When we think of the Korean peninsula, most of us think solely in political terms and solely of its history since the 1950’s. We may know that Dennis Rodman has made friends with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, while remaining ignorant of the Christian missionary efforts there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were baptized and some ten thousand believers were martyred in a hundred year period. The seeds sown by their faithfulness unto death has grown and born fruit in Korea. St. John Paul II canonized one hundred and three Korean martyrs when he visited Korea in 1988.
Because of invasions from neighboring countries, such as Japan, the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea until the end of the nineteenth century, closed its borders and guarded them zealously against invasive ideas as well as invading armies. It became known as “The Hermit Kingdom,” and Christianity, as a foreign belief, was prohibited. The Christian influence came from lay Koreans, who, with no episcopal or clerical guidance, read books smuggled in from China.
“I have told you that I am a Christian, and will be one until my death.”
St. Andrew Kim Taegon, the son of early Korean converts to Christianity, was the first native-born Korean priest. He was sent in secret to China, where he attended seminary. Dressed in a beggar’s rags, he slipped back over the border into Korea, and learned that his father, St. Ignatius, had been martyred and that his mother was homeless. Andrew barely escaped death himself, many times, before going to Manchuria to be ordained. Returning yet again to Korea, he died there less than a year later.
St. Paul Chong Hasang was seven when his father, St. Augustine Jeong Yak-Jong, was martyred. As an adult, Paul traveled many times to China, where he entreated the bishop of Beijing to send missionaries to Korea. He wrote to Pope Gregory XVI asking that a diocese be established in Korea. His requests were granted.
Missionaries, members of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, came from France. They became Paul’s teachers and mentors. He was ready for ordination when he was arrested and brought before a judge. Paul gave the judge his statement. The judge, after reading it, said, “You are right in what you have written; but the king forbids this religion, it is your duty to renounce it.”
Paul replied, “I have told you that I am a Christian, and will be one until my death.” Paul was tortured and then killed.
Many women died in the persecutions, among them the members of a lay religious sisterhood. St. Mary Yi Yon-hui was a wife and a mother and a member of the sisterhood, as was St. Ann Pak A-gi. It is said of Ann that she “was little learned but loved greatly.”