Korean Christianity: Military Chaplains and America

An interesting, if wordy and sometimes hard to follow, paper entitled “South Korea’s Christian Military Chaplaincy in the Korean War – religion as ideology?” was recently published by Vladimir Tikhonov, a Soviet-born professor at Oslo University with a doctorate in ancient Korean history.  It seeks to find the “reason for the rapid growth” of Christianity in South Korea — which the author suggests is the military chaplaincy: 

In 1951-1968, Christians – despite being a numerical minority! – monopolized the chaplaincy in the military, and fully utilised this monopoly, “solacing” vulnerable youth forcibly conscripted for military service and making many “church family members”. The loyalties won in such a way, often lasted for life, thus providing the churches with new recruits and the hard-core anti-Communist state – with docile anti-Communist Christian subjects.

The paper also suggests religion was used as an political tool and even a means to ensure a continuing friendly reliance with the United States.

The chaplaincy in the military…was fully modelled on the American system – in fact, South Korea was one of the first non-European societies penetrated by American missionaries where such an institution took roots (Kang 2006: 346). US missionaries were also well represented among the pioneering chaplains in the South Korean army.

For example, a US Maryknoller with Korea experience since 1931, George M. Carroll (1906-1981), was a chaplain to the United Nations’ forces from the beginning of the Korean War and concurrently a member of the committee for the advancement of the establishment of chaplaincy in the Korean army…He was later charged with training of the Korean chaplains and translation of the relevant regulations of the US Army into the Korean language. Another pioneer of Korean chaplaincy was William E. Shaw, a prominent Methodist missionary who worked in Korea since 1921 (Haga 2012; Kang 2006: 347). The US army employed 1618 chaplains by 1953 (Johnson 2013), and fighting side by side with it was a huge stimulus for the new-born South Korean army to develop a chaplain corps of its own, a key measure in uplifting Korean civilization.

Its an interesting if different read.