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Hither and Yon

As Pope Francis Beatifies Korea's martyrs, Will He Remember Christian Martyrs Up North?

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The visit of Pope Francis to Korea coincides with the 69th anniversary tomorrow, Friday, Aug. 15, of the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II.
The eyes of the world will be on the pontiff as he celebrates Mass in Daejeon’s World Cup Stadium on Asian Youth Day while President Park Geun-Hye makes the usual plea for peace, reconciliation and reunification of the two Koreas so many years after the arbitrary division of the peninsula at the 38th parallel by the big powers that won the war, the United States and the Soviet Union.
Pope Francis will also be calling for peace and reconciliation in measured tones that gain headlines, appealing to Korea’s Catholics, estimated at well over five million or more than 10 percent of the South’s population. His message will no doubt be crafted to bridge the gap between conservatives opposed to compromise and liberals highly critical of the government’s “hard-line” stance. But will Francis dare to criticize the North for its own transgressions, for rhetorical threats to bomb the White House and destroy the regime in the “south,” spelled with an “s,” not an “S”?
It’s safe to assume the Pope’s plea will avoid anything the North Koreans might see as an insult or an affront, though the North refused to send a delegation from its own Catholic church, that is the showpiece congregation that foreign visitors see on Sundays in Pyongyang. True, all those worshipers are play-acting while real North Korean Christians, whether Catholics or Protestants or something else, are jailed, tortured and executed when caught with religious material in their secret hideaways. One might have thought, however, the North could have sent a few fake Catholics to greet the papal entourage just for show. Hypocrisy, it seems, has its limits, even in Pyongyang.
The real test for Francis, though, comes on Saturday when he beatifies another 124 Korean martyrs of the Catholic church in a ceremonial Mass to be attended by tens of thousands in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul. The beatification comes 30 years after Pope John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs, all made saints long after losing their lives over a century of religious persecution from the late 1700s to the late 1800s in which thousands more Christians were killed.
Beatification — the final step before sainthood — of the 124 martyrs provides a reminder of the nature of a historically closed society during the period of its decline before the Japanese in 1895 defeated China in a war in which control of the Korean Peninsula was the real prize. The Japanese a decade later assumed power over the peninsula, ending half a millennium of Joseon Kingdom rule, while Christianity spread as an antidote to dictatorship, whether by Korean kings or Japanese colonialists.
Korean Christians, whether Catholics or Protestants — the latter numbering well over 10 million — have ever since been at the forefront of protest against dictatorial rule. Christian liberals and leftists struggled against Park Chung-Hee from the time he seized power in May 1961 to his assassination in October 1979 and continue to protest the presidency of his daughter, Park Geun-Hye, conservative no doubt, but milder than her father.
While Francis honors the brave souls who died for the church, will he allude, subtly, abstractly, to the horrors of religious persecution going on today in North Korea? Will there be a hint that Christians in the North, Catholics, Protestants, any believers in the teachings of the Bible, risk fates fully as horrible as those early Christians whom the Pope is beatifying? Will the Pope show any awareness that Pyongyang, capital of the North, and Hamheung, the large industrial city on North Korea’s east coast, were once hotbeds of Christianity?
Will the Pope or the 150 bishops in his entourage, including 50 from South Korea, remind their audiences that Pyongyang before the rise of Kim Il-Sung, installed by the Russians in 1945, was known as the “Jerusalem of the east?” Will any of them note that the North Korean capital was once a “city of churches” or that some of Korea’s most distinguished Christian families fled Hamheung aboard American ships after Chinese troops drove U.S. Marines from the frozen Chosin reservoir in December 1950?
When Francis celebrates Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul before leaving Monday, many will remember the cathedral’s place as a center of protest against dictatorship in South Korea. He may mention human rights in general terms, but he’s not likely to say a word about the ongoing horrors of religious persecution in the North.
Implicitly, however, the Pope’s visit raises questions about the plight of Christians in North Korea on the anniversary of the defeat of the Japanese, whose rule was never quite as harsh as that in Pyongyang today. It will be up to later popes, perhaps a century hence, to beatify those Catholics who have died, are still dying, as martyrs in the North.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering the issue of human rights on the Korean Peninsula since the 1970s. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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