Changing Conceptions of Religion in South Korea


A review of Appropriation of Religion: The Re-formation of the Korean Notion of Religion in Global Society, by Kyuhoon Cho.

Descend from a dusk sky towards the muted lights of Gimpo (Kimp’o) Airport and something akin to the import of “(the concept of) religion” to South Korean modernity visibly unfolds in the florescence of neon church steeples that punctuate the nightscape of Seoul’s darkened city shapes. The peaked lines of temple roofs – suspended above stone stupa – frame small shaman shop flags that catch the eyes when they flutter. Such scenes, while not frequently conjured up in the twenty-first century “national branding” of a high tech “Dynamic Korea,” are nevertheless clearly a part of South Korea’s (re)formulation of modernity. In his dissertation, Kyuhoon Cho traces, in broad strokes, the oft-moving lines and shadows of the concept of “religion” in the modern Korean imagination. Through these efforts, Cho breathes new life into the phrase – “that which is the most Korean is also the most universal.”

Drawing inspiration from the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998), Cho investigates how “religion” has been understood in the various public sectors of (South) Korean society. Cho also situates Korean understandings of “religion” in a larger East Asian context by comparing Korean conceptualizations of “religion” with the development of discourses about “religion” in both Japan and China (PRC). Cho’s exploration of Korean notions of “religion” begins in the late nineteenth century with early Christian missionary endeavors, and moves forward through the Japanese colonial period and subsequent era of dictatorships and repressive state-led rapid economic growth, to provide a rich historical context for his in-depth study of more current “religious” discourse(s). In the end, Cho provides a broad but information-rich narrative that makes the (South) Korean people’s reception and varied reformulations of the modern “universalized concept” of “religion” available to an English-reading public.

Chapter 1 (Theorizing Religion and Religions in the Context of Globalization) is composed of four main sections. In the first section, Cho reviews the scholarly literature that addresses various definitions and histories of “religion.” Cho sites S.N. Balaganggadhara, W.C. Smith, Peter Beyer, Russell McCutcheon, Clifford Geertz, and Jonathan Smith, among others. Cho devotes the second section to explaining the theoretical framework of sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Cho briefly introduces Niklas Luhmann, a German lawyer turned sociologist, and explains key Luhmannian concepts like the four types of social differentiations, “autopoietic communication systems”, etc.  In the remaining sections of this first full chapter, Cho introduces the general way he approaches the periodization of Korean history throughout the dissertation and his primary source materials. Following Luhmann’s theoretical framework of distinct yet interconnected “communication systems,” Cho accordingly arranges his dissertation chapters around four different “communication systems,” namely, the Political System, the Legal System, the Educational System, and finally the Mass Media System.

Chapter 2 (The Re-formation of the Korean Notion of Religion in the Political System) begins with a brief introduction to the political and historical processes in Europe which led to the now “normative democratic ideal” that “church” and “state” should be separated. Cho introduces the work of Talal Asad (working on the Islamic context) and Richard King (Hinduism) along with other scholars and provides a short history of the Chinese (PRC) and Japanese state’s adoption and adaptation of the Western political notion that the church and the state should be separate (政敎分離). Cho also reviews plans made, in China and Korea, to turn Confucianism into a recognized “world religion” and an official “state religion.”

Cho proceeds by comparing the Joseon (朝鮮) Dynasty’s responses to the introduction of Catholicism and Protestant Christianity in Korea. Protestantism was introduced later than Catholicism and through its association with schools and hospitals came to be known as a “civilized religion” (文明宗敎). Cho concludes that, generally speaking, “religion” was understood in more positive terms in Korean than in China (PRC) and Japan. He covers the rapid growth in “religious consciousness or self-identification” in (South) Korean census data and observes that Protestant Christianity has experienced remarkable growth in (South) Korea – going from less than one percent of the population in 1945 to one-fifth of the population within a half century. Cho gives a brief overview of the varying degree to which religious organizations were (or were not) “recognized” by successive governing state(s) in Korea as well as the extent to which religious organizations could participate in state politics during the various historical periods.

