From its establishment on the peninsula in 1784 to Pope Francis’s visit to beatify 124 martyrs, in 2014, 230 years later, the Catholic Church in Korea has experienced massive change as it has sought to navigate persecution, imperialism, national division, war, dictatorship, and democratization. Despite the challenges it has faced, the Korean Catholic Church has managed to transform itself from a tiny, marginalized community into a highly respected part of Korean society with millions of members. This history can be divided into four periods: the time of hope, in which some Koreans came to believe that Catholicism would bring both spiritual salvation and this-worldly knowledge (the early 16th century to 1784); the time of persecution in which Catholics on the Korean peninsula suffered and died for their faith (1784–1886); the time of imperialism (1886–1945), during which Catholics had to balance the demands of nation, state, and faith in the face of increasing Japanese control of their country; and the time of development (1945–2014) as the Catholic Church in South Korea (the Catholic Church in North Korea being essentially destroyed) became an increasingly integral and active part of Korean society.
During the 518 years of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), many things changed and many things stayed the same. After the Yi family established the Chosŏn dynasty, Confucianism became the dominant philosophy. Although Confucianism’s grip on Chosŏn weakened somewhat at the end of the 19th century, it nevertheless continued to provide the basic framework for how government officials and most of the educated elite conceptualized ethics, religion, nature, and technology. This changed when the Chosŏn dynasty was absorbed into the Japanese empire in 1910. Chosŏn-era science, technology, and religion operated within a Confucian framework. This affected astronomical, geographical, mathematical, and medicinal thought and practice. It also affected the role of technology in Chosŏn life and society. Moreover, when Buddhism, folk religion and, from the end of the 18th century even Christianity, were practiced in Korea, it was necessary to maneuver within constraints imposed by a Confucian state and society.
Korea’s Confucianism was imported from China. Koreans, however “Koreanized” what they adopted from China to make it their own. When dealing with religion, Chosŏn-era Koreans adopted a much harsher attitude toward non-Confucian religions. When dealing with science and technology, Koreans sometimes made improvements on Chinese models. For example, in the 15th century, Koreans built astronomical instruments that were better than those they had learned about from Chinese astronomers. And, in the 17th century, Koreans produced the most comprehensive encyclopedia of traditional East Asian medicine of pre-modern times. However, none of those changes threatened the hegemony of Confucianism. Chosŏn Korea remained Confucian in its science, technology, and religiosity for over five centuries.
Michael J. Seth
At its independence in 1948, South Korea was an impoverished, predominately agricultural state, and most of the industry and electrical power was in North Korea. It faced a devastating war from 1950 to 1953, and an unpromising and slow recovery in the years that followed. Then, from 1961 to 1996, South Korea underwent a period of rapid economic development, during which it was transformed into a prosperous, industrial society. During these years, its economic growth rates were among the highest in the world. Under the military government of Park Chung Hee (Pak Chǒng-hǔi), which came to power in 1961, the state gave priority to economic development, focusing on a combination of state planning and private entrepreneurship. Possessing few natural resources, it depended on a low wage, educated, and disciplined labor force to produce goods for exports. As wages rose, economic development shifted from labor to capital-intensive industries. Focusing initially on textiles and footwear, South Korean manufacturing moved into steel, heavy equipment, ships, and petrochemicals in the 1970s, and electronics and automobiles in the 1980s. Two major reforms under the administration of Syngman Rhee (Yi Sǔng-man, 1948–1961) helped prepare the way: land reform and educational development. However, it was the commitment to rapid industrialization by the military governments of Park Chung Hee and his successor, Chun Doo Hwan (Chǒn Tu-hwan), that brought about the takeoff. Industrialization was characterized by a close pattern of cooperation between the state and large family-owned conglomerates known as chaebǒls. This close relationship continued after the transition to democracy, in the late 1980s and 1990s, but after 1987, labor emerged as a major political force, and rising wages gave further impetus to the development of more capital-intensive industry. In 1996, South Korea joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, being internationally recognized as a “developed state.” Although living standards still lagged behind those of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, the gap was significantly narrowed. After 1996, its economic development slowed but was still high enough to achieve a per capita income comparable to the countries of Western Europe and to shift from a borrower of to an innovator in technology.