Passover in Seoul

Fellows 2016

By Ari Ratner

April 26, 2016

Also published by Jewish Journal

"We were all slaves in Egypt once," goes the yearly Passover refrain. This year I recited it less than 40 miles from a country that imprisons its own people in concentration camps.

I am in Seoul on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project to cover religion in South Korea-- its relationship to Korean politics and to the geopolitics of Asia. The country is a hotbed of religious freedom. South Korea is the only developed country in the world that has a growing Christian community, which now comprises 29 percent of the population (18 percent Protestant; 11 percent Catholic). 23% of the population identifies as Buddhist and there are strong influences of Confucianism and native Korean Shamanism as well-- even as 46 percent of South Korea’s 47 million people are not affiliated with any religion.

North Korean refugee children at a small Seoul church for refugees during North Korean Freedom Week.

All of these denominations been variously protected and persecuted by the wave of divisions, invasions, and transformations that have marked Korean history. The Goryeo dynasty (918-1392 CE), an early unifier of the Korean Peninsula, promoted Buddhism, which had first come to Korea in the 4th century CE from China. The succeeding Joseon dynasty (1392-1897 CE), suppressed Buddhism in favor of Confucianism, which had arrived from China around the same time as Buddhism. Catholicism was first introduced into Korea in the 1600s and 1700s, when the country was largely closed to foreign influences, by the Joseon court’s own diplomats who encountered it in China and Japan. Starting in the 1880s, imperial designs on Korea, which ultimately saw the country annexed by Japan in a brutal occupation from 1910-1945, spurred the the rise of Christianity; Christianity was prominent in the Korean resistance and further strengthened by American influence during and after the Korean War (1950-1953).

South Korea’s rapid modernization from the 1950s through 1980s served as its own microcosm of this centuries long history. Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, identified as a Protestant. Park Chung Hee, the dictator who ruled South Korea from 1962-1979 and whose daughter currently serves as President, was a Buddhist yet relied on Confucian ideals to structure his government.

Chabad Haggadah from Seoul, Matza in shape of South Korea.

Yet all these various strands of Korean history now reside in a freedom and prosperity that must have seemed inconceivable only a generation ago. Seoul is as vibrant as you would imagine it to be-- a kaleidoscope of lights, sounds, and tastes. I’ve been keeping a running list of things that work better here: the convenience stores are convenient; they will charge your iphone. The subway system is clean and efficient; it has doors both for the trains and also for the platforms. The outlets in my hotel room are on an angle so that you can easily plug in two devices at once; if you accidentally press the wrong elevator button, just press it again and it turns off. And so on.

Of course, a more profound measure of Korean vibrancy was reflected in the Passover service. I attended the Seder at the Chabad House, the main Seder in Seoul although another one takes place on an American military base. The crowd was mostly a mix of Jewish visitors-- from America, Israel, England, and elsewhere-- along with a smattering of Korean nationals. But as we sung the traditional songs into the night, the influence of Korea seeped in. The Korean police assigned to guard Chabad came in to drink wine and soju with us. The Chabad Rabbi described Korea as the most wonderful country to live in as a Jew, aside from Israel. The sense of freedom in the country became palpable. Just a few streets away sat the Seoul Central Masjid, the main mosque of Korea’s growing Muslim community, which is mostly comprised of immigrants from Central, South, and Southeast Asia.

Yoido Full Gospel Church, Korea's largest mega church (and reportedly the largest church in the world claiming membership of over 800,000).

Rarely does the world neatly categorize itself into black and white. On this Peninsula it does. Donald Rumsfeld was fond of presenting a map of the Korean Peninsula, the South lit up, the North engulfed in darkness.

I served in the Obama Administration’s State Department, where though American ideals continued to play a strong role in our foreign policy, we were wary of what the Republicans like call to “moral clarity”-- the unfailing belief in the inherent greatness of our own actions on the world stage. My generation has seen-- in Iraq and elsewhere-- how quickly “moral” can slip into morass. Yet moral clarity in the non-partisan sense is exactly what we see here on the peninsula.

Despite the inevitable shortcomings that South Korea may have, its trajectory has been nothing short of miraculous. The country is now a democracy, despite being under foreign or authoritarian rule for most of the 20th century. Its economy has grown to rank in the top 20 for GDP and now includes international giants like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and Kia. Its people are open to the world; its culture has been spread by a growing Korean wave -- or hallyu-- that has seen the rise in popularity of Korean film, music, and food worldwide.

Yoido full gospel church senior pastor Young Hoon Lee during Sunday services.

North Korea, meanwhile, is governed by one of world history’s most brutal dictatorships. Widespread and gross human rights abuses continued unabated by its latest dictator, Kim Jong-Un. Its major export is fear – a fact reinforced just this weekend as North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submarine for the first time.

This battle between good and evil – in all its complexities and clarities – is no stranger to the Jewish experience. Passover is a singular story. It commemorates the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt and our eternal hope to remain free.

But it is also a universal story. Its message of freedom has inspired far and wide. In our country, African-Americans drew inspiration from the Passover story in their centuries long fight against slavery and discrimination. In Korea, the spirit of Passover has been no less real throughout their long struggle for freedom.

And the history of Jews with Korea runs deeper than you might imagine. The first major group of Jews in Korea came as part of the American army during the Korean War. Chaim Potok, who served as US Chaplain during the Korean War, wrote a book about his experiences titled The Book of Lights.

Ginko trees, a symbol of Confucian learning, at the Confucian shrine at SKKU university, South Korea's oldest university, and the court university of the Joseon Dynasty.

South is now rife with Philosemitism; Korean schoolchildren often study the Talmud. And it has its own similarities with Israel. The Korean proverb, “When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken,” is often used to describe Korea’s precarious situation amidst its larger neighbors--  except it is the Japanese and Chinese and Mongolians instead of the Persians and Egyptians and Babylonians. Both countries have turned the necessity of a standing army, with universal conscription, into one of the catalysts of an information economy. South Korea has even expressed interest in Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In Southern California, the Jewish and Korean-American communities have their own points of intersection. Both communities are fundamentally defined by the immigrant experience. They’ve made it in the Promised Land that is California through those age-old Judeo-Confucian values of family, hard work, and education.

Yet Korea remains a unique story – or a unique take on an old and universal story.

Pyongyang was once known as the Jerusalem of Asia. But now on the rivers of its own internal exile, its people are forced to sit and weep.

Seoul - no less than America or Israel - has become a City upon a Hill.

Ari Ratner is on assignment as a Fellow with The International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A Former Appointee in the Obama Administration State Department, he lives in Los Angeles, where he runs a boutique strategic communications firm, Inside Revolution.

More from this Reporter

From Other Reporters in This Country

Also appeared in…