Israel and South Korea Grow Closer Based on History, Innovation — and God
JNS.org – On Sunday, IOC President Thomas Bach closed the 2018 Winter Olympics, declaring that the sporting event is “an homage to the past and an act of faith for the future.”
For Israel and South Korea, it looks like faith may indeed be the basis for new ties.
Some ten Israeli athletes competed in the 2018 Olympics. According to Rabbi Osher Litzman, director of the Chabad Jewish community of Korea in Seoul, the Olympics were “a big step forward” in opening South Korea to the rest of the world. However, the rabbi noted, Israel and South Korea have been on a trajectory toward closer relations for at least a decade.
A key catalyst behind the Israel-South Korea ties is a surprising one: God.
There has been “phenomenal growth” of mega churches throughout Asia, especially over the last 30 years, said David Parsons, vice president and senior international spokesman with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity is growing more quickly in Asia than most parts of the world, with more than 200 million adherents in 2015, up from 17 million in 1970. And South Korea is at the forefront — as dazzlingly large mega-churches there attract tens of thousands of people.
“South Korea is about 25 percent evangelical,” said Parsons, “making it the largest per capita [evangelical country] in the region.”
Parsons said that South Korea’s turn toward Christianity is not driven by Western missionaries, but indigenous ministries that are undergoing a revival. He explained that countries that were “closed to the Gospel” for more than 2,000 years are opening to it. He sees this as the fulfillment of the evangelical belief of the Bible materializing in our times.
“God restoring the Jewish people to their land — and a place like Jerusalem prospering — are part[s] of [the] prophecy being fulfilled,” he explained.
Already, Israelis can see the fruits of the rise of Christianity in Asia in the streets of Jerusalem. Today, Christian groups from Asia visit the holy sites in Jerusalem year-round. Israel hit a record 3.6 million tourists in 2017, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Of those, some 54 percent were Christian. The ministry said among its new target markets for 2018 are Chinese, Indian, Romanian and Hispanic religious populations.
“The Ministry of Tourism is struggling to find guides that speak Asian languages,” said Parsons.
These visitors are people like Joyce Jung. In 2008, she was first introduced to Israel’s place in the Bible when a group of Christian Zionists visited her South Korean church. In 2013, she visited Israel for the first time.
“I started praying for Israel, and God put such a deep, unexplainable love for Israel in my heart,” said Jung. “When I visited, I knew I was home.”
Soon afterwards, Jung launched Love 153 International, a Christian nonprofit organization that works with the Jewish Agency for Israel to offer various services such as sewing classes, taekwondo and other cultural activities for orphans, widows and at-risk youths in Israel.
“We must comfort the Jewish people, like it says in Isaiah,” said Jung, who also serves as an informal ambassador for Israel to churches in South Korea.
“The movement is growing very fast,” said Jung, about evangelical Christianity in South Korea. “The media tries to turn South Koreans against Israel and to the Palestinians. And many South Koreans just don’t know. But when they learn, it clicks right away. The God of Christianity is the same God of Israel. Really, the South Korean people want to be a friend of Israel.”
Israel and South Korea share some remarkable similarities.
Both have ancient traditions that date back more than 5,000 years, and have somehow managed to survive. The state of Israel and the Republic of South Korea were both formally established in 1948. Since then, the two countries have been preoccupied with regional conflicts, forcing both countries to invest a lot of resources — both human and financial — into the defense of their countries. Yet they have both managed to thrive economically in their own ways.
“We are two ancient peoples with history and culture of more than 5,000 years, we share the passion for learning and education, we lack natural resources and can rely only on our human resources,” wrote Israeli Ambassador to South Korea Chaim Chosen upon taking his post in 2016.
“We built our countries from scratch, and in a short time of several decades, Korea and Israel could get to excellent achievements in many fields. Korea turned to be one of the leading economies of the world and a technological powerhouse. Israel is known today as a startup nation,” he said.
Dov Moran, founder of M-Systems, which invented the USB flash drive, told JNS that he travels to South Korea at least twice a year by invitation of the government or other professional conferences to talk about innovation, Israel and international cooperation.
“They are hard workers, smart, aggressive — very similar in many aspects to Israelis,” Moran said about the about the people of South Korea.
Another similarity between the two nations? Tense borders, though Chabad’s Litzman said that people in South Korea don’t feel the South-North Korea conflict daily.
“It’s like living in Israel, where in the news it looks very bad, but day to day, it is OK, and there is nothing to worry about,” he said. “In the 10 years we are here, there have been no terror attacks, just tranquility.”
He also stated that antisemitism is not an issue in South Korea, and that he is seeing more and more Koreans becoming friendly with the Jewish community, which numbers about 700 to 1,000 — mostly transplants. Litzman said that locals now regularly come by the Chabad asking to learn Hebrew, study the Bible and better understand how they can accommodate the Jewish faith.
Likewise, a recent report by The Jerusalem Post showed that students of Asian origin are coming to study in Israel. The University of Haifa currently boasts some 200 Chinese students among its student body, compared to 20 in 2013 — a 1,000 percent increase. Similarly, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, also in Haifa, has seen an influx of these students, reaching 117 full-time Chinese students in the 2016-17 school year.
Parsons believes that Israel will start to see the benefits of the surge in evangelical Christianity not only in tourism and economics — but also in politics.
“We are already seeing it from Guatemala, and some other countries in Latin America and Asia,” he said, referring to Guatemala’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem following the recent announcement by the United States to do the same. “It may take a few more years for some of these evangelical communities to mature politically so their voice is heard, but the impact is already starting to happen.”