In Chapter 3 (The Re-formation of the Korean Notion of Religion in the Legal System), Cho considers the historical events and legal documents which illustrate how contemporary understandings of “the place” and “the role” of religion evolved in legal discourses in Korea. Cho pays particular attention to legal language employed in instituting and maintaining the modern “democratic ideal” of the “separation of church and state” and “religious freedom.” Thus, he discusses the first treaty to include language aimed at protecting “religious liberty” on the Korean peninsula – an 1886 treaty of amity and commerce that the Joseon Dynasty signed with France. The French included a brief phrase (in the treaty) aimed at securing protection for French Catholic missionaries proselytizing in Joseon. (A few French Catholic missionaries had been killed for encouraging Korean Catholic converts to stop practicing required Confucian ancestral rites). Later international treaties as well as domestic reforms – like the establishment of the Great Korean Empire (大韓帝國, 1897-1910) – further integrated the idea of the “separation of church and state” into peninsular political and legal practices. As Confucian-centered Joseon modernized, anti-Buddhist measures and policies were also dismantled as well. Cho suggests that Joseon’s rich Confucian culture may have led some Joseon elite to advocate the adoption of Christianity (the “modern” religion of the West) as a potentially sound religious base for a new Korean nation which would be more powerful and “modern” than the Confucian-based Joseon Dynasty.

Cho summarizes the various political-legal policies promulgated by the Japanese colonial administration to help “define” and “control” religious life in Korea. He explains the 1915 Regulation on Proselytizing (布敎規則) which made “Shrine Shinto,” Buddhism, and Christianity the only officially recognized “religion(s)” in colonial Korea. The colonial administration adopted measures to manage and control these three officially recognized “religions” while other religious groups – especially the new Korean  “minjok” (民族) religions – were dubbed “pseudo-religions” (類似宗敎). Cho argues that this colonial administrative system essentially divided religion on the Korean peninsula into two categories: “legal religions” (“Shrine Shinto”, Buddhism, and Christianity) and “illegal religions” (almost everything else). The practice of “State Shinto,” meanwhile, was to be a matter of “civic duty” which applied to all citizens and colonial subjects.

Next, moving on to the formation of a new post-colonial (South) Korean state, Cho covers the 1948 Establishment Constitution’s principles of “freedom of faith and conscience” as well as the constitutional assurance that “religion shall be separated from politics.” He observes that the United States Army Military Government in Korea, as well as the later First Republic’s (Syngman Rhee’s) government, adopted an “officially” neutral position but, in fact, both governments made special allowances for Christianity. As Cho explains, himself, “… (the) legal connivance of such religio-political alliance helped Christian religions exercise a great leverage in legalizing the church-state relationship in a way that critically affected the entire religious landscape of post-colonial society” (p. 154). Thus, despite the fact that Christians were a very small minority in Korea (2-3%), Christmas was made a public holiday. And only Protestant Christians and Catholics were appointed as military chaplains initially. Moreover, Buddhist and Confucian-related properties were subject to considerable state control, since these assets were identified as being “national cultural property” which was to be managed, in part, by the state.

Cho writes that later, when South Korea was governed by a succession of military dictators, Buddhism’s position vis-a-vis the state improved; however, religions in South Korea were punished for political dissent. Cho notes that, during the Cold War, South Korea’s anti-communist ideology in many ways raised the status of “religion” in South Korea. Even Korean shamans – who were belittled for encouraging “superstitions” and targeted by the government’s “anti-superstition” campaigns (迷信打破運動) – formed the “Korea Association for Victory against Communism and Veneration of the Gods (大韓勝共敬神聯合會)” which they publicized in an effort to enhance their status. In contrast to the Japanese colonial period when religions were either recognized as being “legal religions” or targeted as “illegal groups” – the South Korean dictatorships did not generally target “illegal religions.” However, Cho notes, state authorities would often refuse to register minority religions or marginal religious groups. Cho explains that in the present-day, democratic Republic of Korea, the laws applied to religion consist mostly of the laws governing religious organizations as non-profit corporations. Also many minority and “heterodox” religions have been recognized as “religious corporations” in present day Korea. Cho also observes that “religion” as a general concept or category has come to carry more negative connotations in present day (South) Korean society than it did in the past.

