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Young Christians in South Korea Are Apathetic About Reunification

“In my lifetime, I have never heard a church talk about reunification or peace between North and South Korea.”
Young Christians in South Korea Are Apathetic About Reunification
Image: Ahn Young-joon / AP Images
A man hangs a national flag wishing for the reunification and peace of the two Koreas on the wire fence in South Korea near the border of North Korea.

Solga Kim grew up singing the popular Korean folksong “Our Wish Is Reunification.”

Part of the lyrics goes like this: “Reunification carried out with all heart and soul / Reunification will revive our nation.” But the tune’s heartfelt desire for peace and unity between North and South Korea does not seem to be a melody that the Korean church often sings today.

“‘Peace’ in the Bible in Korea is often translated as personal inner peace, and it is rare for churches to preach the peace of the Bible in connection with the relationship between North and South Korea,” said Kim, a teacher who lives in Incheon, South Korea.

“In my lifetime, I have never heard a church talk about reunification or peace between North and South Korea.”

The two countries have been divided since July 27, 1953, when an armistice agreement was signed at the close of the Korean War that called for all military forces to be withdrawn, hostile activity to be suspended, and prisoners of war to be repatriated. The two countries, however, have never signed a peace treaty and are technically still at war.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice agreement. But today, reunification seems more like a pipe dream as young generations of South Koreans are becoming increasingly disinterested in being part of a unified Korea.

While interviews and surveys by CT suggest that Christians in South Korea are largely supportive of reunification, they hold differing ideas about how to accomplish it. Gen Z and millennial Christians—otherwise known in Korea as the MZ generation—are lackluster in their support due to social and economic pressures. Korean churches also lack consistent effort and awareness in promoting reunification as a key concern for congregants.

But some Christians are taking concrete steps toward this long-held dream, whether through pursuing language integration or providing creative educational approaches to educate young minds on God’s heart for the Korean people.

Youthful sentiments

According to a 2020 survey, Gen Z South Koreans are “relatively apathetic” regarding reunification and experience little affinity with North Koreans. Only 12 percent view North Korea in a positive light. Nearly half (47.1%) of people in their twenties said that unification was “not necessary,” compared to 23.8 percent of people in their forties, according to a 2021 survey.

When CT sent a questionnaire to a Korean Christian chat group to gather Gen Z responses about their attitudes toward reunification, 15-year-old Seo Yoon Jin responded, “I don’t think it’s necessary. Unification would be good culturally, but many conflicts are expected due to economic and ideological confrontations.”

“Rather, I think that if [South and North] Korea end the war and become divided, it will make the relationship between the two countries better,” she wrote.

Jin is not the only teenager who thinks that complete separation between North and South Korea is an ideal outcome. Many young South Koreans regard North Korea as a “poor, totalitarian state” whereas the South is “wealthy” and “democratic,” and find that this economic disparity cannot be resolved well.

No data on Christian attitudes toward reunification is available, but In-cheol Shin, a biblical theology professor at Korea Baptist Theological University, believes the proportion of MZ Christians who support reunification is approximately 20 to 25 percent. Shin believes that this percentage will continue to shrink, and attributes the decline to a lack of church investment in promoting reunification.

“I’m 57 at the moment. At one time, the church strongly educated [people] that we need reunification and that North and South Korea is one country. Now, the church is not interested in reunification,” he said.

Previous generations of South Koreans felt that reunification was a task imbued with ethnic, economic, and spiritual meaning, said Nam Sang-deuk, director of youth training at the Fourth River Project.

Current generations, however, may view unifying North and South Korea as a risk for several reasons, Nam said. Firstly, many young South Koreans view faith as a personal relationship with God rather than as a way to impact society. Secondly, most have never set foot in North Korea and have only met defectors, whereas older generations came from hometowns in the communist country. Thirdly, because of the church’s inconsistent messages, reunification is seen as a political rather than religious issue.

MZ Christians CT interviewed say they hope to see the North and South unified, but they acknowledge broad apathy amongst their peers and an inclination toward individualism that may well reflect the hollowness of their support.

