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Plastic facade

South Korea’s glittering prosperity masks a suffering people

Plastic facade

PRESSURE: Shoppers pass before and after photos at the entrance to a plastic surgery clinic in the Gangnam District of Seoul. (Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/AP)

Associated Press/Photo by Ahn Young-joon

PROSPERING IMAGE: Buddhist monks in a parade to celebrate the birthday of Buddha.

Dagmar Schwelle/LAIF/Redux

Yoido Full Gospel Church.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Psy performing “Gangnam Style.”


Satellite image of the Korean Peninsula at night.

 Q. Sakamaki/Redux

SPIRITUAL WARFARE: An encouraging message is engraved on the Mapo Bridge to try to prevent suicide. The bridge is one of the most common locations for suicides in Seoul.

Uriel Sinai/The New York Times/Redux

Relatives of missing passengers of the sunken ferry <em>Sewol</em> and volunteers pray at a church set up in a tent in Jindo.

This summer for the first time I entered my native country, South Korea, as an American citizen. Walking through the capital, Seoul, I spotted countless crosses—churches are everywhere—but also flags bearing swastikas. In Korea those flags signal shamanism, a hereditary ancient religion that encompasses idol and ancestral worship. More than once, fortune-telling Buddhist cult followers approached me in the streets and tried to persuade me to their faith. I bought two such evangelists’ smoothies to evangelize back. We both departed frustrated and disappointed. No Christian evangelist approached me.

Korea is a land of stark dichotomies. The most obvious juxtaposition, of course, is at the 38th parallel. For almost 65 years, my country has been divided into North and South. The famous satellite image of nighttime in the Korean peninsula shows sparkles of light in the South, and almost total darkness in the North. While South Korean churches crank up the music and air conditioners every night for services, hidden Christians up North whisper in darkness, risking their lives each time they crack open a pocket-sized Bible.

But few people seem to remember this reality today. My maternal grandfather died with memories of his father being dragged off to the North with his communist sisters. His children and grandchildren, however, don’t desire reunification, because North Koreans are “too different,” from language to culture. One aunt told me, “We should send humanitarian aid, but let’s not invite them to flood our country.”

I understood her sentiment. The people in the South have troubles of their own. South Koreans may not be starving and tortured in detention camps, but they are starving and tortured just the same. Their ugly and destructive issues are just buried under lovely coats of polish.

The recent Sewol tragedy (see sidebar) unearthed much of South Korea’s political, economic, and social corruption. But there are others: Sex trafficking and prostitution flourish in South Korea, which is a source, transit, and destination country for the sex trade. The Ministry of Gender Equality estimates about a half-million work in the domestic sex industry, which drives at least 4 percent of the nation’s GDP (and critics say that’s a grossly conservative number. The Korean Institute of Criminology says South Korean male tourists are the “number one source of demand for child sex trafficking” in Southeast Asia. South Korea also produces the highest-per-capita revenue for pornography, $526.76 (compared to $44.67 in the United States).

“Family” is traditionally the most important part of Korean life, but families are now falling apart. The national divorce rate has tripled from 2013 to 2014. South Korea has had the highest suicide rate among developed countries for eight consecutive years. In 2012, 39 people per day killed themselves. Suicide is the leading cause of death for 10- to 30-year-old South Koreans and those above 65 as well, whose suicide rates have tripled within the past decade. For people in their 40s, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.

Eddie Byun, pastor of the English Ministry at Onnuri Church, said, “If you look at these factors through spiritual lenses, I think it’s very obvious that there is such heavy spiritual warfare within this peninsula.” But South Korean churches are losing credibility and influence. A taxi driver, learning my father is a pastor, said we must be rich. When he saw the look on my face, he quickly added, “Well, I know most church pastors here in Korea earn a lot of money.” He’s probably read about the recent embezzlement scandal involving Cho Yonggi, founder and pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world with several hundred thousand members. Yoo Byung-eun is just another latest example.

As churches squabble over money and power and edge toward prosperity preaching, they water down the gospel—as do many American churches today: Many Christians fear the Korean churches are following that liberal path, and many non-Christian Koreans watch and smirk, with some nicknaming Christianity “kae-dok-kyo” instead of “ki-dok-kyo”—the word “kae” meaning “dog.” They don’t call pastors “mok-sa-nim,” but “muk-sa-nim”—the word “muk” means “to eat.”

