By David Alton
Pope John Paul II has described the church in Korea as “a community unique in the history of the church.” Founded in the late eighteenth century the Korean Church is unique because it alone is the only local Church to have been founded solely by lay people. It is a church founded without missionaries and it is a Church which continues to suffer.
200 years ago young Korean intellectuals, such as Yi Pyok, read about Christianity from Chinese books circulating among a group of friends. In 1777 he brought them together to make further study. They met in a Buddhist monastery happily known as the Hermitage of Heavenly Truth.
One of Yi Pyok’s young associates, Yi Sunghun, travelled to China and met French missionaries. They baptised him with the name of Peter, and he returned to Korea in 1785. Within a year a secret church was established in Seoul (now part of the Cathedral campus). The authorities raided it and discovered a prayer group. The owner of the house, Thomas Kim, was so badly injured during interrogation that he died of the injuries. He became the first of 10,000 witnesses for the faith. In 1801 alone more than 300 Christians were executed.
Intermittently, itinerant priests arrived in the country – most were executed. For 35 years the fledgling church was without a single priest. Only one sacrament could be given – and thousands came forward to be baptised.
In 1837 a French priest, Laurent Imbert became the first bishop of the Korean diocese. Within weeks 2,000 had been baptised bringing the total number of Korean Christians to 9,000. Two years later he was decapitated, with two other priests. Hundreds of Korean Christian suffered the same brutal fate, including many members of the same family: fathers along with their sons and daughters, wives and mothers.
Typical was Peter Yu, aged 13, who was tortured on 14 occasions. In his defiance he even picked up shreds of his own flesh and threw them before his interrogators. He was strangled in the prison in October 1839. 150 years later he would be canonised.
In 1845 the first Korean-born priest, Andrew Kim, aged just 25 was arrested, stripped and decapitated.
The persecution continued until 1886 – with four generations of martyrs in one family alone. In a moving CTS Pamphlet, “Martyrs of Korea”, Canon Richard Rutt eloquently tells their story.
Today, in North Korea persecution has returned – initiated by its dictator, Kim Il Sung.
Becoming a Christian is a serious crime. Some who have escaped say that they had never seen a church or a Bible before leaving the country. Many are in camps or prison – where they are kept in horrific conditions, fed on starvation rations. Deprived of sleep they are crammed into overcrowded cells. They are unable to even lie down straight.
Meanwhile, China continues to repatriate refugees who have fled across the border. They return to torture, interrogation and humiliation. Any woman who became pregnant in China will be forcibly aborted to avoid the birth of babies “contaminated” by foreign influences. There are also reliable reports of infanticide. There are reports of repatriated North Koreans being corralled and bound together with wire being passed through their wrists or noses.
So Korea’s suffering continues and Korean blood continues to be spilt. Before we all get too worked up about American “aggression” towards North Korea we should be clear about the nature of this regime and the history of a people who have already endured suffering enough.