Today about 30% of the population in South Korea identify as Christian. This is substantially higher than many other Asian countries. Why did the Korean people take such a likening to the religion? The reasons can be found when looking at the influences of the country over the course of the last 100 years. Japans colonization, the Korean War, and western presence would culminate into the perfect environment for the religion to grow and expand.
American missionaries first arrived in Korea in the 1880s. Compared to other Asian countries, it was very well received. Korea would become a colony of Japan in 1910 and in 1914 it was estimated that there were approximately 150,000 Christians in Korea. During this time Japan did not have strict rules concerning Christianity which would change around World War 2. Christian missionaries were allowed to continue their work in Korea freely.
Prior to the arrival of Christianity Korea had its own practices. Korean Shamanism and Buddhism were common practice in the country until the arrival of Japan. When Japan colonized Korea, they outlawed Korean Shamanism and took over the Buddhist practices to enforce a pro-Japan agenda. This caused many people to gravitate towards Christianity upon its arrival as they were allowed to worship without the influence of propaganda. Christianity quickly became a rallying point to defy Japanese rule over their country. Many felt as though it was a way to rebel. In addition, it became part of a nationalist movement since it was un-influenced by the Japanese.
Another factor the emboldened the presence of Christianity was the Korean War in the early 1950’s. North and South Korean were clashing and South Korea was not as strong as it is today. The United States stepped in to provide support to the government and people of South Korea in an effort to preserve democracy. Because this was the first real western presence felt by the Korean people it garnered a lot of respect for the United States. They were there to assist people in need not to push an agenda they thought the country should adopt. Because of this respect, Christianity gained even more traction and was viewed in a more positive light than just a way to rebel.
Korean culture started to associate Christianity with the middle-class, intellectual superiority, and modernizers. After the release of Japan’s hold on the country and the end of the Korean war South Korea was formed. The country had a desire to modernize and the best example of this would be their allies in the recent war, the United States. These cultural association as well as an attempt to emulate the success the U.S. had was just another reason Christianity gained such popularity in Korea.
There was no one factor that gave Christianity such a strong presence in Korea but rather a perfect storm of multiple factors. Had the country never been colonized or if Japan had outlawed Christianity sooner it is possible one would see similar results as China or Japan.