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What Does Korea Mean to You? Reflections on Korean Adventist History

“What does Korea mean to you?” That question was the title of William Bergherm’s September 23, 1952 article in Far Eastern Division Outlook. Bergherm visited Korea in the midst of the Korean War, describing what he saw: refugees ravaged, helpless, poor, homeless, and sorrowful. He wrote, “Since that time, the ravaging of a helpless people has continued unabated. Two million are homeless refugees…” 

I read “After the Korean War” by University of Cambridge Senior Social Anthropology Research Fellow Heonik Kwon, and one story stood out to me. Kwon wrote,

“A house in the city’s old quarter is distinct from the neighboring houses. The owner of this house has refused to renovate it for the past six decades, defying the general trend in his hillside neighborhood for the fear that his elder siblings might not be able to find their way back home. All of his brothers and sisters left northward during the war and have not yet fulfilled their promise of a prompt return to their then eleven year old youngest sibling.” 

A young brother waiting for his siblings to return. This is a familiar story for many families who have experienced familial separation for the past 74 years. Generations past and present only know a war-torn country and long for the day of peaceful reunification. 

For many, when they think of contemporary Korea, they think about its wildly popular boy bands like BTS, or girl groups like Blackpink. Some know Korea as one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. For others, Korea calls to mind specific foods–Korean barbeque or hot stews like sundubu jjigae. How about you? What does Korea mean to you?

As a missionary living in Korea, I have experienced this nation as a place of longing, resilience, passion, determination, and struggle. That struggle, for me, is a key part of Korean Adventist history.

There is a word in Korean that doesn’t quite translate to English, han. Andrew Sung Park, in Racial Conflict and healing: An Asian American Theological Perspective, defines the word as “the inexpressibly entangled experience of pain and bitterness imposed by the injustice of oppressors.” 

If you were to ask a Korean what was one of the most pivotal moments in Korean history, they might note the colonization of Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945. It was a turbulent time where the Korean people were truly oppressed from the stripping of their language, culture, and history.

Koreans first came in contact with Christianity in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until 1883 when the first churches were established. Adventism came to Korea in 1904 through two men named Eung Hyun Lee and Heung Cho Son, who learned from Kuniya Hide in Japan. Kuniya, in turn, heard the Advent message from William C. Grainger, who would later become president of Pacific Union College. 

Upon Heung Cho Son’s return to Korea, he met a man named Gi Ban Im, who would return to his hometown in Chinampo and the surrounding west coast, spreading Christianity in what is now North Korea. The Adventist Church in Korea didn’t begin with a North American missionary, but one of Korea’s own.

As Korean Adventism grew, the events of World War II caused many Adventists to literally flee to the mountains for safety and to worship without fear. Adventists from North America read about the Korean Church’s activities in Signs of the Times or the Far Eastern Division Outlook

When the war ended in 1945, reconstruction of the Adventist Church followed through the hard work of Korean Adventists, foreign missionaries and donors from the United States. Adventism began to grow again, but tragedy struck in 1950 when the country was divided between the democratic south and the communist north, with millions of Koreans separated from family or killed. After the signing of the armistice agreement, Adventists again regrouped.

I have served the past ten years at the Seventh-day Adventist Sahmyook Language Institute as an English teacher, mission coordinator, and co-teaching pastor of Kainos English congregation. I serve alongside wonderful colleagues from around the world, and while the Adventist Church in Korea has seen both successes and failures, I am encouraged for the future.

Ellen White’s reflection on the young Adventist Church inspires and sustains me:

“In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” 

Many have asked me what comes next for the Korean Adventist Church. My reply is “north.” North Korea is the next place of Adventist focus in Korea. I invite those who share this interest to pray for us and our mission. Pray for our brothers and sisters in the North. Pray for peace and that God’s Gospel will spread rapidly!

About the author

Matthew Frias grew up in California where he graduated from Loma Linda Academy and Pacific Union College.  He has been living in South Korea since 2013 and works as Mission Coordinator at Sahmyook Language School in Seoul. More from Matthew Frias.
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