Category Archives: Korea

Seoul Man – New Book Describes Life in Corporate, Confucian Korea

It was back in the early 1980s, when I was a journalist in Tokyo, that I received a phone call from a British friend with some good news. He had just been hired by Mitsubishi Motors to an important position, handling the company’s public relations with the foreign media. But he was not a journalist himself – he mainly got the job because of his excellent Japanese-language skills – and he wanted to learn more about the world of journalism. He invited me to lunch.

seoul-manWe met at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and I began to detail how he could best meet the needs of foreign journalists – a regular English-language newsletter, press releases, meetings with senior executives, test drives, the chance to talk with engineers and designers, and so on.

He listened with a bemused look on his face, but then interrupted me. “No, no, you don’t understand. My job is to keep our company out of the foreign media.”

Back then Mitsubishi Motors made pretty undistinguished cars, unlike rivals such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and so foreign journalists writing about the company invariably wanted to ask questions about something else.

And the “something else” was the company’s president at the time, Teruo Tojo, the son of the Japanese World War II leader Hideki Tojo, who had been executed after the war by the Allies. Any journalist could see the chance of a great story if he or she could learn more about this quiet, secretive man.

It did not help that Mitsubishi Motors had been spun off just a decade-or-so earlier from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which was responsible for much of Japan’s output of aircraft, naval ships and heavy machinery during the war. Foreign journalists in Tokyo in those days knew that their editors relished “Is Japan secretly rearming?” stories, and so hapless executives at corporations like Mitsubishi Motors could easily find themselves subjected to intense questioning on military matters.

It was little wonder the company did not want to be in the news.

I was reminded of this incident while reading a new book, “Seoul Man,” by former Washington Post journalist Frank Ahrens. It is the story of how he moved to South Korea, with his diplomat wife, to handle media relations for the Korean car-making giant Hyundai Motors.

It is a fun book, full of amusing incidents drawn from his years with the company. He explains how he dealt with the heavy drinking culture of corporate Korea (my Korean wife has three brothers, and I know this culture well) and with the Confucian ethos of his office. In a touching tale, he relates how he acquired a native Korean jindo dog. And then there is the traumatic occasion when he opened the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times and found full-page ads for Hyundai cars with the heading “Years doesn’t diminish the value of a Hyundai.”

I was particularly drawn to the book when I found it in my local public library because I had just returned from a holiday in Seoul with my wife, and also because just a couple of months earlier we had replaced our Ford with a new Hyundai.

But as the Korean economy grows and Korean culture becomes more prominent, we need to learn more about this fascinating country. So, with its unique take on life inside corporate Seoul, this is a book for all. We need more books like it.

A bonus for me was some poignant Christian witness. The author does not shy away from discussing how his faith and Christian convictions helped sustain him and his wife at times of stress.

Highly recommended.

Please Continue to Pray for North Korea

It is easy nowadays to overlook North Korea. Many Christians who are burdened by the plight of the persecuted church now direct much of their prayer to the Middle East, where the flood of horrific news seems ceaseless. By contrast, so encompassing is the veil of secrecy over North Korea that we hear little about the suffering of Christians there.

Thus, the Open Doors World Watch List for 2016 of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith has performed an important service in once again highlighting the appalling regime of North Korea.

For the 14th straight year North Korea has been listed as the country where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.

According to Open Doors, some 50,000 to 70,000 of an estimated 300,000 North Korean Christians are in prison camps.

It says:

Christianity is not only seen as “opium for the people,” as is normal for all communist states, it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to labor camps with horrific conditions. Thus, one’s Christian faith usually remains a well-protected secret, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.

Such is the secrecy that prevails, we learn little about true conditions within the country, and in particular the predicament of Christians.

Occasional items of news sneak out. For example, I recently met a man who actually visited the country a few years ago. It is known that North Korea has a tuberculosis problem. According to the World Health Organization, 5,000 died from the disease in 2014. But this man said medical workers told him the problem is almost certainly significantly worse, with numerous cases that are not officially recorded.

In another glimpse, a Bangkok newspaper reported recently that some 2,000 North Korean refugees were arriving illegally in Thailand each year, and the number seemed set to rise.

