Pope Francis Seoul South Korea

South Korea welcomes Pope Francis who promotes peace on his first stop of his Asian tour while North Korea launches test missiles.

Pope Francis landed yesterday in South Korea, his first stop on his tour of Asia over the coming months. This not only marks Francis’ first trip to Asia, but also the first papal visit to Korea in over a decade, as Benedict XVI did not visit the country during his eight-year tenure as pope.

Upon his arrival, North Korea launched test missiles off their shared coast with South Korea as Pope Francis met with South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, to discuss promoting peace and stopping senseless displays of force and violence between the two nations. “We cannot become discouraged in our pursuit of these goals which are for the good not only of the Korean people but of the entire region and the whole world,” the Pope declared speaking to South Korean officials in his first English public speech as pope.

The Pope also impressed with his humility, choosing to ride in a small Kia Soul, one of the manufacturer’s smallest models. While most globally powerful figures would elect to take a luxury vehicle, Pope Francis has been known to take smaller, more common models on his travels.

During his five-day stay in South Korea, Pope Francis is set to canonize 124 Christian martyrs who helped spread their faith throughout the country, and will also attend the sixth annual “Asian Youth Day.” The pope’s visit highlights a global shift in focus for the Roman Catholic church, which is seeing burgeoning numbers of new followers outside of Europe.

Christians constitute roughly 30 percent of South Korea’s population, with over five million Catholics and eight million Protestants. Despite only accounting for three percent of the populace, the Roman Catholic community in Korea has grown dramatically in recent decades. The number of Catholics rose from 1.5 million in the 1980s to over five million in the 2010s. Korean Protestants, although still outnumbering Catholics in the country, have comparatively seen their numbers decline in recent years as people flock to the Roman church.

Christianity came to Korea in the early 17th century by way of missionaries in China and has witnessed a turbulent history on the peninsula. This is owed both to government persecution of Christians and to the country’s own internal violence and turmoil, particularly that of the 20th century, which saw wars and invasions by Imperial Japan and Communist North Korea. Roman Catholicism was outlawed in 1758, and thousands of Christians were martyred in the century that followed. Korea became more open to the world in the 19th century, and foreign religions, such as Catholicism, became more tolerated.

The early and mid-20th century saw the invasion of the peninsula by Imperial Japan followed by the Korean War, which left millions of Koreans dead and the nation divided into two halves: Communist North Korea and democratic and capitalist South Korea. The Christian population, while still small during this time, grew rapidly amidst the rapid economic growth of South Korea after the 1940s. Census figures are less clear for North Korea, where it is estimated that anywhere from several thousand to 10,000 Christians live.

The South Korean Catholic community has extended an invitation for North Korean Christians to attend Francis’ visit, but it seems unlikely that any will be able or permitted to cross the Korean Demilitarized Zone. During the pope’s stay, a Mass will be held in Seoul calling for a renewed relationship between the two Korean nations for whom the Cold War never ended. In a nation still mourning the loss of 300 lives in the April ferry disaster, Korean Catholics hope the pope’s stay will bring healing and meaning to the country. Francis plans to visit members of the victims’ families as well.

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