“The idea of reunification just lingers in our thoughts or is sometimes brought up in a conversation, and the end result is usually [along] the lines of, ‘we should be grateful,’ ‘we should pray for them,’ ‘reunification is an important matter,’” wrote Shin’s son Dongmin, a 27-year-old Hanyang University business administration graduate, in an email to CT.

“I think most young South Korean [believers] fall victim to surviving the busy life and intense competition of South Korean society just as much as non-believers.”

“When it comes to reunification, young Koreans around me tend to consider their individual needs ahead of considering the perspective of reunification on a larger scale,” added 27-year-old Sun-Woo Kim, a movie director who attends Union Presbyterian Church in Seoul.

“Discourse on unification can feel like a luxury for those in their 20s who are being pushed to the brink in their livelihoods, from issues such as high rates of unemployment and skyrocketing real estate prices,” said Seoul National University’s political science professor Kang Won-taek.

Making peace

A shared Christian faith was historically one of the bonds that continued to connect Koreans after the armistice. As Christianity Today noted in 1972:

Before the division as many as two-thirds of Korea’s Christians were northerners, and some of South Korea’s largest congregations are refugee churches. One of the best known of the refugees, Dr. Han Kyung-chik, pastor of Seoul’s 9,000-member Yung-nak Presbyterian Church, has said that had the Korean War been pressed to a successful liberation of the north, he believes that 80 per cent of the north’s 15 million people would have turned to Christ.

Between 1988 and 1992, South Koreans helped build two churches in Pyongyang, and in 2008 helped fund the rebuilding and expansion of one of the congregations, write Sebastian C.H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim in A History of Korean Christianity.

Among the most high-profile evangelicals to advocate for unification was Ik Hwan Moon, Presbyterian minister and New Testament scholar, who translated the Bible into Korean. Moon, who wrote the well-known poem “I Will Go to Pyongyang,” infuriated South Korean politicians when he actually did and was arrested after returning home.

Many older Christian leaders, many of them originally from the North, were skeptical of engaging communist North Korea and, in Kim and Kim’s words, “were strongly opposed to any compromise with North Korea and were actively anti-Communist.”

Their dislike of the government did not extend to the people. During food shortages and famines in the late 1980s and mid-90s in North Korea, conservative Christians and Pentecostals sent millions of dollars of aid to the North.

The “Reconciling Christianity” movement would soon emerge after a 1988 declaration issued by the National Council of Churches in Korea on national reunification and peace. Proclaiming 1995 as the “Year of Jubilee” in this declaration “brought the issue of reunification to the fore and challenged even conservatives to move from evangelism to humanitarian work and peacemaking,” write Kim and Kim.

“Furthermore, as a call for redistribution of the land, jubilee was linked to the ongoing struggle for justice for the poor which, after democratisation, became the concern of evangelical as well as progressive churches.”

In spite of this push toward peacemaking prospects, South Korean Christians today remain divided on how reunification can be achieved, as A History of Korean Christianity outlines:

Christian approaches to reunification can be summarised in three positions: unification as part of an anti-Communist campaign and mission agenda (conservative Christians), promoting dialogue between the two nations (progressive Christians) and involvement in a supportive and sharing humanitarian campaign (some conservative and most progressive Christians).

Seunghoon Song, a pastor in his late thirties who was born and raised in South Korea and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, does not think reunification should occur by military force or by war. Neither does he think assimilation—where North Korea becomes bankrupt and suddenly surrenders to the South—will work because it is “unrealistic” to expect that two countries that have been separate for 56 years can accomplish this successfully.

Reunification ought to take place peacefully, emphasized Song, who cited Ephesians 2:14 as his guiding verse for how the “wall” between North and South Korea can be demolished: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

Other South Korean Christians CT interviewed agree that a more biblical understanding of peace is needed in pursuing reunification. Shin, the biblical theology professor, argues that Jesus’s teachings in the Gospel of Matthew depict the power of pacifism through inclusion, forgiveness, and love.

In today’s context, where South Korean men are sent for compulsory military service, talking about peaceful reunification may be difficult as they learn to regard North Korea as their enemy, say some of the South Korean Christians CT interviewed.

But Shin is convinced that displaying Christ-centered love is one way of overcoming the animosity and hateful bias between North and South Korea. “If the purpose of Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy can be interpreted as loving your own people, it can be an emotional ideology for the people of the two Koreas who are repeating the pain of confrontation and conflict,” he wrote in a 2020 paper.