Meanwhile, South Korea’s international image is prospering. In Myeongdong, one of Seoul’s most popular shopping districts, at least half the shoppers are foreigners. Salesgirls in cosmetics shops advertise products in Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. Even K-pop stars—called “idols” in Korea—now sing hit songs in accented English, Mandarin, and Japanese.

The entertainment industry has for decades been South Korea’s strongest political tool, a soft power to lubricate international hearts and minds into loving and admiring Korean culture. It's worked. One Canadian woman in her early 30s moved to Seoul because she “fell in love with Korean drama.” Another woman, a Singaporean in her late 20s, also quit her job to live in Korea. She’s spending her savings on two years of Korean language classes in one of the many language schools for foreign Korea-lovers like her. She too is an avid K-drama and K-pop fan.

Medical tourism to South Korea is booming as well, with 15,898 foreigners in 2012 visiting Korea for plastic surgery. South Korea has the most cosmetic procedures per capita in the world: One in five Korean women has had plastic surgery, and Seoul alone hosts 500 cosmetic surgery clinics, many offering special package deals with nearby hotels for post-recovery. At subway stations and on buses and streets, billboards advertise plastic surgery clinics that guarantee bigger, double-lidded eyes and pointier chins. On one train two women had puffed, vein-streaked eyes, taped eyelids, and bandages around swollen, bruised noses and chins. At first I thought they were abuse victims, but they were post–plastic surgery patients.

I left the train feeling sad and angry. How far we have fallen! Korea once boasted about its explosion of Christian missionaries and distinct love for the Bible, but now we’re implanting false models of beauty and success. We’re entertaining the world with the likes of Psy, whose hit music videos “Gangnam Style” and more recently “Hangover” (with rap artist Snoop Dogg) ostensibly mock yet celebrate sexual and alcohol perversions.

This phenomenon hit home when I met two of my favorite female cousins who live in Seoul. One cousin, a 21-year-old college student, told me she felt such shame next to the skinny girls in her class that she dieted away 33 pounds, becoming so much skin-and-bones that soft downy hair covers her goose-prickled arms—a clear sign that her body needs fat. I worried for her, and then worried about my other cousin, a 24-year-old who confided that she now regularly binges and throws up. She too blames media and peer pressure. Both cousins’ mothers have suggested they get plastic surgery.

The trip gave me many reasons to pray. I saw much blessing that South Korea has enjoyed over the decades, as it almost miraculously surged from a third-world, war-devastated country to an advanced nation recognized for its economic achievements, technological progress, glamorous pop culture, and passionate church revival. This country literally rose out of ashes, and in those ashes was the blood of thousands of Christian martyrs. Many Christians I interviewed lament that Koreans today,  content with designer clothes and organic apples, have forgotten the meaning of suffering. But that’s not true. People are still suffering, only in a different way.

Out of ashes?

On April 16, the South Korean ferry Sewol sank while on a 13.5-hour route to Jeju, a southern resort island. The incident left about 300 individuals dead or missing, 250 of them 16- or 17-year-old students. Only 172 individuals survived.

The disaster exposed many layers of corruption. On the list: ship-abandoning captain and senior crew, inadequate safety precautions, lax business regulation, nepotism, political power-play, media censorship, and a bizarre heretic pastor-billionaire.

A fountain of grief, rage, guilt, remorse, and shame frothed in South Korea. TV stations suspended all entertainment programs and shows. Upcoming festivals, concerts, company retreats, and ceremonials were canceled. Even anticipation for the imminent World Cup, a national obsession, was hushed. As a result, Korea’s economy is suffering. People working at hotels, bakeries, and karaoke cafés told me business is poor. The Bank of Korea reported a dampened domestic consumer sentiment, and analysts predict an economic loss of 1.5 trillion won ($1.46 billion).

One day, history textbooks will reference all the human errors and wrongdoings that led up to the catastrophe. Meanwhile, many Christians are urgently praying for the Korean church to reflect on the event’s spiritual significance and consequence.

