abandons the gospel in order to conform itself to the government ideology (think of National church of Germany that embraced Nazism and in doing so ignored/suppressed large part of the Gospel) but it is also no church that turns blind eye to the national crisis that under minds human rights. Christians and Missionaries in Korea were significant part of Korean Independence movement and their efforts to liberate Korea contributed to the exponential growth of Christian population in it.
Many Koreans and Korean-Canadians are here in Canada enjoying all of its blessings including great social security and health care systems but without the martyrs of the past, who saw the relevance of Christian Gospel to the Korean National crisis, none of us would be here. (Most of the martyrs mentioned here are Koreans but I wish to also acknowledge the non-Korean martyrs – especially missionaries – during the Japanese colonization and Civil war period of Korean history) On March 1st,, Korea remembers and honours patriotic Koreans and foreigners who gave their lives for the freedom of you and me. Please take some time to give prayer of thanksgiving for them.