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The early Korean Christians
A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945
Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.
7/21/2003



The Hwang White Paper. On the right is a portion of the paper magnified about five times. Hwang, a trained scriber, wrote in tiny Chinese characters as shown on the left.

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[Note: This is an excerpt from "A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945.]

The Early Korean Christians

Today, South Korea is one of the most Christianized nations of the world. Of the 50 million people of South Korea, more than ten million are Protestants and three million are Roman Catholics. This is remarkable in light of the fact that there were no known Christians in Korea before 1770, when Chon Du-won, a Chosun diplomat in China, brought back a copy of Father Matteo Ricci's book - The True Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven. A small group of Korean reformists, calling themselves Shilhak, found the Catholic theology attractive and wanted to learn more about it. They believed that the Catholic theology might be the way to break out of the suffocating feudalism of the Chosun Kingdom. (Andrew Kim, 2000)
In 1783, Shilhak sent Yi Sung-Hun, a son of a Chosen diplomat, to China, on a mission to learn more about the Catholic religion. Yi became the first baptized Korean Catholic - not counting the Korean converts in Japan. He was baptized in Beijing by French Catholic priests, who were ecstatic about their first Korean convert. Yi was sent back to Korea in 1784 with evangelical materials. Some of the Shilrak reformists became Catholic converts and began to hold religious services on their own without the guidance of an ordained priest. (Andrew Kim, 2000)
The 1801 Pogrom

In 1794, the Roman Catholic Church of China sent a Chinese priest, Ju Un-mo, to Korea. He entered Korea illegally on December 23 and reached a hiding place in Seoul. He was guided and sheltered by Korean Catholics. The 'native' Korean Catholic church under Father Ju grew rapidly to more than ten thousands by the end of 1801. However, the phenomenal growth of this white-man's religion in the land of Confucius came to a sudden bloody end. King Chongjo, who was tolerant of the Catholics, died in 1800, and King Sunjo inherited the throne. Since he was a minor at the time, his mother became the Queen Regent and ran the country on his behalf. She was dead against any foreign religion and declared that the Korean Catholics were traitors and should be punished as such.
The Chosun secret police was hot on Father Ju's trail and executed his Korean helpers one after another. Father Ju managed to evade the police for six years, but in May 1801, his luck ran out, and he was caught and executed. After Father Ju's execution, a Korean Catholic, Hwang Sa Young attempted to send an SOS to the Catholic Bishop in Beijing. Hwang wrote his petition on October 29, 1801, while hiding out in a cave. He wrote out his petition in tiny Chinese characters on two sheets of silk, known today as the Hwang White Paper.
Hwang chronicled the death of Father Ju and other Catholic martyrs in Korea, and begged Rome to do something quick to help the Korean Catholics. His "white paper" had four main points: (Oh Ki-sun, 2003)

1. Chosun is economically bankrupt and powerless, and we wish to accept the Gospel with the help of the Western nations and obtain funds to rescue our people.
2. Chosun is a client-state of China and the Emperor of China is the effective ruler of Chosun. Therefore, Rome should ask the Emperor's permission to send priests to Korea.
3. The Chosun royal court is weak and about to fall, and so, Chosun should become part of China, and a member of China's royal family should be appointed to rule over Korea.
4. The Korean people have enjoyed peace for over 500 years and so know nothing about waging war. A crusader army of several hundred warships and 50 to 60 thousands troops should occupy Korea and make evangelical missions safe and easy in Korea.

The 1839 Pogrom and French Reprisals

In 1831, another Chinese priest, Father Liu Fangchi, entered Korea secretly. Five years later, M. Maubant, a French Catholic, smuggled himself into Korea from Manchuria. Father Chastan and a French bishop who called himself “Lord de Capse” followed him. Two Korean Catholics were officially ordained priests by the French bishop. All these activities were done covertly because the Catholic Church was still forbidden in Chosun. In 1839, the Korean King got wind of the covert activities and ordered the extermination of the Catholic Church in Korea once for all. Consequently, over two hundred Catholics, including the French bishop, two French priests, and numerous Korean church leaders, were executed. (Andrew Kim, 2000; Speer, 1872)
France was enraged over the killing of its citizens in Korea and dispatched a naval task force to punish Korea in 1847 only to be frustrated by a "divine intervention" when two of its warships sank:
"It is one of the strange combinations of Divine Providence in human affairs that the French vessels of war, La Victoriense and La Gloire, which were so suddenly sunk in the calm open sea, on their way to chastise the Coreans in 1847, were two which had just been engaged in the bombardment of the principal port of Cochin-China, the burning of many native vessels, and the slaughter of thirteen hundred of the helpless people." (Speer, 1872)

