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Why Korean-American pastors are praying for a united Korea — even when natives aren’t

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K-pop beats bleed from store to store in this western Seoul shopping district, where the college-age set can pick out the latest club wear or grab a burger.

Or they can pray for the fate of the Korean peninsula.

In a church sanctuary five stories above the crowds, a four-person band jams out to indie rock worship songs in English as dozens of lift their hands and call for uniting the north and south after more than 70 years of separation.

“I want us to pray first for South Korea, especially in its relation to North Korea, OK?” asked Leo Rhee, senior pastor at CityLight-Seoul. 

Rhee is among the network of Korean-American pastors in Seoul that organizes a monthly prayer meeting for English-speaking parishioners, with a heavy emphasis on reunification. The pastors relocated from places like Southern California to serve a growing expatriate population here to work for multinational companies, launch businesses or study the language and culture. 

Many pastors are also here because they think reunification is imminent, and North Koreans will be free from the Kim dictatorship — and free to embrace Christianity. 

"We grew up in America with our parents where I was told we have to pray for reunification of Korea. Pastors growing up would tell me we had to pray for Korea," said Rhee, who has served in U.S. churches like one in Orange County. "So that was ingrained to our minds as young people."

English-language ministries in Seoul hold a prayer meeting for reunification.
English-language ministries in Seoul hold a prayer meeting for reunification.
Josie Huang/KPCC

Increased dialogue between North and South Korea in recent months has only boosted his optimism. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in plan to meet later this month, while a summit between Kim and President Trump is scheduled for May.

But reunification is less appealing to South Koreans, especially younger people. A survey conducted last year by the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul found that most South Koreans in their 20s have accepted a divided peninsula. Just 8 percent said they'd be willing to share the burden of reunification.

"It has been very long since we have been divided into two," said Heesu Myung, a 22-year-old student at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "So I think people are more used to it being divided."

Heesu Myung's two grandfathers came from North Korea, but she opposes reunification because of the economic toll it will have on South Korea.
Heesu Myung's two grandfathers came from North Korea, but she opposes reunification because of the economic toll it will have on South Korea.
Josie Huang/KPCC

The partition took place at the end of World War II 73 years ago. Japanese forces had occupied the peninsula for 35 years when they were defeated by the Allied forces. The victors — the U.S. and Soviet Union — divvied up control of the country along the 38th parallel.

The armistice line was supposed to be temporary. But the division hardened when the two states formally became independent — and enemies. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 during the Korean War, which drew the U.S. into the battle and lead to more than 3 million deaths, most of them Koreans.

Tensions have risen over the intervening decades as the North has armed itself with nuclear weapons. And with every year, public support for reunification among South Koreans wanes.

Both of Myung’s grandfathers came from North Korea, and spoke emotionally of relatives they left behind and hadn’t seen for decades. But for her, shared ethnicity and history is not enough reason to reunify. She said young South Koreans already struggle with high living costs — Seoul is one of the world's most expensive cities — and competition for jobs. North Korea would be a new burden.

"North Korea is lot less developed," Myung said. "So to balance the economic level that we're in, South Korean people has to pay more tax and they have to sacrifice more."

While South Koreans’ views were evolving on reunification, those of their Korean-American cousins were not changing as quickly, if at all. Many Korean immigrants came to the US after immigration laws were liberalized in the mid-1960s. And they brought with them a mindset “somewhat frozen in time,” said Kyung Moon Hwang, who teaches Korean history at the University of Southern California.

“They represent the prevailing perspective back in the 70s and 80s, and things really haven’t changed for them much,” Hwang said. 

Hwang, himself the son of Korean-American immigrants, said that growing up, reunification was treated among the diaspora as conventional wisdom. Helping to reinforce the need for reunification is the Korean-American church. Many advocate for reunification and raise money to help missionaries who work out of South Korea and along the North Korean border in China, as well as North Korean defectors.

The clout of the church is formidable. It became such an important community hub for immigrants that about 71 percent of Korean Americans identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, about 29 percent of Koreans say they are Christian.

The leaders of expat churches in Seoul say they fill a similar role for Korean-Americans living abroad, many of whom cannot speak the language fluently.  An estimated 200 English-language ministries serve the expat population, according to Rhee who is studying the Korean diaspora at seminary.

Erin Lee, a Korean-American pastor in Seoul, said that praying for reunification is a core goal for many of them. Her church, New Philadelphia, hosts the monthly prayer meetings for reunification.

"For Korean diaspora, there's the ability to not be blinded by just the nitty-gritty of what needs to happen but just the idea that hey, Korea was always meant to be one Korea," said Lee, who is originally from Long Island, N.Y..

Erin Lee, left, and her husband Christian Lee, right, help lead the New Philadelphia Church in Seoul for expatriates. Paul Yoo, middle, is former pastor at New Philadelphia Church's Sydney, Australia location.
Erin Lee, left, and her husband Christian Lee, right, help lead the New Philadelphia Church in Seoul for expatriates. Paul Yoo, middle, is former pastor at New Philadelphia Church's Sydney, Australia location.
Josie Huang/KPCC

Jamie Kim founded a nonprofit in Northridge in 2005 called Rhea International that provides leadership retreats and Bible study programs to Christians working in North Korea. But a year and a half ago, he moved his family to Seoul where he now runs his organization.

"We felt that reunification of North and South Korea is going to happen very soon," Kim said. "And I wanted to be here to help in any way that I was able to." 

The most famous Korean-American Christian missionary, Kenneth Bae, spent two years in North Korean detention and now lives in Seoul. He said he plans to move to North Korea after reunification. 

Kenneth Bae delivers remarks during an event to promote his book
Kenneth Bae delivers remarks during an event to promote his book "Not Forgotten" on Capitol Hill.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But USC’s Hwang doubts reunification will be happening anytime soon. The regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, he said, would have to collapse first.

"Most likely if that happens you're going to have another dictatorship in the hands of somebody else," Hwang said.

Should a new leader miraculously accept reunification, Hwang said, disorder and social problems will follow. He predicted that the wealthier South will take economic advantage of the North, provided that "the northern peoples will want to stay put, that they won't want to flood to the South in order to seek some kind of immediate relief for their suffering."

Korean-American church leaders like Lee know that reunification is losing favor among South Koreans, but she said that the role of Korean Americans is to change hearts and minds.

"As Korean natives see Korean diaspora, it's almost like hey, why is it so important to them and we hope that it will kind of inspire," Lee said.

Unlikely to budge is Heesu Myung, the college student who opposes reunification. She said Korean-Americans don’t understand the stakes for her. She recalls a frustrating conversation with a Korean-American cousin who persistently pushed for reunification.

"I think a lot of Korean Americans view Korea as like their home, home in their heart," Myung said. "But Korea for me is my reality."

And Myung said unlike Korean-Americans, she doesn’t have a U.S. passport and can’t leave Korea should the going ever get tough. 

Josie Huang reported from Seoul for this story. It is part of her coverage of religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora made possible by a grant from the Luce Foundation.