In February, three religious activists in South Korea were awarded citizenship for their contributions to South Korean society, including an American. A Roman nun, Sister Cristina Evelina Gal who aids migrants, a Nepalese monk, Ven. Seollae who supports the Nepalese community in South Korea, and US missionary Wesley John Wentworth Jr., who has spent decades building hospitals and supporting Christian study in South Korea, were given the honor of South Korean citizenship, and allowed to keep their previous citizenship.
Historically, honorary citizenship has been a symbol of appreciation and exchange. For example the South Korea city of Seoul has bestowed honorary citizenship every year since 1958, with many notable figures (such as American football player Hines Ward and Former US Ambassador to South Korea, Christopher Hill) who love the city of Seoul and have contributed to its development. Additionally, in 2021 the South Korean band BTS was given honorary citizenship in Shakopee, Minnesota.
Wentworth first traveled to Korea in 1965 as a construction engineer and helped build hospitals in various cities throughout South Korea. Since 2003, he has lived in South Korea and focused on promoting Christianity. According to the 2016 census conducted by the Korea Statistical Information Service, 44% of the South Korean population identify with a religion. Of the religious population, the largest are Protestant Christians (45%), followed by Buddhist (35%), and Roman Catholic (18%). A larger percentage of Korean Americans identity as Christians (71% in 2012 ) than South Koreans. In 2016, there were nearly 24,000 Americans living in South Korea, mainly in Seoul.
Since 2012, when the initiative started, the justice ministry has given only 12 individuals honorary citizenship for their positive impact and dedication to South Korea. The first individual to receive this honor was an American, John Alderman Linton, a doctor who was the first foreign national to pass the South Korean medical exam in 1987 and helped develop the first local ambulance vehicle production in South Korea. He was born in South Korea to American missionaries.
South Korean elites brought Christianity to the country in the 18th century, when studying the Bible was seen as part of learning western scientific and philosophical thought. After Korea became independent of Japan, Christianity was closely connected to both South Korea’s national-building and its relationship with the United States. After the Korean War in the early 1950s, US Evangelical Christians were large sources of aid, which was funneled into South Korean churches and religious groups and increased their influence. Today, there are many mega-churches in South Korea, some of the largest in the world, generally pro-democracy, pro-free market, and anti-communist, with large power in the country. As history shows, the United States and South Korea have a complicated connection through Christianity of missionary work, money, and power. Positive connections and experiences exist in this relationship, and also negative experiences of corruption and ill-gotten and used power.
South Korea is unique as one of the only Asian nations with a majority of the religious population identifying as Christian. The three citizenship awardees highlight the diversity of foreign nationals who have made their life in South Korea and the number of religious institutions providing aid and trying to better South Korean society.
Abbigail Hull is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.