On May 22, 1982, the Republic of Korea and the United States of America celebrated the centennial of Korea-USA relations. This was the day, one hundred years ago, that the first formal treaty was concluded between the two nations. One of the many commemorative activities of that day was the Memorial worship service at the foreigners' cemetery at Yang-hwa-jin, Seoul, for American personnel who served, died, and were buried in Korea. Among the 320 tombs there, special national bouquets were presented to sixteen American missionaries. A commemorative service was held at Sejong Cultural Center with over 4,000 church leaders of both the U.S. and Korea represented. The service was concluded with the singing of the national anthems of the two countries.
As was the case in both China and Japan, the initial contact between the United States and Korea was fraught with considerable difficulties. The first Americans to land in Korea were four sailors who jumped a whaling ship ("Two Brothers" from Kokodate in Hokkaido, Japan) and drifted ashore on the east coast of Korea in June 1855. A decade later, in August 1855; three more Americans landed on the southeast coast of Korea. In July of the following year an American merchant ship, "The Surprise," was shipwrecked of the west coast of Korea on her way from the Shandong peninsula to the Ryukyu Islands. The castaways were all well treated by the Koreans and were escorted to China without incident.
The trouble came shortly thereafter when, in late August 1866, an American Schooner, "The General Sherman," came up the Taedong River to Pyongyang to explore trade possibilities. On board was a Protestant minister, Robert Thomas, who had brought a number of Chinese New Testaments. However, the ship was armed and, in spite of repeated warnings, it continued its exploration without permission. After a few unpleasantries were exchanged, and after twelve Korea civilians were shot to death, the ship was attacked and burned; its five American officers and nineteen oriental crewmen were executed. The minister Thomas landed, escaping from the fire, but was soon caught and killed by the angry Koreans. When he was dying he offered them a New Testament and said, "Read this, it's God's gift for you." Thus, he became the first Protestant martyr in Korea.
At that time, trade with Korea was forbidden to foreigners and the Taewongun, the King Kojong's regent, reinforced Korea's determination to "repel foreign barbarians" and remain isolated. A number of gallant efforts by the United States to investigate the disappearance of the American schooner came to naught and thus the relationship between the two countries suffered its birth pangs. Probably few Americans know or remember the Korean American War of 1871 which was fought between four American warships led by Admiral Rodgers and the Korean soldiers guarding the coast. The New York Herald reported it as "Our Little War with the Heathen." The casualties are not clear, but the bombardment continued for almost a week and at least thirty deaths were reported. It was another decade after this incident that a formal treaty of amity and commerce was concluded between Commodore Shufeldt and Minister Hon Sin on May 22, 1882. In accordance with the treaty, diplomatic representatives were exchanged. The first American envoy to Korea, Lucius H. Hoote, assumed his duties on May 13, 1883, and the first Korea envoy, Yong-Ik Min, presented his credentials on September 18, 1883.
From 1905 to 1945 Korea was invaded by Japan and was under their occupation. But even during this period Korea found many friends in America. Even after Japanese domination began, the Korean King Kojong often dispatched personal secret emissaries to maintain contact with the United States. And many American missionaries landed in Korea and devoted their lives for the cause of Christ in Korea. These include Horace G. Underwood(Presbyterian missionary who founded what is now one of the major privates universities in Korea Yonsei University), H. G. Appenzeller (Methodist), and A. B. Hall (who founded churches and schools). Modem medicine was also introduced to Korea by Americans. Many educators and benefactors, including George Shanon McCune (who headed Chosun Christian College in Pyongyang), suffered under Japanese oppression and shared the burdens of the Koreans during the colonial period.
Due to the Koreans' tie to the American missionaries, Korean Christians suffered the most severe persecution. For instance, in a small village called Jaeam-ri over fifty villagers were gathered in a church building and Japanese police set fire to the building. This brutal act was reported to the western world by an American missionary, Scoville. Christian church and church of Christ missionaries also landed in Korea: Bro. Michel Shelly in 1932 (who had to return to the United States after one year due to illness) and Bro. John T. Chase in 1936. Bro. Chase was successful in starting churches and also founding a Bible college. Bro. Sung Rak So and Bro. S. H. Chae (the father of Bro. Yoon Kwon Chae) were some of the early converts. However, due to the second World War, the Chase family and the John J. Hill family were expelled by the Japanese. The Korean Christians continued their meetings in spite of the persecutions.
After the second World War Korea was divided into South and North Korea. South Korea was occupied by the U.S. forces until the Korean government headed by Dr. Rhee was established. This, of course, gave ample opportunities for the Korean churches to rebuild and grow. But the peace did not last long. In 1950 the North Koreans, backed by Soviet Russia and Red China, invaded South Korea. President Truman took prompt action and committed U.S. ground troops for what was termed "police action" under the unified command of General Douglas MacArthur. The United States suffered more than 157,000 casualties (including many missionaries and their families) in the three year war - the fourth largest war in U.S. history. The war d1d not unify Korea, but the United States saved the Republic of Korea from almost certain extinction. The bond between the people of the United States and Korea was immeasurably strengthened during the war.
The destruction the Korean churches suffered during the period was beyond description. More than 500 church buildings were destroyed and thousands of Korean Christians suffered death on account of their faith. More than 400 church leaders were captured by the communist invaders and most of them were murdered, one of whom was Bro. S. H. Chae, a Christian church preacher and the first Bible college professor. However, the light of the Gospel cannot be put out by the darkness. In fact, the churches grew almost ten times during three years of destruction and persecution. There were nine Christian churches before the war but, after the war, there were seventy-five churches all over Korea. Wherever the refugees went, they established churches. They started churches in bunkers, in caves, and in freezing tents. Bro. Yoon Kwon Chae, moved by the singing of Christians among the murdered corpses of Christian leaders (including his own father), dedicated his life to the Lord and later became the president of Korea Christian Seminary. The enemies of Christ may be able to destroy freedom, they may be able to destroy democracy, but they cannot destroy God!
The Korea churches kept increasing and now there are more man 20,000 Protestant churches with ten million members. A number of Korean missionaries have been sent to many parts of Asia and the world. The 1980 World Evangelization Crusade, held in Seoul, Korea, was attended by over one million Christians. The Korea Bible Society reported a 6.6% annual increase. The Christian churches alone now have over 400 churches with two Bible colleges, one vocational college and university, two high schools, three orphanages, and numerous nurseries and kindergartens.
Many gave their lives in the course of the growth. Some 230 American tombs at the foreigners' cemetery do not include many who passed away in the United States. And, of course, it does not include thousands of Korean martyr. But they all became the "seeds of the churches" and the Korean churches will continue to grow. The Korea-USA relations will also continue to grow. No matter what happens to Korea, Korean churches will always be there and the "gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And the Christians of the two nations will work together, struggle together, cry together, and someday all shall be smiling together, because we know, yes, we know, that "LOVE NEVER FAILS!"