On the August 16, Gwanghwamun plaza in downtown Seoul hosted probably the greatest number of people in its long history: An estimated 800,000 Koreans gathered there to greet Pope Francis. The pontiff visited South Korea to meet the Catholic community and beatify 124 martyrs - people who had died for their Catholic faith in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Such massive interest in the Pope's visit might appear unusual, since Korea is not known as a Catholic country. However, Catholics constitute a rather significant part of South Korea's population. According to the most recent data, roughly 10 percent (or 5 million South Koreans) are Catholics.
The number might be somewhat misleading since the actual influence of Catholicism in the country is much stronger than it might seem on the surface, as Catholics are overrepresented among the elite. Generally speaking, the higher one looks in Korea's social hierarchy, the more likely one is to find Catholics.
This all appears a bit strange because in most non-European countries where Catholics are influential nowadays, Catholicism was first introduced by colonial powers. Such countries are mostly former colonies of Europe's Catholic nations (namely Spain, Portugal and France). Korea, on the other hand, was colonised by a decisively non-Catholic, and for that matter, non-Christian country: Japan.
The phenomenal success of Catholicism in Korea can only really be understood through the 200-year history of the Korean Catholic church. It is its position in the political and social spheres which brought the unexpected success it enjoys today.
A religion of modernity
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Catholicism came to be seen in Korea as a religion of modernity and science. In the 1970s and 1980s, it came to be seen as the religion of the democratic movement that opposed the military dictatorships then in charge of the country.
The Catholic doctrine began to spread in Korea in the late 18th century in the most unusual fashion: It was introduced by books, not missionaries. The 18th century was a time of considerable intellectual ferment in Korea. The younger members of the educated gentry (yangban) class felt increasingly disappointed by the ossified scholastics of neo-Confucianism, which at that time was the official state ideology.
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The youth were not interested in wasting time arguing whether the Qi principle transcends the Li principle in determining the formation of the universe; they did not want to spend their entire lives debating similarly abstract and scholastic issues that dominated neo-Confucianism of the era.
Rather, these young and inquisitive minds wanted to learn how to make better guns, how to build cranes for constructing larger buildings, and how the Earth goes around the Sun. Since the official high culture of their time thought of such questions as irrelevant, trivial and unworthy of intellectual pursuit, the young dissidents naturally enough began to read Western treatises on technology, astronomy, and physics. Fortunately for them, such books were being imported into Korea from China since the early 1700s.
However, all these Western books were translated into classical Chinese, which was then the only language of intellectual discourse in China and Korea, by Western Catholic missionaries then operating in China. Predictably, these technological and scientific books retained a number of positive references to Christianity. Thus it was that many of these young intellectuals began to read translated Christian texts as well. Many of them felt that they had finally found the truth, and, so to say, converted themselves.
This was how, by the late 1790s, there came to be a few thousand Catholic believers in Korea. Most of these people had never seen a Catholic priest before, let alone been baptised. The first Korean to be baptised by an ordained priest was a man called Lee Sung-hun. Lee managed to visit China in 1784 as a clerk in a Korean diplomatic mission and encountered missionaries there.
The Korean government did not look favourably on the gradual spread of Catholicism. It was seen as potentially dangerous because it could be used by Western powers in their imperialist endeavours. It was also seen as repulsive since Catholics refused to make sacrificial offerings to the souls of their ancestors. The latter was seen as an obscene and grotesque violation of the principle of filial piety.
As a result, several waves of persecution ensued. This was how the 124 martyrs beatified by Pope Francis, as well as the 103 martyrs beatified by Pope John-Paul II lost their lives. These inquisitions killed thousands of believers, including the Chinese, French and Korean priests who since the early 1800s secretly operated in Korea.
However, such harsh methods brought only partial success at best. Catholicism continued to grow and spread among educated and progressive-minded Koreans. One can even find a certain irony in this decision. At the same time as Catholicism was being repressed in Korea as a symbol of Western modernity, it was increasingly seen as an anti-modern and reactionary force elsewhere in the world.
In the 1880s, Protestantism was also introduced to Korea. It was backed by the money and experience of American missionary groups, soon eclipsing the Catholic missions. Nonetheless, Catholic believers were usually more likely to strive for a modern education. Thus, they (as well as protestants) were strikingly overrepresented among the first Korean engineers, medical doctors and university professors.
The democracy movement
In a sense, history began to repeat itself in the 1960s when Catholicism came to be associated with the ideas of progressive change and the introduction of modern political ideologies. In the 1960s, South Korea's Catholic church hierarchy began to drift leftward. This was a time when South Korea was run by a military dictatorship - remarkably efficient at managing the economy but also quite ruthless and brutal in dealing with political dissent and the country's labour movement. The Catholic church firmly positioned itself on the side of the pro-democracy resistance. A special role was played by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who in 1968 became the archbishop of Seoul.
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Under the leadership of Cardinal Kim, the Catholic church took a remarkably active leadership role, always ready to criticise the government and its perceived brutal use of force against government opponents. Outraged, the KCIA, the South Korean political police, arrested Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun, one of Cardinal Kim's lieutenants and an outspoken critic of the military rule, but had to release him soon, bowing to pressure from local Catholics groups and from overseas.
Catholic churches were frequently used as asylum for the participants in anti-government rallies and labour activists alike. While technically Korean law did not recognise the right of churches to play such a role, in practice the authorities did not want to start an open fight with the Catholic church and were usually very cautious.
When military rule finally came to an end in 1987 and Korea at long last became a democracy, the Catholic church was widely credited for its role in this seismic change. Needless to say, such perceptions significantly boosted its popularity: Church leaders were seen as relevant, dedicated and ready to risk their life and freedom for a great cause. Indeed, while Catholic churches across the globe face increasing difficulties and dwindling numbers of believers, the Korean church is thriving. In the mid-1990s the Catholics constituted merely 6 percent of the total population, but in twenty years the number nearly doubled, reaching 10 percent.
Korean Catholic leaders stood twice on the right side of history and as a result Catholicism continues to enjoy popularity among South Koreans.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.