On March 11, 1866, Father Simon Francois Berneux, a French missionary who had been preaching the Gospel in Korea illegally, was arrested. He and about 8,000 of his Korean converts were put to death. Three French missionaries, including Father Felix-Clair Ridel, managed to escape to China and told a French diplomat, Henri de Bellonet, about the "massacre" going on in Corea. On July 13, 1866, M. Bellonet sent an urgent dispatch to Admiral Roze: "In receiving the news of the general massacre of Christians and missionaries in Corea, you have no doubt thought like myself that the slightest delay in the punishment of this bloody outrage could result in serious endangerment to the 500 missionaries preaching in China." (Sterner, 2003)
Bellonet sent another dispatch to the French foreign minister in Paris, who in turn, sent a dispatch to the American consul in Beijing, requesting a joint French-American expedition to punish the Coreans. However, the American consul refused to go along. America was weary of starting another war so soon after the bloody American Civil War that ended in 1865. As of that time, the Coreans had harmed no Americans, and America had no reason to stick its neck out for a handful of French Catholics, who were killed for illegal activities in Corea.
A French task force led by Admiral Roze arrived at the Han River estuary in 1866. Roze sent messengers to Seoul demanding compensation for the murder of the nine French Catholics. However, the Seoul court ignored the French demand. In retaliation, the French forces occupied Kanghwa-do and destroyed public properties of the island, after which the French fleet advanced toward Seoul. A Chosun army led by Gen. Han Sung Gun and Gen Yang Hyung Soo defeated the French in a series of savage battles and Roze was forced to flee. For this humiliating defeat, the French Government reprimanded Roze. (Sterner, 2003)


Grave-Robbing in the Name of God

Two decades later in 1867, the French Catholic Church made another attempt to revenge the Korean King for the murder of the nine Frenchmen in Korea. Father Feron heard from his Korean converts that the grave of the current Korean king’s grandfather contained much gold and gems. In addition to the treasures, Feron thought that he could dig up the royal remains and hold them to exact redress from the Korean king for the murder of the Frenchmen. Feron enlisted Earnest Oppert, a German adventurer, and F. H. Jenkins, an American businessman. Jenkins financed the adventure for a lion's share of the treasures expected. The grave robbers charted the armed steamer China and hired 8 Europeans, 100 Chinese and 21 Malay pirates in addition to the ship's regular crew.

On April 30. 1867, the steamer China with Father Feron and his 'Army of God' left Shanghai for Nagasaki, where arms were purchased for the 'army', and on May 9th, Feron's army arrived at the Han River estuary, where they were met by Korean Catholics, who guided the grave robbers to the royal burial ground. They dug down deep and reached a massive sarcophagus, but they were unable to lift the heavy stone lid. By this time, a large crowd of local residents gathered around them and began to attack, and the 'Army of God' was forced to retreat without taking any 'loots'. They returned to Shanghai empty-handed. Jenkins and his American investors lost their venture money.

The Occidental community of Shanghai was deeply upset by this grotesque barbaric act. Oppert left for Germany, where he was jailed for one year. A trial court presided over by George F. Seward, the American Consul-General of Shanghai, cleared Jenkins of any wrongdoing. The French refused to prosecute Father Feron and the Catholic Church of Rome claimed it did not know any 'Father Feron', who went on "spreading the Gospel" in China. (Lee Wha Rang, 2000; Williams, 1880)

Enraged by the French invasion and Father Feron's grave robbery in the name of God, the Chosun court retaliated by killing more Catholics. During the next three years, more than ten thousands Catholics and anyone related to the Church were executed. Tens of thousands more fled to the mountains, many of whom died from exposure and hunger. The King's determination to keep out foreign devils and their Korean supporters was redoubled. (Hulber, 1898) The persecution of the Catholics continued unabated until the 1882 US-Chosun Chemulpo Treaty that allowed American missionaries to work in Korea.

* Kim Young-Sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.

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