outh Korea is renowned not only for its music, films, technology brands, and consumer goods but also for its religious diversity, with a particular emphasis on Protestantism.
With an average per capita income nine times that of Vietnam, South Korea is a prevailing hub for adherents to the Protestant faith in Asia. For every nine South Koreans, one is a follower of Protestantism.
In addition, the country also experiences notable surges of new religious movements, including the World Mission Society Church of God, one of the most significant emerging religions in South Korea.
South Korea aims to send 100.000 full-time missionaries by 2030 worldwide to spread their faith. Vietnam is one of their destinations.
Tight control over South Korean religions
In 2020, the Vietnamese government disclosed that out of the 80 active Protestant organizations, 70 were operating underground and violating the country’s religious laws.
These illicit organizations originate from foreign countries and have attracted up to 200,000 Vietnamese followers. The Vietnamese government is deeply concerned about South Korean churches due to their evasion of government surveillance and constant recruitment of new believers.
For instance, the Shincheonji (New Heaven New Earth) Church, established in South Korea in 1984, has set up language learning centers in Vietnam and is using these to integrate missionary efforts under the subtle guise of education.
Vietnam does not officially recognize any South Korean Protestant organizations. To operate legally in the country, Christian religious groups must partner with the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN) or its counterpart in the south (ECVS) to establish centers for religious activities.
The Vietnamese government’s actions stem from its concern about the potential influence of foreign religions, particularly those from South Korea. The government perceives these religious organizations as challenging its authority and as potential conduits for undermining social stability. As a result, Vietnam has intensified efforts to monitor, limit, and control the activities of these groups.
Protestant faith in South Korea
The rapid growth of Protestantism in South Korea coincides with a period of robust economic development in the country.
Since the 1960s, many Western churches have begun operations in South Korea. As these religious groups began to flourish and grow, many Koreans started to believe that embracing the Protestant faith could lead them to prosperity comparable to that of Americans.
Moreover, the Protestant faith resonated with the sentiments of the Korean people. In contrast to Buddhism and Shintoism, both of which bear deep connections to Korea’s historical oppressors – China and Japan – Western religions do not elicit feelings of subjugation or invasion.
Protestant pastors in Korea also championed nationalistic ideals. They advocated for the country’s independence and self-determination, making it easy to garner the ardent support of their followers.
From 1.6 million believers in 1950, the number of Protestants in South Korea tripled by 1970 and nearly tripled again by 2000, surpassing 14 million individuals. This rapid proliferation of the Protestant faith can be attributed to socio-economic factors and the alignment of its teachings with the cultural and historical context of South Korea.
Korea’s new religious movements and Vietnam
Mainstream Protestant groups in Vietnam are not a significant concern for the government; they operate within acceptable boundaries, comply with the law, and are under constant state surveillance. However, the emergence of new religious movements, considered heretical by most South Korean Protestants, has gained substantial ground in the country.
These new religions number in the hundreds. Among these, three well-known movements originate from Christianity, including the Unification Church, groups stemming from the Olive Tree movement, and factions that have split from the Seventh-day Adventist Church – most notably the aforementioned World Mission Society Church of God, which is currently being under surveillance by the Vietnamese authorities.
Italian religion researcher Massimo Introvigne posits that new religions in South Korea share three common traits: a belief in a savior who is usually a living human, an expectation of a major transformative event in line with millenarian theories which can completely change human society, and a tendency to critique and advocate for social reforms.
The Vietnamese government’s apprehension regarding new religious movements stems from a desire to maintain social stability and control over ideological influences from abroad. These movements often challenge traditional norms and have the potential to disrupt the government’s narrative as well as social order.
Should Vietnam fear South Korean religions?
On July 8, 2022, a man using a makeshift gun shot and killed former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The motive behind this shocking assassination was connected to a South Korean religious group.
The suspect believed that Abe supported the activities of the Unification Church, a Christian movement established in 1956 in South Korea. This religious group allegedly caused turmoil within his family after his mother donated $600,000 to the Church.
Liberal Democratic Party politicians from the time of Abe’s grandfather were also accused of helping keep the Unification Church firmly established and operational in Japan and maintaining close ties with the religion.
Concerns about the potential social security disruption caused by new religions are entirely valid. These groups are often suspected of influencing their followers’ thoughts and actions, coercing them into providing financial contributions, directing them to perform tasks on behalf of the church, and causing family conflicts. Likewise, several new religions have led their followers to commit violence, murders, and mass suicide.
Nevertheless, South Korea continues to maintain religious freedom. The country maintains low restrictions on religious groups, even lower than those in the United States. It could be argued that South Korea is one of the most tolerant and accepting places for religions to coexist.
The aftermath of incidents linked to these new religions is insufficient grounds to prohibit their establishment and limit their activities. If people from religious groups commit serious offenses or crimes, they would be prosecuted as individuals in accordance with the law. It is important to recognize that isolated incidents alone do not substantiate a valid basis for banning an entire religious group.
Religious freedom reflects the overall level of social liberty in a country. If there were to be a legitimate reason to ban a religious group’s activities, the same logic could be applied to restrict non-religious activities within society.
This does not imply that new religions have unlimited freedom to operate as they wish; they have the right to spread their doctrines and beliefs to others, but they do not have the liberty to commit unlawful acts. Similarly, individuals can criticize, condemn, and discourage others from participating in these groups.
The crux of the matter is that determining whether a religion thrives or dies should be left to civil society. Religious freedom is an individual choice; the state does not have the authority to decide what constitutes a legitimate religion. ◉