Most come via China and Laos and were, according to the report, a “growing dilemma.” The newspaper quoted an immigration official as stating that the Thai government wished to work with the Laotian government to stem the refugee flow.

But these are just snapshots, and otherwise we must assume that conditions remain as dire as has sometimes been reported.

I have a particular concern for North Korea. My wife is Korean, from Seoul. But both her parents are refugees who fled from the North during the Korean War. My wife probably has relatives in North Korea, but she does not know who they are and she has certainly never been able to contact them.

So she prays, for North Korean Christians and for all North Koreans. She feels that is about all she can do. Please join her in prayer. Please do not forget North Korea.

Christians and the Shaman

Daniel Pinchbeck has written a book “Breaking Open the Head”, an account of his efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment through psychedelic drug-taking encounters with shamans.

Daniel clearly knows a lot about drugs, but less about spirituality, which is a shame, as I wish he could have told us more about one particular meeting, in Ecuador, with shaman Don Esteban.

He had been a shaman in his youth, but when the missionaries arrived he assumed that Christianity had greater power. He abandoned his traditional spiritual culture and became a Christian, working with the missionaries. They told him not to take ayahuasca [drug], so he didn’t. But as time went on, he realized that, as a Christian, he was no longer able to heal anybody. A nephew of his died, and he knew that with ayahuasca he would have been able to heal him. He decided that Christianity didn’t have all the answers and he returned, after a thirty-year hiatus, to ayahuasca.

I personally doubt that Don Esteban “assumed” that Christianity had greater power. Rather, he knew.

My wife is Korean, and before our marriage several times consulted a shaman about her future. According to her, the shamans say they cannot do their work if a devout Christian is present, as Christians possess a spiritual power much greater than their own.

When she was 24, and wanting to find a Westerner to marry, my wife consulted a shaman. He told her that when she was 27 she would marry someone from America or Japan. This was a shock, as she had no desire for a Japanese husband.

And then, after she had turned 27, I arrived on the scene, from Japan, where I was living. We were married two months later.

In 1992, shortly before we moved from Japan to Australia, she was back in Korea, visiting her family, and she went again to the shaman, to ask about our future. She didn’t tell me about this visit, as she knew I was extremely antagonistic to fortune tellers and the like.

“Your husband is going to turn to the cross,” the shaman told her. “Don’t ever come to me again.”

Shortly after we moved to Australia, I became a Christian. My wife never told me about the shaman’s message until some years later, and she never really pushed me into becoming a Christian. It wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is there a connection between shamans and Christianity? Does God perhaps use shamans to build a relationship with those of His people who have yet to hear of Jesus? I wonder if Christians should perhaps recognize the good sometimes done by shamans.

Saints in Waiting – the Christian Martyrs of North Korea

Korea has the fourth-highest number of Catholic saints in the world. Why? Because present-day Christianity in Korea – particularly the Catholic stream – was molded from the blood of its martyrs, thousands and thousands of them. Probably more so than just about anywhere else.

Christians were also at the forefront of the resistance against the Japanese occupation, that ended in 1945, and they helped lead the fight in the 1980s for democracy in their country. Today, Christians comprise about 30% of the South Korean population, and a vibrant Christian expression is everywhere.

By contrast, North Korea is once again a land of martyrs.

It is sadly ironic that former US President Jimmy Carter, after meeting North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, reportedly pronounced him “friendly” towards Christianity.

Yes, he was friendly when he thought Christians might help prop up his regime, and garner some international support. That’s why he occasionally sent North Korean “Christian” leaders to travel abroad for international conferences.

My wife is Korean, and a while ago some North Korean Christians came to Australia for talks. A pastor friend met them.

“They said that North Koreans couldn’t worship any more, because the Americans had bombed and destroyed their churches during the Korean War,” our friend told us. “They also said that North Koreans didn’t really need religion, because they had Kim Il Sung.”

And in a crazy way it was true that North Koreans didn’t need Christianity. After all, they already at that time had the father (the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung), son (his successor Dear Leader Kim Jong Il) and spirit (juche – the doctrine of self-reliance that supposedly inspires the populace).