Mapping the future

For some Christians and churches in South Korea, reunification is not a far-off dream but a sought-for reality they are working towards every day.

Yoido Full Gospel Church runs a “unification diocese” that serves North Korean defectors by helping them to integrate into South Korean society. Missionaries from South Korea or from the Korean diaspora live in China, close to the North Korean border, to minister and evangelize to North Korean defectors. Song, the Korean pastor in Canada, was formerly with the Far East Broadcasting Corporation in South Korea, which sends radio broadcasts of Christian messages to North Korea.

Kim, the teacher in Incheon, has heard mostly negative stories about how churches in the South evangelize to their North Korean neighbors. North Korean defectors in South Korea are often encouraged to become Christians and share their testimonies at church. In doing so, sometimes they receive a “financial reward.”

“It is very regrettable that North Korean defectors build a relationship with the church” through an economic transaction rather than a personal encounter with God, she said.

Outside of the church, some Christians have decided to advocate reunification within their particular areas of influence. Bosun Kang is an assistant professor in Korean education from Daegu University who is researching language differences and integration between North and South Korea. Besides the economic and social disparity between North and South Korea, language differences add another layer of cultural separation.

For instance, the most common Bible translation in South Korea is the New Revised Standard Version (개역개정), whereas North Korea uses their version of the Joint Translation Bible, which was created by South Korean Protestants and Catholics in 1977 (성경전서).

“For example, the word ‘God’ is written as hananim (하나님) in South Korea, but it is written as haneunim (하느님) in the North Korean Bible,” said Kang.

Kang sees his work in language integration as a God-given vision that may “solve the division” between North and South. He has worked with North and South Korean scholars to produce a shared dictionary of terms in both languages, an idea that was initiated by Korean Bible translator Ik Hwan Moon. While the dictionary was supposed to be published in 2013, the project is now on hold because of worsening relations between the two countries and the pandemic, says Kang.

Despite that setback, Kang is working on ways to educate South Korean students to systematically learn about language differences between the North and South at school. “Only when the language differences between the two Koreas are accurately identified and integrated will it be possible to communicate accurately between the people of the two Koreas,” he said.

Educating and reforming young minds is also a priority for Nam, Fourth River Project’s youth training director. Nam currently runs the Three Seas Center, which holds camps or visits for South Korean students and North Korean refugees. So far, about 1,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 18 have visited the center, and they are seeing an increasing number of visits by public schools and by teenagers who live abroad, said Nam.

During their time there, students will talk about “the history and pain of the Korean peninsula” and that “God’s heart toward this land is not a divided land, but a unified land, and this speaks of restoration,” said Nam. They also meet with missionaries who have served or visited North Korea and go on prayer hikes together.

Nam faces several challenges in his work promoting reunification. “Generation Z and millennial Korean Christians do not have time. Most of the education on unification conducted by Christianity and churches is event-oriented. And the events are mostly information-oriented or preaching meetings.”

While running a camp for North Korean refugee school students and middle and high school students from the Fourth River Project’s River of Life school, which shuttered in 2020, a North Korean defector was puzzled, as no one had asked where he had come from and how he had arrived in the South. A River of Life school student replied, “I’m curious, but just coming here with you is enough!”

“The attitude of the River of Life School students was very touching. We opened our hearts to each other by accepting them as they are rather than seeing them from a certain point of view as North Korean defectors,” said Nam.

“Ezekiel 37 describes the conditions that must be premised in order to become a united nation. That is, dry bones must come to life. It is true that in order to achieve unification, I, my family, and the church, who are like dry bones, need spiritual revival,” said Nam.

“Therefore, what we need to prepare for unification is to become people of God who are full of prayer and love.”

MZ South Korean Christians like movie director Sun-Woo Kim echoed Nam’s hope-filled convictions. “I believe there will be a successful reunification if we choose to rely on the Holy Spirit and work through the Spirit,” he said.

“I believe one soul is more precious than an entire nation’s economy.”

Additional reporting by Julian Chae and Morgan Lee

[ This article is also available in 한국어. ]

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