In Chapter 4 (The Re-formation of the Korean Notion of Religion in the Educational System), Cho looks at the history and controversies surrounding the practice of “religious education” in (South) Korean schools. After a brief discussion of “religion” in the educational system on the Korean peninsula during the Japanese colonial period, Cho focuses on explaining the present-day somewhat idiosyncratic approach to “religious education” in South Korea’s schools and the various attempts by the Ministry of Education to standardize and regulate “religious education” course curriculums. Cho also discusses some of the social, political, and legal controversies that have erupted around practices associated with “religious education” more recently in South Korean schools.

The idiosyncratic application of “religious education” regulations in South Korean middle and high schools originates, in part, in the history of modern education on the peninsula. Cho explains that in the 19th Century, Christian-affiliated schools played a large role in the introduction of “modern education” in Korea. At the time of the Japanese annexation of Korea, almost forty percent of the private schools in Korea were religious schools. Of these 801 religious schools, 5 were Buddhist affiliated, 46 were run by Catholics, and 750 were Protestant Christian affiliated schools (p. 216). After World War II, when the United States Military Government took control of South Korea, private schools were not subsidized by the state and private religious schools could require students to undergo specific religious or “theological” education courses. Then, Cho writes, in the early 1970s, with the implementation of the “equalization/standardization of education” (平準化敎育) policies, students were required to attend schools in the specific school district in which they lived. Due to these new government-directed educational reforms, most private religious schools also became part of the state supervised and government-funded or “state-sponsored” school system. Thus students were sometimes required to attend private religious-affiliated schools which were government-funded regardless of the student’s and his/her family’s religious affiliation.

Cho notes that the religious-affiliated state-sponsored schools in South Korea’s public education system prompted government educational authorities to see “religious education” as a part of South Korea’s general public education. Thus policies, regulations, and codes governing “religious education” (as in “religious studies” rather than “theological education”) were formulated and instituted by state educational authorities. However, the implementation of these “religious studies” guidelines and the actual practices involved in offering “religious education” courses could be highly variable depending on the individual school’s private administration. Furthermore, since “religious education” courses were not factored into the competitive college admission process, “religious education” became an elective course, which students could choose to opt out of. Thus, many public schools dropped their “religious education” courses while private religious-affiliated but state-sponsored schools employed un-licensed instructors – who were usually members of the clergy of the school’s overarching religious organization – to teach “religious education” classes. Cho explains that, in the 1980s, the Ministry of Education started to standardize “religious education” textbooks and then, a few years later, invited religious groups to publish their own general “religious education” textbooks that would be subject to official Ministry of Education approval. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education also actively encouraged the licensing and training of the instructors (clergy, etc.) who taught “religious education” courses in private religious-affiliated state-sponsored schools.

Cho provides information about development of the Ministry of Education’s “religious education” curriculum, textbooks, and teacher training guidelines. He explains how the government-recommended “religious education” curriculum has been revised to help Korean students understand the religious world-views of foreign-nationals who have increasingly become a part of the South Korean economy, as well as to help equip Korean-nationals, who may travel or conduct business abroad, with intercultural communication skills. Cho details the limits and impediments that the Ministry of Education’s curriculum has encountered and the difficulties of implementing a “religious studies” approach to “religious education” in religious-affiliated schools. Moreover, Cho points out that, in practice, the continued offering of “religious education” courses in religious-affiliated state-sponsored schools in South Korea and the public conflicts that erupt over “religious education” has contributed to the increasingly negative tone associated with “religion” in South Korea’s mass-media.

In Chapter 5 (The Re-formation of the Korean Notion of Religion in the Mass Media System), Cho investigates how the mass media has shaped the understanding of “religion” in South Korea. Given the magnitude of this topic, Cho wisely chooses to focus his discussion around two main areas – 1) the presence of the South Korean “religious media” – that is, newspapers, radio, and television stations owned and managed by religious organizations – and 2) the representation of religion(s) and the semantic construction of “religion” in general, in mainstream South Korean daily newspapers and television shows. I will begin with Cho’s findings on the second topic first.