Yet Christianity has persisted, even though any friendliness that might have been shown to the faith by Kim Il Sung was not replicated by his son. He was a tyrant. In the words of the National Association of Evangelicals, North Korea is “more brutal, more deliberate, more implacable, and more purely genocidal” than any other nation.

As many as 100,000 Christians are in concentration camps, enduring regular torture. Executions are common.

Prisoners unable to contain their horror at executions are deemed disloyal to the party and are punished with electrical shock, often to death. Others are sent into solitary confinement in containers so cramped that their legs become permanently paralyzed. Eight Christians working in a prison smelting factory died instantly when molten iron was poured onto them, one by one, for refusing to deny their faith.

Yet something remarkable is happening. A growing number of North Koreans are escaping, to China or South Korea, and many of them are turning to Christianity. There at last they find hope.

So while no decent person in a million years would wish on North Korean Christians their present sufferings, it is possible to see in them the seed of a future renaissance.

German doctor Norbert Vollertsen was stationed in North Korea in 1999-2000 for the relief agency German Emergency Doctors. Later he interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea. His message: what has been going on in North Korea for more than half a century bears a strong resemblance to the World War II Nazi genocide against Jews.

“Like the Jews then, Christians in North Korea face their executioners praying and singing hymns,” he related.

But as the church father Tertullian reportedly said at the dawn of Christianity: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Vollertsen, whose reports have made him a legendary figure in Japan and South Korea, found out that as a result of this Communist campaign of persecution an underground church was growing rapidly. “I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South.”

Korea’s Dynamic Christianity – Reflections on an Explosive Revival

Some years ago a Korean friend told me how she had been getting up at 5:30 every morning to drive to her church – one of several Korean churches here in Melbourne – for the 6:00am prayer meeting. They were looking for a new pastor, so for one month the congregation were meeting daily to pray, for one hour, for God’s guidance and provision. About 30 to 40 attended each morning, many driving 30 minutes or more to be there.

By contrast, my own church was at the same time looking for a new pastor. Most of our members live no more than a five-minute drive away, yet we were lucky to get half-a-dozen to a morning prayer meeting once a week.

Is it any wonder that one of the phenomena of twentieth-century religion was the explosive growth in Korea of Christianity, at the same time as it was stagnating in the West?

I have a Korean wife, and have many experiences of the dynamic nature of Korean Christianity. I remember once when we were staying with her parents, at their tiny apartment, in the Seoul suburb of Banpo, south of the Han River. Their home was part of a giant apartment complex, housing thousands. While I was there I was probably the only Westerner.

One day I stepped outside with my wife to walk to the shops, when two ladies stepped forward. “Please,” said one, pushing a pamphlet into my hands, then they walked away. It was a Christian evangelism tract, in English. Almost certainly those women had heard that a Westerner was staying in one of the apartments and had been waiting outside our building – perhaps for a couple of hours – just to hand me that leaflet.

In Seoul I attended services of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, around the corner from the country’s parliament. This church, established by the dynamic David Yonggi Cho in 1958, is now the largest in the world, with, incredibly, more than 800,000 members.

The church building itself holds 25,000 people in the main auditorium, with a further 15,000 watching on giant closed-circuit television screens in overflow chapels (“overflow” being the operative word; each of these chapels was jammed when I was there).

The church organized seven fervent, packed services each Sunday, two on Saturdays and several more during the week, as well as all-night prayer meetings every Friday. Members are also placed in small cell groups, which meet weekly for prayer and Bible study, with each member of a group asked to pray daily for each other group member.

The church has become something of a tourist attraction for visiting Christians. A special section of seating offers headphones with simultaneous translation of the service. On one of my visits the pastor began praying in tongues. The interpreter got carried away. She started speaking in tongues too.

The Koreans are deeply spiritual. When discussing religion there are none of the frustrations you face when debating matters of faith with cynical, post-Christian Westerners. Rather, you are back in first-century Athens with Paul, arguing the merits of the gods.

My wife’s brother-in-law is a graduate of one of Seoul’s top universities. He speaks excellent English. Some years ago his son – my nephew – was punched to the ground in an argument with a soldier, and spent several weeks in a coma, before making a slow and only partial recovery.

