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South Korea

New Religions

Ch'ondogyo, generally regarded as the first of Korea's "new religions," is another important religious tradition. It is a synthesis of Confucian, Buddhist, shamanistic, Daoist, and Catholic influences. Ch'ondogyo grew out of the Tonghak Movement (also called Eastern Learning Movement) established by Ch'oe Cheu , a man of yangban background who claimed to have experienced a mystic encounter with God, who told him to preach to all the world. Ch'oe was executed by the government as a heretic in 1863, but not before he had acquired a number of followers and had committed his ideas to writing. Tonghak spread among the poor people of Korea's villages, especially in the Cholla region, and was the cause of a revolt against the royal government in 1894. While some members of the Tonghak Movement-- renamed Ch'ondogyo (Teachings of the Heavenly Way)--supported the Japanese annexation in 1910, others opposed it. This group played a major role, along with Christians and some Confucians, in the Korean nationalist movement. In the 1920s, Ch'ondogyo sponsored Kaebyok (Creation), one of Korea's major intellectual journals during the colonial period (see The Media , ch. 4).

Ch'ondogyo's basic beliefs include the essential equality of all human beings. Each person must be treated with respect because all persons "contain divinity;" there is "God in man." Moreover, men and women must sincerely cultivate themselves in order to bring forth and express this divinity in their lives. Self-perfection, not ritual and ceremony, is the way to salvation. Although Ch'oe and his followers did not attempt to overthrow the social order and establish a radical egalitarianism, the revolutionary potential of Ch'ondogyo is evident in these basic ideas, which appealed especially to poor people who were told that they, along with scholars and high officials, could achieve salvation through effort. There is reason to believe that Ch'ondogyo had an important role in the development of democratic and anti-authoritarian thought in Korea. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ch'ondogyo's antecedent, the Tonghak Movement, received renewed interest among many Korean intellectuals.

Apart from Ch'ondogyo, major new religions included Taejonggyo, which has as its central creed the worship of Tangun, legendary founder of the Korean nation. Chungsanggyo, founded in the early twentieth century, emphasizes magical practices and the creation of a paradise on earth. It is divided into a great number of competing branches. Wonbulgyo, or Won Buddhism, attempts to combine traditional Buddhist doctrine with a modern concern for social reform and revitalization. There are also a number of small sects which have sprung up around Mount Kyeryong in South Ch'ungch'ong Province, the supposed future site of the founding of a new dynasty originally prophesied in the eighteenth century.

Several new religions derive their inspiration from Christianity. The Chondogwan, or Evangelical Church, was founded by Pak T'ae-son. Pak originally was a Presbyterian, but was expelled from the church for heresy in the 1950s after claiming for himself unique spiritual power. By 1972 his followers numbered as many as 700,000 people, and he built several "Christian towns," established a large church network, and managed several industrial enterprises.

Because of its overseas evangelism, the Hold Spirit Association for the Unification of the World Christianity, or Unification Church (T'ongilgyo), founded in 1954 by Reverend Sun Myong Moon (Mun Son-myong), also a former Christian, is the most famous Korean new religion. During its period of rigorous expansion during the 1970s, the Unification Church had several hundred thousand members in South Korea and Japan and a substantial (although generally overestimated) number of members in North America and Western Europe. Moon claimed that he was the "messiah" designated by God to unify all the peoples of the world into one "family," governed theocratically by himself. Like Pak's Evangelical Church, the Unification Church has been highly authoritarian, demanding absolute obedience from church members. Moon, for example, has arranged marriages for his younger followers; United States television audiences were treated some years ago to a mass ceremony at which several hundred young "Moonies" were married. Also like Pak, Moon has coupled the church's fortunes to economic expansion. Factories in South Korea and abroad manufacture arms and process ginseng and seafood, artistic bric-a-brac, and other items. Moon's labor force has worked long hours and been paid minimal wages in order to channel profits into church coffers. Virulently anticommunist, Moon has sought to influence public opinion at home and abroad by establishing generally unprofitable newspapers such as the Segye Ilbo in Seoul, the Sekai Nippo in Tokyo, and the Washington Times in the United States capital, and by inviting academics to lavish international conferences, often held in South Korea. At home, the Unification Church was viewed with suspicion by the authorities because of its scandals and Moon's evident desire to create a "state within a state." His influence, however, had declined by the late 1980s.

Data as of June 1990

South Korea - TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • The Society and Its Environment

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