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.”
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.
Medical tourism to South Korea is booming as well, with 15,898 foreigners in 2012 visiting Korea for plastic surgery. South Korea has the most cosmetic procedures per capita in the world: One in five Korean women has had plastic surgery, and Seoul alone hosts 500 cosmetic surgery clinics, many offering special package deals with nearby hotels for post-recovery. At subway stations and on buses and streets, billboards advertise plastic surgery clinics that guarantee bigger, double-lidded eyes and pointier chins. On one train two women had puffed, vein-streaked eyes, taped eyelids, and bandages around swollen, bruised noses and chins. At first I thought they were abuse victims, but they were post–plastic surgery patients.
I left the train feeling sad and angry. How far we have fallen! Korea once boasted about its explosion of Christian missionaries and distinct love for the Bible, but now we’re implanting false models of beauty and success. We’re entertaining the world with the likes of Psy, whose hit music videos “Gangnam Style” and more recently “Hangover” (with rap artist Snoop Dogg) ostensibly mock yet celebrate sexual and alcohol perversions.
This phenomenon hit home when I met two of my favorite female cousins who live in Seoul. One cousin, a 21-year-old college student, told me she felt such shame next to the skinny girls in her class that she dieted away 33 pounds, becoming so much skin-and-bones that soft downy hair covers her goose-prickled arms—a clear sign that her body needs fat. I worried for her, and then worried about my other cousin, a 24-year-old who confided that she now regularly binges and throws up. She too blames media and peer pressure. Both cousins’ mothers have suggested they get plastic surgery.
The trip gave me many reasons to pray. I saw much blessing that South Korea has enjoyed over the decades, as it almost miraculously surged from a third-world, war-devastated country to an advanced nation recognized for its economic achievements, technological progress, glamorous pop culture, and passionate church revival. This country literally rose out of ashes, and in those ashes was the blood of thousands of Christian martyrs. Many Christians I interviewed lament that Koreans today, content with designer clothes and organic apples, have forgotten the meaning of suffering. But that’s not true. People are still suffering, only in a different way.
On April 16, the South Korean ferry Sewol sank while on a 13.5-hour route to Jeju, a southern resort island. The incident left about 300 individuals dead or missing, 250 of them 16- or 17-year-old students. Only 172 individuals survived.
The disaster exposed many layers of corruption. On the list: ship-abandoning captain and senior crew, inadequate safety precautions, lax business regulation, nepotism, political power-play, media censorship, and a bizarre heretic pastor-billionaire.
A fountain of grief, rage, guilt, remorse, and shame frothed in South Korea. TV stations suspended all entertainment programs and shows. Upcoming festivals, concerts, company retreats, and ceremonials were canceled. Even anticipation for the imminent World Cup, a national obsession, was hushed. As a result, Korea’s economy is suffering. People working at hotels, bakeries, and karaoke cafés told me business is poor. The Bank of Korea reported a dampened domestic consumer sentiment, and analysts predict an economic loss of 1.5 trillion won ($1.46 billion).
One day, history textbooks will reference all the human errors and wrongdoings that led up to the catastrophe. Meanwhile, many Christians are urgently praying for the Korean church to reflect on the event’s spiritual significance and consequence.
Park Hyung-jin, missions professor at Torch Trinity Graduate University, said South Korea may have progressed in economy and pop culture, “but in truth, we’ve distanced from God’s heart, from the individual to the church. God is showing us how rotten we’ve become—rotten to the core.”
On May 15 and July 7, at the 100th Anniversary Memorial Church in Seoul, a group of senior pastors gathered for a conference titled, “I repent first, cane prayer meeting.” During the meeting, the pastors got on stage with canes, rolled up their pants, and whipped their own calves, mourning the church’s loss of the “martyr’s faith” and “message of repentance” that seeded Korea’s early churches.
On May 25, about 200,000 people gathered in Busan under pouring rain for four hours, weeping and praying. They lamented the infiltration of “secularization and pervasive mammonism” into the Korean church and prayed for an “out of ashes” revival similar to the first Great Revival of 1907 that swept fiery movements of repentance and evangelism across the peninsula.
Deborah Keum, a pastor who attended that Busan repentance meeting and other similar revival movements, said the Sewol disaster has “triggered” a “new season of repentance” in South Korea: “We’re at a tipping point right now. Yes, we’re grieving, but what’s the next step? God’s turning our hearts around. … And we’re awakening.”
Park, however, also worries about the typical Korean naembi (saucepan) tendency to react passionately but cool just as rapidly: “Let’s hope we don’t cool down this time round. Pray that we use this as an opportunity to teach, correct, and repent. Otherwise, I fear another incident will happen again.” —S.L.