Park Hyung-jin, missions professor at Torch Trinity Graduate University, said South Korea may have progressed in economy and pop culture, “but in truth, we’ve distanced from God’s heart, from the individual to the church. God is showing us how rotten we’ve become—rotten to the core.”

On May 15 and July 7, at the 100th Anniversary Memorial Church in Seoul, a group of senior pastors gathered for a conference titled, “I repent first, cane prayer meeting.” During the meeting, the pastors got on stage with canes, rolled up their pants, and whipped their own calves, mourning the church’s loss of the “martyr’s faith” and “message of repentance” that seeded Korea’s early churches.

On May 25, about 200,000 people gathered in Busan under pouring rain for four hours, weeping and praying. They lamented the infiltration of “secularization and pervasive mammonism” into the Korean church and prayed for an “out of ashes” revival similar to the first Great Revival of 1907 that swept fiery movements of repentance and evangelism across the peninsula.

Deborah Keum, a pastor who attended that Busan repentance meeting and other similar revival movements, said the Sewol disaster has “triggered” a “new season of repentance” in South Korea: “We’re at a tipping point right now. Yes, we’re grieving, but what’s the next step? God’s turning our hearts around. … And we’re awakening.”

Park, however, also worries about the typical Korean naembi (saucepan) tendency to react passionately but cool just as rapidly: “Let’s hope we don’t cool down this time round. Pray that we use this as an opportunity to teach, correct, and repent. Otherwise, I fear another incident will happen again.” —S.L. 

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:41 pm

    I really appreciate this article. I realized I know more about North Korea than South Korea (ironic, considering NK is a closed country that regularly lies about itself), and most of what I thought I knew about South Korea isn't true. I will definitely be reading more about South Korea and paying more attention to news from the country. This will also radically change my prayer life. Thank you for opening my eyes.

  • Shauna Russ
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:41 pm

    Thank you to World News Group and Sophia Lee for providing us with "front line" news to inform and educate us, but also, to provide us with topics that need prayer. I was blessed twenty some years ago to become friends of and to work for a family from South Korea. It is so very sad to read of all the problems that are challenging the South Korean church and all citizens at this time and even sadder yet to remember that the church is struggling world-wide. However, just as Peter Allen so wisely stated, we need challenge and struggle to grow and we know this is often the message of the Bible. Christ assured us that by following Him, we would be inviting tribulation into our lives.As American Christians, I fear that our relative comfort and ease still allows us many opportunities to continue to sidestep challenges that are right in front of us. Right now, God is giving us the choice: do we keep moving forward and take on these challenges full force or do we step aside into that wide path where the traveling is easy, but it also leads to damnation? We have a tendency to blame our leaders, the politicians for all that is going wrong, but not only are we responsible for placing these people in office, but we have had the opportunity to speak out, to take action against each wrong before it took root in our society and we chose to step aside. Now, we have to understand that it's never too late to do what is right, but we will have to embrace the hardships (thanks Peter). Most importantly, we need to remember that all things are possible with God.

  • Amy Medina
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:41 pm

    Fascinating article, Sophia.  Thanks.

  • mexmom
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:41 pm

    I teach at an English-speaking Christian school composed mostly of South Korean students. These two years I've spent with them have really opened my eyes to both the impact the Gospel has had in Korea and the falling away of the newer generation from Christian values. Many of my students come from broken homes and/or are being raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles. This article was spot on and thank you, Sophia, for bringing this to light. I will certainly continue to pray for South Korea and for my students. God bless.

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:41 pm

    1 John 2:15-17 speaks clearly to this cultural condition. 

  • NitroBob
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:41 pm

    Having visited South Korea over the years, this article certainly rings true.  I have a great love for the South Koreans as well as many of the peoples across Asia.  They are wonderful at heart and very kind.  I pray God will heal their culture, their land, their hearts, and their souls.Thank you for a very touching article Sophia.Bob

  •  Peter Allen's picture
    Peter Allen
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:41 pm

    The longer I live, the more apparent it becomes to me that a challenging life is good.  Not only spiritually, but in other ways as well.  Effort makes the muscles stronger.  Need causes this effort.  Little effort is expended when a life of ease is offered.  Embrace hardship.  Thank God for it.