Cho reviews the percentages of positive and negative news articles on “religion” in the major South Korean daily print newspapers (or “broadsheets” like, the Choson, Donga, Joongang, and Hangyoreh Newspapers). Focusing on both the 1990s and the 2000s, Cho finds that the percentage of articles dealing with South Korea’s three major “world religions” – Buddhism, Protestant Christianity, and Catholicism – generally reflect the percentage of adherents of these religious groups in South Korea (43%, 35%, and 21% respectively, according to 2005 ROK statistics). Cho observes that in the year 2000, the (South) Korean broadcasting industry’s advertising sales revenue surpassed that of the newspaper industry. Subsequently, T.V. broadcasting industries – as well as “new media” ventures – have continued to expand their market share and overall social and political influence. Thus, television has come to play a larger role in representing and defining “religion” and religious organizations in Korea.

Since the 1990s, Cho observes, T.V. news programs have increasingly focused on South Korea’s “religious problems” (p. 290), such as corruption inside religious organizations, and the undemocratic practices of religious groups as well as the political power mobilized by religious organizations. Partly because of a desire for high ratings, these relatively new T.V. news shows (for example, Chwijae-pail 4321, Sisa-maegeojin 2580, PD Notebook, etc.) have focused on sensationalist and scandalous religious news. Hence, “religion” is often represented in negative ways. When minority or “heterodox” religious groups are presented on mainstream T.V., broadcast news programs focus on “strange” or “scandalous” events and, almost overwhelmingly, criticize minority or “heterodox” religions from the perspective of South Korea’s majority or “orthodox” religious communities. Thus, Cho concludes that mainstream Korean T.V. news programs have approached “religion” from mainly two differing perspectives: 1) mainstream “religions” in Korea are viewed from a secular civic perspective in which T.V. programs focus on the political might and social responsibilities of these religious communities and 2) minority religions are treated as “exotic” and “outrageous” and condemned from the perspective of mainstream “orthodox” religious groups.

Cho observes that minority religions (and “religious groups” in general) have, nevertheless, enjoyed some noteworthy new benefits accompanying South Korea’s democratization and the easing of media-related restrictions. For example, the number of religiously affiliated broadcast companies (both radio and T.V.) has greatly increased. Cho explains that – in line with the (South) Korean legal system’s new recognition of minority or “heterodox” religions – a variety of religious organizations have been able to sponsor religiously-affiliated newspapers and magazines to better communicate with their own co-religionists and to more effectively speak to a broader general public. Moreover, with the advent of “new media” and cable television in South Korea, Buddhists, Protestant Christians and Catholics, and Won Buddhists – as well as a Korean new religion – have all acquired cable or internet TV broadcasting programs and capabilities. In addition to discussing this new found “religious” broadcasting power, Cho completes his investigations, in Chapter five, by examining a number of religiously-affiliated daily print newspapers which have, like other religiously-affiliated media, increased in both variety and sheer quantity after South Korea’s democratization.

In conclusion, Kyuhoon Cho’s dissertation covers a wide variety of material and provides richly detailed information on the way “religion” has been defined and (re)formulated in a number of different social, political, and communicative contexts in (South) Korea. As Korea is often ignored or skipped over in research on East Asian religions and religious history in general, his work is a much-needed contribution to English language scholarship. Moreover, his focus on concrete events and his comparative sociological perspective makes the dissertation interesting to read and potentially useful for a broad audience.

Marcie Middlebrooks
Department of Anthropology
Cornell University

Primary Sources
Gallup Poll Surveys and Government Population Censuses, School Textbooks, Education Guidelines, Newspaper Articles, Various Legal Documents and Court Decisions

Dissertation Information
University of Ottawa. 2013. 344pp. Primary Advisor: Peter F. Beyer.

Image: Kim Koo (1876-1949), a Korea’s representative nationalist politician, at the center of the lower row, greeting Catholic bishops Roh Ki-nam and Larribeau and their party visiting Kyǒnggyojang, Kim Koo’s residence in February, 1948. Photo from Sijoon Han, Heekon Kim, Kiyoung Choi and Pyungjoon Jung eds. 2012. The 10th Anniversary of the Founding of the Kim Koo Museum & Library Pictorial History of Baikbum Kim Koo. Seoul: The Association of Commemorative Services for Patriot Kim Koo, Baikbum Kim Koo Academy, and Kim Koo Museum & Library, pp 346-347.

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