Christian groups sometimes visited my wife’s brother-in-law in hospital and offered to pray for the family. He told me he tried prayer himself. “But I didn’t once have any feeling of God being there.” He complained that some of the prayer groups seemed just to want money.

He and his wife went several times to church, but he complained that as soon as they stopped attending the pastor and elders would be on the phone pestering them to return, offering to send a bus round each Sunday to pick them up. I suggested he try the Yoido Full Gospel Church. “They’re all fanatics,” he said.

He found great consolation through weekly visits to an elderly Buddhist priest, who taught him some simple prayers and passed on traditional Buddhist wisdom for dealing with the pain he suffers over his son’s condition. “Why is your god better than mine?” he once asked me. “Why is your heaven better than mine?” (How would you answer?)

The Yoido Full Gospel Church runs a retreat, known as Prayer Mountain, near the North Korean border, and I spent a night there. Here is how I earlier wrote about the experience:

At any time, thousands of people are gathered for community prayer and worship that lasts for days, or even weeks. Many are fasting. At night, most sleep – if they are not in prayer – on mats spread out on the floor of the large central worship sanctuary.

Hundreds of tiny grottoes have been dug into the mountain, and individuals occupy these, praying for hours at a time, sitting or kneeling on the hard floor, a flickering candle the only illumination after dark. I walked around the compound late at night. It was snowing and bitterly cold, but many people were in the grottoes, crying out or singing, in piercing voices, in prayer and worship.

Some even forsook the relative comfort of the spartan grottoes and knelt outside, among trees and bushes on the mountain. When I walked around once more, early the next morning, many of the same worshippers were still at prayer.

During the twentieth century Christianity in Korea went from virtually zero to about a third of the population. We now see Korean-style revival occurring in China. What can we expect if during the twenty-first century a third of all Chinese turn to Jesus? Is the world ready?

The Pentecostal Shaman

Springtime, a few years ago, and some determined birds were making a nest in the eaves of our house, right above our front door. Their droppings were everywhere around our front steps, and thanks to water restrictions then in force we were not supposed to wash paved areas around the home.

I mentioned the birds at our weekly Bible study, and one of the Chinese ladies said: “Oh, that’s very good luck.”

Then she quickly added: “If you’re superstitious.”

I had already seen the conflicts that members of our Bible study group – all Asian except me – sometimes experienced between their religious practise and the customs of their home countries.

Sometimes we need to think about what is really a religious practise and what is simply culture.

My wife is from South Korea and I have spent a lot of time in her country. I often think that one of the reasons for the explosion in Christianity in post-war South Korea has been due to the Korean church’s appropriation of local culture.

When I visited David Yonggi Cho’s Full Gospel Church in Seoul – the biggest church in the world with something like 800,000 to 900,000 members – an elder pointed to a large Korean magpie that had built its nest on top of the high church gateway. “That’s very good luck,” he told me.

In South Korea, it is still not uncommon to seek out shamans for guidance about sickness, money, jobs and many other concerns. And in particular, for help in finding a husband or wife.

I attended three Full Gospel Church services, and after lengthy prayers at each, Dr Cho announced that particular people in the congregation had just been healed of various ailments. He has explained in one of his books how he teaches women to visualize exactly the sort of husband they want, in order to be successful.

Buddhism teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Dr Cho’s church teaches the Fivefold Gospel and the Threefold Blessing.

There have been suggestions that Dr Cho is a Pentecostal Shaman. But I wonder, how much of our own Christian practise is shaped by the culture around us?

Thinking Big – Revival in North Korea

Koreans think big. I read recently that many churches in South Korea are, from this year, putting aside one per cent of their annual income for a special fund that will be used to help advance unification with North Korea and build up the church there.

Given that some South Korean churches are huge, this is significant. It means that when the two Koreas are reunited – as surely they will be – an enormous amount of money will be available for evangelism. The once-powerful North Korean church could flourish again.

For example, Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church – the largest church in the world, with some 800,000 members – is one of those that has joined the cause. Some reports put its annual income as around $200 million. Now it will be devoting one per cent of this for the new unification fund.

