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LETTER FROM AMERICA: The relationship between the US and Korea

September 2018 | by Ben Wilkerson

Kim and Trump shaking hands on the red carpet during DPRK USA Singapore Summit
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On June 12, 2018, the President of the United States, Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un, the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in a special summit meeting in Singapore to discuss foreign relations between the two countries.

While the United States has often sought to come to a peaceful agreement with DPRK in regard to nuclear weapons, a meeting of this calibre is unprecedented: never have the two leaders of the countries met in person before. At the close of the summit, both men signed a joint agreement which in part stated,

‘Convinced that the establishment of new U.S.-DPRK relations will contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula and of the world, and recognizing that mutual confidence building can promote the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un state the following:

  1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.’

(Full text of statement on CNBC website, 12/06/18)

President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in Republic of Korea at United Nations General Assembly
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Whether North Korea will uphold its promise, only time will tell. Perhaps this move towards peace on the Korean peninsula will usher in new opportunities for the gospel to be spread in North Korea. This historic event as well as unique events that took place at the Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly brought to my attention the impact and history of the Korean American church. Though it is perhaps not as prevalent in the region in which I live, the Korean American church is a substantial body of believers with a very unique history and situation.

Introduction to the Korean church

When Korea opened its borders to the Western world in the late 19th century, Presbyterian missionaries such as Horace Allen and Horace Underwood found the mission fields white with harvest. Korea had been closed off to the world and had been under the shroud of Confucian thought and teaching throughout much of its history, earning it the epithet ‘The Hermit Kingdom’.

However, as the Confucian system began to fail and Korea felt threatened by neighboring Japan, they began to open to the West for help. ‘Progressive Koreans sought to modernize the country and pressed for the entry of foreign missionaries to help with medicine and education. Some saw Christianity as the religious or ideological basis of Western society, believing the nation would benefit from a spiritual renewal of the people’ (Christianity Today, ‘Who Brought the Gospel to Korea? Koreans did.’ Kirsteen Kim and Hoon Ko, February 2018).

Although the number of missionaries during this time were few, the growth of the Korean church from that time onward was unlike anything else seen on the Asian continent. Part of this was due to the ‘Nevius plan of missions’ adopted by the missionaries in Korea.  This vision for missions ‘emphasized the self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing goals of the newly evangelized church.’ (Reflections of a Korean-American Presbyterian, Julius Kim, Westminster Seminary California, 7-26-10).

President Joel Kim
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This would not only have lasting impacts on the church in Korea but on Korean immigrants who brought their faith to other parts of the world. Through the providence of God, the church in Korea has blossomed through intense persecution to become one of the largest strongholds of the church. Over a third of the population professes to be Protestant and out of that 15 million or so, 9 to 10 million are Presbyterian (Chris Meehan, Touched by Devotion in South Korea, October 4, 2010).

Not only are Koreans passionate about Christ and his church being established in Korea but they are enthusiastic to spread God’s kingdom across the globe as well. In 2004, South Korea sent over 12,000 missionaries to over 160 countries, many of them in the 10/40 window (South Korea Becomes Second Largest Missionary Source, Lillian Kwon, 11-05-2004). With that being said, one of the largest concentrations of Korean Christians is actually in the United States.

Issues faced by Korean American Christians

According to the Pew Research Forum, ‘the share of Christians in South Korea (29%) is much smaller than the share of Christians among Korean Americans living in the U.S. Nearly three-quarters of Korean Americans (71%) say they are Christian, including 61% who are Protestant and 10% who are Catholic’. (6 facts about South Korea’s growing Christian population, Pew Research Center, Philip Connor, August 12, 2014). Of that 61%, two-thirds would describe themselves as evangelical (cf. christiantoday.us via fb, based on data from koreanchurchyp.com).

In 2014, there were 4,233 Korean churches in the US, with 1,358 of those churches in California alone (cf. christiantoday.us via fb, based on data from koreanchurchyp.com). Though you don’t often hear about them, Korean churches are by and large conservative churches which are scattered throughout the United States, largely focused in major cities along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboard. There are many interesting characteristics of Korean American churches which make them quite unique as a church body.

When Koreans immigrated to a particular area, they would either find a Korean-speaking church like the Korean American Presbyterian Church or assess which US denomination was similar to what they knew back home in Korea. For those that join an American denomination, they typically plant Korean-speaking churches that run independently of the main governing body. Within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), nearly 12 per cent of the churches are Korean-speaking with nearly 700 ministers (14 per cent of the number of teaching elders in the PCA).

Case in point, Rev. Joel Kim, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America and President of Westminster Seminary California, was raised as the son of a Presbyterian minister in South Korea but when his family moved to the US in 1982, they joined the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). ‘[W]hen we moved over in 1982, [my father] had to make a decision. He had to make a decision as to which denomination he would join. And at that time, the PCA was relatively unknown to Korean Americans. The churches that were options for them were like a Korean speaking denomination in the states called the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC) or churches like the CRC which is a Dutch Reformed denomination. He joined the CRC and he retired as a CRC minister a while back. All that to say, within the CRC currently there are about a hundred Korean American churches and I grew up in one of those churches.’

Assimilation is difficult for Korean Christians

Like the Dutch, the Koreans established Korean speaking churches wherever they settled and those churches became not only centres of preaching and teaching but also social and cultural centres and havens as well. Worship services and church business/presbytery sessions are all done in Korean and bear the marks of Korean culture as well. Yet unlike the Dutch, because of their Korean ethnicity and language, they are not able to assimilate into church society as easily.

