Fourteen months ago the economic situation in Korea began to deteriorate rapidly and unexpectedly. Though there are now small signs of recovery, the economy has still a long way to go to get back to where it was.
This crisis has burst the unreal, ‘bubble’ base of our national economy. It has made Koreans grapple afresh with realities. It has brought a needed, but painful, opportunity for lasting economic reform, as the whole country struggles to restructure. Recently, the Korean currency recovered a third of its lost value, climbing back to 1,200 won to the US dollar, as opposed to 1,800 at the height of the crisis.
The conditions laid down by the International Monetary Fund for Korea have, temporarily at least, exacerbated our problems. Unemployment has reached the unprecedented level of nine per cent of the population. There is certainly a need for the traditional Korean virtues of grit, self-sacrifice and perseverance. But above all, many Korean Christians are praying fervently to the true Lord of all the universe for their country.
There have been many symptoms of social disorder and stress. Early last year there were widespread public protests. As factories and other workplaces closed down, housewives whose husbands were losing their jobs gathered with babies strapped on their backs and toddlers at their feet, chanting and singing protest songs.
The divorce rate has gone up. Crime has increased. Some young girls have resorted to prostitution to obtain money. Husbands or wives have even murdered their spouses to collect money from life insurance companies.
One father cut off the finger of his ten-year-old son in order to obtain the insurance, and another man, a shop-owner, cut off his feet to obtain financial benefit as a handicapped person. Parents steal to provide milk for their babies. Schoolchildren regularly go without lunch. The suicide rate has been about twenty-five people a day.
Blessings in disguise
What has been the effect on the Korean churches? The crisis has caused hardship there too.Some pastors are no longer financially supported by their churches. Some newly planted small churches have lost their buildings, unable to pay off loans to the banks. Our own church (Samyang Presbyterian) has been asked for help from more than twenty different small churches, but our resources are stretched. Some Korean missionaries have had to return home or move to other places because of the loss in value of the Korean won.
Nevertheless, material hardships have brought spiritual blessings. Christians are much more prayerful for their country. More people are gathering together to pray at the daily early morning prayer meetings. We have been given a new opportunity to evangelise those who have lost hope, and to show love and kindly hospitality to those who are without eternal life.
Cleansing the heart
The crisis has prompted the believers to repent of their sins. Most church leaders see what is happening as a chastisement from God, because Christians have not been faithful as salt and light in Korean society. So, in a sense, the circumstances have served to cleanse our hearts, as we have come into the presence of the Lord to pray. The material needs of others have stimulated the church to engage in good works on behalf of those who are in need. While we do not want the church to be seen merely as a charitable organisation, Christians are working hard to help provide free meals for schoolchildren and to raise funds for the homeless and unemployed. We are finding new ways of serving others. All this has made a good impression upon Koreans.
Also there are churches which, although not wealthy, have committed themselves to the cause of mission. Like the Macedonian churches in 2 Corinthians 8, they can say ‘out of the most severe trial our overflowing joy and our extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity’. We praise the Lord for such responses.
Pray for us
I would ask you to pray for us. May God grant us to recover a fellowship between the Korean churches like that which characterised the Christians of the New Testament. We pray that God will keep us holy both in spirit and body. We look for more people to come to the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ as their own Saviour. We also pray that God may richly bless you and your country with his mighty power during the remainder of 1999.