Quakers in Korea
The Quaker presence in Korea dates from the end of the Korean War (1950-53). In the aftermath of the war, The Friends Service Unit (FSU) – a joint arm of the British Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee – provided humanitarian and medical aid to refugees and others affected by the war.
From their base in Kunsan, the FSU initially tackled problems of severe malnutrition. Later Houses for Korea was set up by AFSC’s Floyd Schmoe, providing refugees with the materials and training to construct their own houses. Schools were started in the camps, with Korean teachers paid for by the FSU. Adult literacy classes were started for war widows, and games of volleyball and basketball were organised.
The FSU was heavily involved with training local Korean doctors and nurses. They set up a physiotherapy unit to help war amputees, and ante-natal and midwifery service and both out-patient and in-patient services for sick children.
When the FSU was wound up, at the end of 1957, local Koreans who had been working with the Quakers wanted to continue their connection with Quakerism. With the help of American Quaker families living in Seoul (in particular, Reginald Price and Arthur Mitchell), a group began to meet regularly for silent, unprogrammed worship, and for study and discussion.
The first Quaker text to be translated into Korean was Rufus Jones' Quaker's Faith in 1960. It watranslated by Yoon Gu Lee and printed for distribution among members.
Seoul meeting was eventually recognized as a monthly meeting in 1964 under the care of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), and in 1967 moved into its own Meeting House. As one member of the meeting was blind, the meeting became involved in the welfare of the blind. Some members gathered periodically to transcribe religious articles into Braille and a work camp was organized to repair a road near one of the homes for the blind.
One Korean who had first encountered Quakers through their work in Kunsan was the human rights activist, Ham Sok Hon. Ham was impressed by the Quakers’ pacifism, egalitarianism and their active participation in questions of social justice. Ham started to attend Seoul Quaker meeting and became a member of the Society of Friends in 1967, after attending the Friends World Conference in North Carolina.
“You were already a Quaker before you became one,” an American Friend, Arthur Mitchell, told him.
Ham spoke out against dictatorship and injustice in South Korea. He carried out a hunger strike in 1965, was imprisoned in 1976 and 1979, and was placed under house arrest in 1980. South Korea finally achieved full democracy in 1987. The following year, when the Seoul Olympics were held, Ham was selected to be the head of the Peace Olympiad, which drew up a declaration calling for world peace.
Under Ham’s leadership, and with the support of Mary and Lloyd Bailey, who stayed in Korea during 1983/4 under the auspices of the Friend in the Orient Committee of Pacific Yearly Meeting and continued to correspond with the meeting for many years after, Seoul Meeting flourished. Although membership declined after Ham’s death in 1989, it has revived again since 1998.
Conscientious objection has been a key issue for Quakers in South Korea. In a country still technically at war with North Korea, compulsory military service is considered essential and for many years COs had no option but to serve or to go prison. QUNO (Quaker United Nations Office) and FWCC were among those who campaigned for some form of alternative service to be offered, and this was finally implemented in 2007.
The American Friends Service Committee has maintained a presence in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). They currently run an agriculture programme, helping farmers introduce techniques of rice cultivation adapted to the short growing season in DPRK.
AFSC continues to campaign against North Korean nuclear tests, while warning that isolating or ignoring North Korea is not only unrealistic but dangerous.