South Korea is shortly going to be a witness to two important national and ecclesial events: Asian Youth Day (13-17 August) and the beatification of 123 Korean martyrs (16 August). Two events that will see the presence (14-18) of Pope Francis, his first apostolic journey to Asia, the first by a pontiff to the continent since 1999 and, since 1989, to South Korea.
Together they are a source of pride for the entire Korean Peninsula and not only for the organizers. Many give the event a double value in the perspective of inter-Korean dialogue and the reconciliation between its countries, divided by conflicts and ideologies, united by history, culture, language and beliefs.
But the occasion is also an opportunity for reflection for the Korean Church, victorious in appearance on the momentum of its commitment to democracy and justice, but now facing challenges that may first of all be identified as religious disaffection and new lifestyles, but which also call into question the Church’s own characteristics and priorities.
In this context, the celebration in the Myongdong Cathedral of Seoul by Pope Bergoglio, 18 August, for peace and reconciliation will be a point of departure and not of arrival. There is no certainty yet as to whether the invitation to North Korean Catholics to attend the event will be accepted, but given the unpredictability of the Pyongyang regime, an unexpected opening is not excluded.
A country poor in resources, small (99,000 sq. km), overcrowded by 50 million inhabitants, governed for decades by military regimes and increasingly burdened by the threat of its North Korean neighbor, South Korea has overcome with great sacrifice and strong determination these many limitations to become one of the global economic powers. With the support of its vital U.S. ally and partner which, with the presence of military bases and about 29,000 military in the country, still acts as a real deterrent to the conventional and nuclear threats of North Korea. A presence that also has a role of containment towards the growing Chinese military power and of mediation towards neighboring Japan with which the Koreans have a historical rivalry and territorial dispute over the islands of Tokdo/Takeshima.
The wager on well-being and democracy, the constant threat of its brother-rival North Korea, have marked the life of South Korea over the past sixty years of its democracy. However, the country – the youngest and strongest of Asia’s economic ‘tigers’ – which has accelerated the rate of its growth to a fourth-place position among the continental economies, perceives limits and growing doubts today, and discovers the shadows of its well-being marked by new forms of poverty and discrimination. Also new demands of spirituality in the face of lost religious feeling and of the traditional Confucian relationships; with ever weaker myths, if not those borrowed from the K-pop (youth culture in the South Korean version, now referred to throughout the East) and of its movie industry.
Democracy with limits
South Korea is considered a democracy alive and free, but the limits are many and obvious. Power is tightly concentrated in the hands of the president; freedom of information is approximately 65-70th in the world, according to the Freedom House organization; the traditional hierarchical rigidity is still manifested in everyday life, in education, in the workplace, in politics; social status and income are often overlapping and together dominate among the less advantaged among South Koreans; on the horizon concrete evidence of marginalization and hardship so far ignored, stand out more and more.
The division between the two Koreas that continues since 1953 to this day makes it difficult for it to find its own self-identity, despite a strategic relationship with the United States and the presence of U.S. bases, that many in the South see as a limit to sovereignty and national pride, but essential however, in the face of North Korean provocations. (S.V.)