I have seen many times the tendency of Koreans to think big. I was working as a journalist in Tokyo in the early 1980s when I was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal to spend two weeks in Seoul interviewing the heads of government and industry for a major report on the country.

Almost without exception those I met told me how South Korea was going to overtake Japan in electronics and many other fields. It seemed at the time as the kind of pipedream that springs from an inferiority complex. But today companies like Samsung have easily overtaken Japanese (and Western) rivals in many key product areas like mobile phones and colour televisions.

Though I do believe Koreans sometimes think too big. I once wrote about General Pil Sup Lee, formerly chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff and a devout Christian. More than a decade ago he told a Christian conference of a plan to evangelize the nation through the military.

Each year 350,000 young Korean men are called up for their compulsory military service. The aim was that some 60 per cent would become believers by the end of their term of service, returning to their homes where they would then spread the word among their families.

The goal was that the ratio of Christians in South Korea would rise to about 75 per cent of the population by 2020, from around 30 per cent at present. This is big, big thinking, and with the target date just five years away it does not look remotely achievable.

But North and South Korea will surely one day be reunited, and the church in the North could then bloom as before.

Students of Christian history will recall that, thanks to the Great Pyongyang Revival (Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea), beginning in the early 1900s, that city became known as “Jerusalem of the East.”

Yet this might be nothing compared to what we are set to witness once the North regains freedom, as huge amounts of money and other resources pour in. In my view, it could shake the world. Because, yes, Koreans think big. But God thinks even bigger.

Does God Still Speak to Soldiers?

In Old Testament times God spoke regularly to Israel’s military commanders, directing their battles and bringing about the defeat of their enemies. He sent an angel to instruct Joshua about how to conquer Jericho. He told David how to overcome the Philistines. There are many other examples.

soldier-waving-to-civiliansBut what about today? Can a Christian military leader expect divine intervention? Does God still take sides?

Some Christian officers have spoken openly of their faith, of how they have turned to God in their times of need and of how He has responded.

Here is Major General Tim Cross of the British Army on God at work in the life of a fellow Christian officer:

Major Chris Keeble, when Colonel H Jones was killed at Goose Green in the 1982 Falklands War, was left alone and somewhat lost; others looked to him as the Battalion second-in-command for leadership. His moment had come; so what did he do?

He moved off alone and knelt in the burning heather; with a prayer taken from his pocket in has hand he sought the Lord. And from there he gathered himself up, and with the command team he went and sought the Argentinean surrender; it was an incredibly bold move, but Keeble is a Christian and it was not by chance that he carried God’s word and a prayer with him, and he was not abandoned by his Lord at this decisive moment.

General Pil Sup Lee, formerly chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, has no doubt that God intervened for him at a crucial time:

In August 1979, I was appointed as a regiment commander on the frontline. Back then, there were frequent small-scale infiltrations by enemy soldiers into the South to carry out assassination missions and collect intelligence. It was a very daunting task to search out these enemy soldiers who were infiltrating along the 155-mile military demarcation line and the 3,767-mile coastline.

Under such circumstances, I thought the best way was to seek God’s help, because “unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1). I continuously prayed for this daunting mission of safeguarding my nation from enemy infiltration. And when I was about to begin my new mission as a regiment commander, I fasted for three days and prayed to the Lord.

…On March 23, 1980 at 02:45, there was no moonlight and the sky was draped with clouds. Sleet was pouring down making visibility less than 50 meters. I still wonder how a group of three enemy infiltrators, who were highly trained, select agents, risking their lives, walked up to one of our sentry boxes that were set up every 400 meters.

How could our newly recruited sentries completely suppress those enemy agents without any casualties? Situations unfolded in such a way that defies explanation with conventional tactical assessments.

Many modern Christians will feel uncomfortable with such talk. Yes, they will say, it seems exactly right that God should save lives by arranging for the surrender of Argentinean forces to the British. But does He really answer prayer by helping South Korean soldiers kill three infiltrators from the North?

I don’t have a complete answer. But I do know that God promises to uphold justice and righteousness. I also know that He is sovereign. And when we start placing limits on his sovereignty we dishonor Him.

As we read in Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.