Following the consultation of NCCK and EKD, we are visiting our partner church – the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) – in Gwangju for a few days.
The history of our partners in Gwangju and that of the PROK is closely linked to the democracy movement and the commitment to human rights.
In 1953, the Presbyterian Church split into the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK). The reasons for this were theological differences over the historically critical method and the development of a Korean liberation theology („Minjung“ theology). Until today, the PROK has been a prophetic voice for democratisation and human rights in Korean society and has courageously protested against the military dictatorship. It has taken the initiative to send humanitarian food aid and funds to North Korea and advocates for the reunification of the divided Korea.
It is the first visit to Gwangju for Deputy Church President Ulrike Scherf and Daniel Happel – the new Asia Desk Officer at the Ecumenical Centre as of 1 July this year. Therefore, the focus of the visit is the engagement of our partners in the democracy movement and their participation in the Gwangju Uprising. We visited places in the old city centre that were at the centre of the protests and uprising of 18-27 May 1980 and have been preserved as places of remembrance and testimony and developed into museums and archives with documents from those days. At the Gwangju May 18 National Cemetery, we laid flowers in memory of the victims and visited the graves of pastors and church members of the PROK who were involved in the uprising and are still buried here today.
The Gwangju Uprising in May 1980, called the 18th May Gwangju Democracy Movement (5-18 광주 민주화 운동) in South Korea, arose from a student demonstration directed against the ruling military dictatorship and the imposed martial law, and at the same time was intended to lend weight to the demand to release the opposition politician, leader of the democracy movement and later president Kim Dae-jung. The initially peaceful demonstration was ended by the military using brutal force. The subsequent uprising of students, workers and citizens against the military, which mobilised up to 200,000 people on various days, was met with a slaughter of the population on 20 and 21 May, and on 27 May was put down with a massacre of the remaining demonstrators. Since then, the Gwangju Uprising has been regarded as a symbol of the suppression of the democracy movement in South Korea in the 1980s.
„The courage of the students as well as the entire population of Gwangju, with which they risked their own lives at that time to stand up for democracy, impressed me very much,“ said Deputy Church President Scherf. He reminded her that it is not a matter of course to be able to live in freedom and democracy. „The sacrifice of the people then as well as today’s victims of oppression, hatred and violence remind us not to let up in our commitment to human rights, freedom and democracy.“
At the end of our visit, we meet with the leadership of the Gwangju Presbytery. Moderator Rev. Kim told us about the challenges facing the PROK. These include the decline in membership due to increasing secularisation – over 50% of the Korean population describe themselves as atheist – a lack of new pastors and the current shift to the right in politics. In all this, however, PROK continues to see itself as a diaconal and socio-politically committed church in the following of Jesus. „We face similar challenges here as German and Korean churches,“ sums up Deputy Church President Ulrike Scherf, „and questions of church development and the role of women in our churches will certainly also occupy us in future encounters.“ These days, a court in South Korea has also recognised rights for same-sex couples for the first time. Church reactions and how the PROK deals with people from the LGTBQ+ group will also be on the agenda in future encounters.