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The wisdom of the masses

Most of Korea's leadership candidates are Christians

The wisdom of the masses
Joseph Pak, Seoul

December 10, 2012

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On December 19 South Korea will know which candidate will serve the five-year term of the 19th president.

If I can play the role of prophet, I’ll say that the winner will be a Christian – and more precisely, a Catholic.

Juliana Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and Timothy Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party are neck-and-neck in the polls.

Park is the daughter of the late president, Park Chong-hee, who was surely no Christian. She was baptized as a student at the Jesuit-run Sogang University, but in past years she has professed no religion.

From the viewpoint of the Catholic hierarchy, however, she is certainly Catholic.

The Catholic Glossary for Media People, published last year by the Korean Bishops’ Conference, says that even excommunication cannot nullify baptism.

Now, Christians in this predominantly Buddhist and Confucian society are clearly in the minority.

The 2005 census found that only 10.9 percent of the 47 million population were Catholic.

In recent history, that minority of Christians has been the focus of brutal persecution. Confucian rulers martyred about 8,000 of them in 1866.

And yet, we find that this month’s new president will be the fifth consecutive Christian head of state since 1992.

That year Kim Young-sam, a Presbyterian elder, defeated Thomas More Kim Dae-jung, a Catholic.

In the next election in 1997, Thomas More Kim defeated another Catholic, Olaf Lee Hoi-chang, who was defeated again in the next election of 2002 by Kim’s successor, Justo Roh Moo-hyun – a baptized Catholic but at the time professing no faith.

The current president, Lee Myung-bak, is a deacon of the Presbyterian church, who defeated David Chung Dong-young, a Catholic, in 2007 – the other three candidates that year were all Catholics.

This is surely more than coincidence.

Is the office of the South Korean president a de facto Christian office?

Law forbids discrimination on the basis of religion.

The election promises delivered by candidates say nothing about their religious affiliations. Most voters will cast their ballots without ever knowing the religion of the candidate they choose. Indeed, religion is not a pivotal issue in elections.

So why are so many Christians running for the highest office in the country?

One answer may be political opportunism. Most Koreans choose their religions as adults rather than accept the one they were born into.

And so, candidates may choose their faith on the basis of what they think will help them in the election.

The question here is how would a minority religion help among the majority of Korean voters?

I think a better answer can be found in the unique contributions that Catholicism has made to the country’s long struggle for democracy.

Since the late 1960s, and under the inspiration of Vatican II, the local Church has actively participated in social transformation, especially during the years of dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the process, Korean society came to embrace Catholic virtues of fairness, justice, courage, generosity, compassion and self-sacrifice.

These are not in themselves Catholic virtues, but in Korea at that time, the Church embraced them when others did not. And these virtues are required of any leader.

In past elections, Koreans have selected their candidates because of the qualities of leadership they exhibit, not simply because they identified themselves as Christians.

And this showed considerable wisdom on the part of the majority non-believing population.

Joseph Pak is a journalist and commentator based in Seoul

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