They go anywhere – from African jungles to tribal villages of Afghanistan. Self-designated foot soldiers of Jesus Christ, Korean missionaries travel the globe, looking for souls to save with the good book in one hand and cash in another. The apostles carry a special message mixing religion and politics, insisting that the Gospel saved South Korea from communism. Belief in Jesus not only saves souls, but delivers nations from poverty.
But if press reports turn out to be true that the South Korean government, working on behalf of the missionaries kidnapped in Afghanistan, paid millions of dollars in ransom, then the church work may have merely alleviated the poverty of a terrorist group. The global mission of spreading Christian faith has run smack into the US and NATO global mission against terrorism.
A Reuters news agency report quoting a senior Taliban official as saying that a ransom of more than US$20 million was paid to secure the hostages’ release, though unconfirmed, is sure to add fuel to growing criticism of Korean missionaries and expose the growing complexity of an old globalizing force.
The kidnapping of 23 Christian aid workers in mid-July, two of whom were killed before release of the remainder, has revived criticism of missionaries’ no-holds-barred proselytizing. The zeal of some churches, often offending local sensitivities, has made the Korean missionaries controversial at home and abroad. Some countries such as China and Cambodia, with a historical view that foreign missionaries are agents of imperialism, have banned them. South Korea’s foreign ministry frowns on work where the missionaries are not officially welcome and restricts travel to war-torn countries like Iraq and Somalia.
Eager to serve, however, some ignore the warnings, risking capture and death; Kim Son Il, a young, novice evangelical worker, was beheaded by Iraqi insurgents in 2004.
This time, in addition to possibly paying ransom, South Korea obtained release of the missionaries by promising to keep them and all South Korean non-governmental organization workers out of Afghanistan and withdraw troops from that country.
Officially, the South Korean foreign ministry has not responded to speculation about ransom payments. The source of funds is alleged to be the hostages’ church, Saemmul Presbyterian. Church officials did announce plans to repay the government for airfare, hospitalization and other costs. But if reports of ransom payment are confirmed, it would trigger a public outcry, increasing taxpayer resentment about missionaries visiting danger zones explicitly prohibited by the government.
The news of the 29 August agreement won’t quiet debate already raging within churches. While the two biggest Protestant organizations in Korea – the liberal-oriented Korean National Council of Churches and conservative Christian Council of Korea – issued statements accepting Taliban conditions, critics suggest that Korean missionaries pause and moderate their course.
Overall, such changes, they said, would require Korean missionaries to avoid many war-torn regions, especially where Islam is the dominant religion. They would have to show greater respect for local cultures and religions. Mission emphasis should shift from total converts reported to pragmatic projects. Thus humanitarian projects – such as providing medical, child-care or education services in Asia and Africa – should be given priority.
Voices within the church call for moderation: Korean missionaries are "too loud and aggressive in their ways and self-centered," commented one missionary worker writing in www.newsandjoy.com, a church blog, withholding his identity. "Sometimes, they confuse what they do with what they believe God wants them to do."
Ryu Sang Tae is one such critic, exceptional in that he’s unafraid about publicly challenging the church establishment. Former school chaplain in Seoul and author of a book calling for sweeping reform of Korea’s Protestant establishments, he told a Yonhap News Agency that, by insisting on "recklessly and aggressively converting people of different religions in different countries, in disregard of local sensitivities," Korean missionaries run the risk of "aggravating, not ameliorating the existing conflicts in parts of the world they operate."
Koreans largely support the demand for moderation. According to one Seoul newspaper poll, 64.5 percent of readers responded that Korean missionaries should stay out of countries hostile to Christians, including Islamic countries. Another 85.3 percent said Korean missionaries should exercise restraint in their work.
In temperament, Korean missionary activities reflect the country’s aggressive outward-looking economic push in recent decades. Expanding economic ties has enticed more Koreans overseas. Like their European counterparts in history, Korean missionaries followed traders to serve growing Korean communities abroad. Today, according to one church estimate, more than 16,000 Korean missionaries from some 500 organizations work in 170 locations. In sheer numbers, they are second only to US missionaries.
Their pattern of growth resembles the economic expansion back home. An obsession with numbers and size weakened the moral foundation of what Korean church historians say is an otherwise splendid achievement. Catholicism arrived in Korea in 1783 and Protestant representatives in 1884; today, one of every five South Koreans claims to be Christian. The nation of 44 million people has 8.7 million registered Protestants and 2.9 million Roman Catholics, along with 10 million Buddhists, practicing and nominal.
The speedy conversion can be attributed to several factors: The church initially succeeded in focusing on social alienation in a rapidly industrializing nation. Unlike in the Philippines, foreign religion was not imposed on Koreans by conquerors. The earliest Korean Catholics were modernizers, converted in China of their own volition. American Protestant missionaries came with the consent of the monarch, who welcomed modern education and medicine. Korean Christians played a pioneering role in the modernization of their country.
But such success is the root of present-day problems. Obsessed with overachievement, pursuing quantity over quality, the churches are often criticized for placing secular interests above spiritual commitment. This trend is evident in Seoul, where most neighborhoods boast at least three churches, competing for converts. Priesthood in Korea is no longer just God’s calling, but a job, with some clerics drawing hefty salaries, plus bonuses and chauffeur-driven cars. At night, the Seoul skyline burns bright with crosses, a city set in a forest of churches.
Some critics suggest that vigorous missionary activities abroad actually serve to cover up the churches’ manifold problems at home, including some corrupt and divisive institutions.
Small wonder then that many church groups seek to expand abroad, keeping idealistic new generations connected to the church by inspiring overseas service. Most of the aid workers kidnapped in Afghanistan are in their 20s and 30s, with professional training in nursing or computer skills. To a group of well-intentioned youths, service in dangerous Afghanistan was more inspiring than pressured competition at home.
Within Korea itself, the missionary zeal has earned scant sympathy. "Why go overseas when there are plenty of things to do at home?" sniffed one taxi-driver, reacting to news of the release. The image of wealthy churches sending young adults to dangerous regions generated only resentment.
The government and churches have not recalled missionaries working in other conflict-ridden areas, but insist that those working in places like Somalia or Iraq move to safe locations.
The Afghan incident not only prompts a hard look at Korea’s overseas missions, but also much-needed reflection on the state of South Korea’s religious establishment. If the report of the ransom payment is confirmed, it would deal a blow to the increasingly difficult task of the US and NATO forces to defeat the resurgent Taliban forces.
Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based journalist and columnist. Rights: © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.