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Korean Han and Evangelization
A reflection by Bishop Paul Tchang Ryeol Kim / Jeju/South Korea
- April 5, 1986 -

It is common knowledge that in Korea, unlike many other countries, the preaching of the Gospel has been remarkably well received. This is surely not just accidental. It is my conviction that this will continue for as long as we do not separate Korean culture from the experience of han. Not only Catholicism, but all forms of religion are doing well in Korea. The Protestant denominations are flourishing, and Buddhism is enjoying a revival. Primitive religions, quasi-religions and even superstition and occult sects are also thriving.

Manifestations of Han

What is this thing called han, which seems to be peculiar to Korea? No foreign word can adequately translate it, for it includes such different nuances as are conveyed by the words rancor, grudge, hatred, lamentation, regret, grief, pathos, self-pity, fate, mortification, etc. Han's exact meaning can only be grasped experientially.

Korean culture is the culture of han.  Han flows in the blood of Koreans and manifests itself in Korean customs, literature, art, and in the melodies and folk music which hark back to home and youth, in the plaintive songs of the farmers, and in the cynicism, sarcasm and humor of the mask dances which make fun of the nobility. It is present in the tears of reunion or of separation, and we find it especially in the sobbing and wailing at a funeral. Television captured it in the heart-rending weeping and hugging of the reunion scenes of the families dispersed during the Korean War, and again last year when some divided families met in Seoul and in Pyongyang.

Blessing or Curse?

The prevalence of han might be attributed to the unfortunate fate of the Korean nation which for centuries has been the victim of the avarice of neighboring countries, and endured the bitter experience of serving others. However, the long history of powerful nations politically, economically, and diplomatically exploiting Korea is not the sole origin of han. Something within ourselves, namely a factor created by our own race has also been operative. The age-old intransigence of political parties, economic inequality, class and sexual discrimination - all these have contributed greatly to the creation of han culture.

At one level han appears to be the legacy of a curse, but in reality, it has been a kind of blessing, because it has been the catalyst to cause us to search for God. Tertullian said that human beings are born with Christian nature. I do not have the boldness to say that the Korean people have a natural Christian heart, but certainly we are naturally endowed with a deep religious disposition. I believe that it is one of han's blessings. God uses han to shake us up, to wake us from our sleep, and thus He makes us realize the vanity of life, the ultimate emptiness of the things of this world. Through han He prevents us from finding satisfaction in earthly things and stimulates us to search for the absolute and everlasting.

Thirty years ago, when the economic level of Korea was very low, I heard many people saying: "Because Korea has just undergone a terrible war and is now stricken with destitution, it is natural that many people are seeking consolation and refuge in religion. But wait and see! When the economic level reaches the standard of Japan (U.S. $800, per capita income at that time), Korea will no longer attach great importance to spiritual and supernatural values." Their gloomy prediction turned out wrong!  Although the economic standard of Korea today far surpasses the level of Japan at that time, our people's religious spirit shows no sign of weakening but, on the contrary, continues to grow more vigorous. Pope John Paul II noted the high standard of living and education among Korean Catholics. I am not, by any means, just vainly boasting about this. The preaching efforts of the Church have been mainly directed to the ordinary people, but the fact is that the response of the wealthy and intellectual classes has been exactly the same. This blessing is the heritage of han.

I used to ardently wish that han would disappear from our land but today, as I have come to realize that han is a precious gift bestowed on the Korean race by God, my attitude has changed. Han was the inspiration of our Catholic martyrs, and as long as han exists the Korean people will remain a religious people, even if our economic strength increases tenfold. Han has truly been a messenger of God, and through it the Korean people are blessed race!

+ Paul Tchang Ryeol Kim
Bishop of Jeju Diocese
South Korea

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