Those who make up the Korean American church typically fall into three categories: 1st generation immigrants, 1.5 generation immigrants, and 2nd generation immigrants. Rev. Kim explains it Thus: ‘there are Korean Americans, who are what they call first generation Korean Americans who are born and raised and educated in Korea. So they usually immigrate to the States [during] high school, post-high school, college and graduate school. And then you have what they call second generation Koreans. Alex [Jun] is a second generation Korean, meaning that he was born here in the States; he was born and raised and educated in the States. So that’s the counterpart to the first generation Korean Americans. I’m what they call an “in-betweener” so they usually refer to me as a 1.5 generation. What that means is I was born in Korea but came here at a relatively young age and educated in both Korea and in the States’ (interview with Rev. Joel Kim, President of Westminster Seminary California).

With these three groups congregating together in Korean churches, this poses several challenges. As Korean immigrants were not allowed to come over to the United States until the 1960s and 1970s, there are still a large number of first generation Koreans here in the States and that explains why most Korean American churches are still mono-lingual. Since services are largely conducted in Korean, this often causes a disjoint between the first and second generation Koreans.

Alex Jun, the Moderator of the 45th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and ruling elder in a Korean PCA church, was born and raised and educated in the US and his first language was in fact English. Becoming born again in college, Jun was discipled by Korean Americans and then learned Korean in the church. It was only until the 1990s when English ministries began to be offered by Korean American churches. It was then that the Lord used the ‘in-betweeners’ as cultural bridges between the first and second generations.

Within the PCA, there are currently nine Korean- speaking presbyteries making up 221 of its 1,545 churches and 700 of its 4,882 teaching elders (http://www.pcaac.org/resources/korean/).

While that may seem really small, the Korean presbyteries have grown the fastest compared to the English speaking presbyteries in the PCA (How the Second Generation of Korean-American Presbyterians Are Bridging the Gap, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, The Gospel Coalition, 7/3/17). During this year’s General Assembly (GA), presbyters from the Korean presbyteries met for an historic ‘pre-conference’ meeting just before the regular General Assembly convened. They were also invited to attend the GA and made up 10 per cent of those gathered. It was the largest participation of Korean pastors and elders ever to a GA.

While assimilating Korean-speaking churches into the PCA has been on the table since the 1990s, there are still large hurdles especially in regard to language and cultural barriers. Parliamentary procedure at GA is a shock to many, even if English is your native tongue.

Generational issues related to church growth

As with any church, there are other generational issues relating to church growth. Korean American churches do undergo growth issues where young people are leaving the church, albeit for different reasons at times. Often referred to as the ‘silent exodus’, covenant children in Korean churches are leaving in unbelievable numbers. ‘Estimates of second generation Koreans leaving the church vary from 55% to 90%, depending on whether you count those who leave Korean-language churches but join Anglo or multi-ethnic churches, those who still call themselves Christian but don’t act on it, or those who completely leave church and faith behind.’ (Joan Huyser-Honig, July 2005).

These three reasons highlight the difficulty in providing accurate statistics. Rev. Kim believes that many Korean Americans who leave early on, do end up coming back to the Korean American church though not always to the one they grew up in. This typically happens when they reach their 30s and 40s and have children (interview with Joel Kim).

Korean churches also face leadership transition struggles. Rev. Kim notes that there are over 4,300 churches in the United States that are Korean speaking. Out of that number, 15 per cent have over 100 members while the rest have less than 100 members. That poses great challenges for the future of these smaller churches as they get older and the number of Korean first-language speakers ages out. Even though many churches might have the financial viability to continue, there are still gaps in the leadership as most of the leaders are first generation Korean speakers. ‘Where will the future generation of leadership for those churches come from?’, asked Rev. Kim. ‘Is it from Korea? Are there even enough Korean-speaking pastors in the States? Is this going to transition like the Dutch church did? No one is certain how that transition will take place’ (interview with Joel Kim). This a crucial issue for the Korean American church and one we need to be praying for.

Outlook on the gospel reaching North Korea

Another interesting dynamic with the Korean American church is their outlook on the gospel going to North Korea, compared with the view shared by their brothers and sisters in Christ in South Korea. Alex Jun, in his address before the start of the 46th PCA General Assembly spoke of the hopeful prayers and desires of his fellow Korean Americans in regard to the unification and independence of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

He said that growing up in the United States, ‘ethnic Koreans who maybe never lived in the Korean peninsula [have] a deep sense of connection with our ethnic bloodline. So we only think of North Korea and South Korea as being of the same blood and not being caught up with nationalism. Australian Koreans, Canadian Koreans, and American Koreans all seem to hold that same thought. We have the same desire to share the gospel with North Korea.’ (Interview with Alex Jun).

This is contrasted with the view that many South Koreans have, where they view any possible liberation of North Korea as being a possible threat to national and economic security and stability. Much of this is based on a regular education or propaganda movement in South Korea that fears the communists. There is much doubt and fear of whether the economy would be decimated by opening the border with North Korea. Since Korean Americans were not brought up with that education, their desire for the gospel to go to North Korea is unbridled. That being said, Americans are not without our own nationalist fears, even among Christians, towards other ethnic groups that might come to the US and ‘take our jobs’.

We certainly need to pray for the gospel to go forth into all the world, especially those places where it is so dark and opposed to it. We need to pray that the Lord would give us gospel eyes to let go of our national pride so that we may see that we are all citizens of a heavenly kingdom, whether we are American, British or ethnically Korean. It is encouraging to note the growth of the immigrant church within the United States. The church during the days of the apostles was not much different, scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA