Church grows in North Korea despite persecution: Korean Archbishop

South Korea

New book based on interviews with Archbishop Victorinus Yoon Kong-hi sheds new light on North Korean Church

Archbishop Victorinus Yoon Kong-hi, former head of South Korea’s Gwangju Archdiocese, says the Church in North Korea is growing despite persecution. (Photo: Chosun.com)

Posted: May 17, 2022 10:21 GMT

Updated: May 17, 2022 12:02 GMT

One of South Korea’s top clerics says he believes the Catholic Church in communist North Korea is growing even though Catholics live in hiding and face persecution.

Archbishop Victorinus Yoon Kong-hi, former head of South Korea’s Gwangju Archdiocese, made the remarks in a recently published book on North Korean church history.

The History of the North Korean Church is a comprehensive Korean-language book on the history of the Catholic Church in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, based on eight interviews with the 98-year-old Archbishop conducted in the past year.

Writer Kwon Eun-jung wrote the book sponsored by the “Catholic Oral History Records for Peace on the Korean Peninsula” project of the Catholic Institute for Peace in Northeast Asia, an organization under the Catholic Diocese of Uijeongbu, Korean news portal chosun.com reported. May 13.

In the book, the elderly churchman, born in an area now covered by North Korea, gave vivid testimonies of how the church flourished in the territory before the Korean peninsula was divided between the Democratic South and Communist North, and the eruption of the deadly Korean War.

The Archbishop recalled how Catholic clergy, religious and lay people were seized with fear as communist forces attacked churches at the start of the war in 1949.

On May 9, 1949, at midnight, an unexpected emergency bell sounded at the Benedictine monastery and seminary in Tokwon, near Wonsan, South Hamgyong Province. The chief abbot of German origin, Mgr Boniface Sauer, was trained by the Communists, recalled the archbishop, then a student at the seminary.

These were the abbot’s last words to the students before he was led away: “As the Lord has called him, and as the Lord has done, we must go to death with countless martyrs. Now I ask you to take this place without me. Go home and rest in peace. Let’s meet in paradise.”

The abbot was then martyred in a North Korean prison. Fellow monks identified him by his long white beard among dozens of bodies and buried him in a cemetery.

Four days after the raid, the Communists expelled 26 monks from the monastery and 73 seminarians. They left without any sacred objects, including robes, rosaries and even a book.

The monastery and the seminary closed due to the war and the persecution of Christians. Before closing, the seminary trained about sixty priests from 1933 to 1948.

Unconfirmed media reports suggest the structures still exist today.

The prelate’s testimonies indicate that the Catholic Church in North Korea was vibrant before Korea’s split in two and the war that followed.

Missionaries distributed medicine to the poor who needed medical attention, established schools and carried out other charities to support local Catholics, who were poor but very enthusiastic, he said.

Tokwon Monastery and Seminary, both established by German Benedictines, had a free atmosphere for religious and seminary students, he said, adding that Bishop Daniel Tji Hak Soun (1921-1993), a former bishop of the diocese of Wonju, and Bishop Angelo Kim Namsu (1922-2002), former bishop of the diocese of Suwon, were students at the seminary of Tokwon.

The end of World War II in 1945 saw Japan leave Korea after decades of colonization. On Liberation Day, people wanted to ring the bells to express their joy, but many did not.

“I don’t remember hearing the bell announcing the joy of liberation that day. It was because at the end of the war, the Japanese imperialists took away all the metal,” Bishop Yoon recalled, then student of philosophy at the seminary.

However, the joy of liberation was short-lived as the communists took control of North Korea and confiscated all church property before unleashing a reign of systematic persecution.

Archbishop Yoon said that together with Bishop Daniel Tji Hak Soun, he made a dangerous flight from north to south and reached Seoul on January 17, 1950, where they bought chocolate and milk.

“We felt the air of freedom,” he recalls.

After moving to the South, Bishop Yoon said, he traveled to North Korea to visit his entire family. Like him, Bishop Tji Hak also visited his brother and sister during a meeting in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in 1985.

Archbishop Yoon was born in 1924 to a Catholic family in Jinnampo of Hwanghae, now part of North Korea. He entered Tokwon Theological Seminary with the intention of becoming a priest one day.

Yoon graduated from Songsin College (Major Seminary) in Seoul. His education was disrupted by the war and he graduated in 1950. He was ordained a priest on March 20, 1950.

In January 1951, he was appointed chaplain of the United Nations concentration camp for war refugees in Busan.

Father Yoon studied sacred theology in Rome at the Pontifical Urbaniana University and the Pontifical Gregorian University from 1957 to 1960.

In 1963, he became the first bishop of the Diocese of Suwon. He was appointed Archbishop of Gwangju in 1973 and served until 2000. He also served as President of Gwangju Catholic University from 1973 to 2010.

He was president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea (CBCK) from 1975 to 1981.

The nonagenarian Archbishop said the publication of the book had fulfilled his long-held dream.

He says he can’t do anything for the North Korean Church except pray for peace.

“I can’t do anything but rely on the providence of God,” he said.

He believes that “the Church is growing underground, just like the trees in Tokwon Seminary.”

“Trees sprout new shoots in every branch every year. That way, the Catholics hiding somewhere in the North also grow up,” he said.

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