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PRESSURE: Shoppers pass before and after photos at the entrance to a plastic surgery clinic in the Gangnam District of Seoul.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/AP
PRESSURE: Shoppers pass before and after photos at the entrance to a plastic surgery clinic in the Gangnam District of Seoul.

Plastic facade

South Korea | South Korea’s glittering prosperity masks a suffering people

Issue: "Into thin air," Aug. 23, 2014

This summer for the first time I entered my native country, South Korea, as an American citizen. Walking through the capital, Seoul, I spotted countless crosses—churches are everywhere—but also flags bearing swastikas. In Korea those flags signal shamanism, a hereditary ancient religion that encompasses idol and ancestral worship. More than once, fortune-telling Buddhist cult followers approached me in the streets and tried to persuade me to their faith. I bought two such evangelists’ smoothies to evangelize back. We both departed frustrated and disappointed. No Christian evangelist approached me.

Korea is a land of stark dichotomies. The most obvious juxtaposition, of course, is at the 38th parallel. For almost 65 years, my country has been divided into North and South. The famous satellite image of nighttime in the Korean peninsula shows sparkles of light in the South, and almost total darkness in the North. While South Korean churches crank up the music and air conditioners every night for services, hidden Christians up North whisper in darkness, risking their lives each time they crack open a pocket-sized Bible.

But few people seem to remember this reality today. My maternal grandfather died with memories of his father being dragged off to the North with his communist sisters. His children and grandchildren, however, don’t desire reunification, because North Koreans are “too different,” from language to culture. One aunt told me, “We should send humanitarian aid, but let’s not invite them to flood our country.”

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I understood her sentiment. The people in the South have troubles of their own. South Koreans may not be starving and tortured in detention camps, but they are starving and tortured just the same. Their ugly and destructive issues are just buried under lovely coats of polish.

The recent Sewol tragedy (see sidebar) unearthed much of South Korea’s political, economic, and social corruption. But there are others: Sex trafficking and prostitution flourish in South Korea, which is a source, transit, and destination country for the sex trade. The Ministry of Gender Equality estimates about a half-million work in the domestic sex industry, which drives at least 4 percent of the nation’s GDP (and critics say that’s a grossly conservative number. The Korean Institute of Criminology says South Korean male tourists are the “number one source of demand for child sex trafficking” in Southeast Asia. South Korea also produces the highest-per-capita revenue for pornography, $526.76 (compared to $44.67 in the United States).

“Family” is traditionally the most important part of Korean life, but families are now falling apart. The national divorce rate has tripled from 2013 to 2014. South Korea has had the highest suicide rate among developed countries for eight consecutive years. In 2012, 39 people per day killed themselves. Suicide is the leading cause of death for 10- to 30-year-old South Koreans and those above 65 as well, whose suicide rates have tripled within the past decade. For people in their 40s, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.

Eddie Byun, pastor of the English Ministry at Onnuri Church, said, “If you look at these factors through spiritual lenses, I think it’s very obvious that there is such heavy spiritual warfare within this peninsula.” But South Korean churches are losing credibility and influence. A taxi driver, learning my father is a pastor, said we must be rich. When he saw the look on my face, he quickly added, “Well, I know most church pastors here in Korea earn a lot of money.” He’s probably read about the recent embezzlement scandal involving Cho Yonggi, founder and pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world with several hundred thousand members. Yoo Byung-eun is just another latest example.

As churches squabble over money and power and edge toward prosperity preaching, they water down the gospel—as do many American churches today: Many Christians fear the Korean churches are following that liberal path, and many non-Christian Koreans watch and smirk, with some nicknaming Christianity “kae-dok-kyo” instead of “ki-dok-kyo”—the word “kae” meaning “dog.” They don’t call pastors “mok-sa-nim,” but “muk-sa-nim”—the word “muk” means “to eat.”

Meanwhile, South Korea’s international image is prospering. In Myeongdong, one of Seoul’s most popular shopping districts, at least half the shoppers are foreigners. Salesgirls in cosmetics shops advertise products in Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. Even K-pop stars—called “idols” in Korea—now sing hit songs in accented English, Mandarin, and Japanese.

The entertainment industry has for decades been South Korea’s strongest political tool, a soft power to lubricate international hearts and minds into loving and admiring Korean culture. It's worked. One Canadian woman in her early 30s moved to Seoul because she “fell in love with Korean drama.” Another woman, a Singaporean in her late 20s, also quit her job to live in Korea. She’s spending her savings on two years of Korean language classes in one of the many language schools for foreign Korea-lovers like her. She too is an avid K-drama and K-pop fan.

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