(February 26, 2018 / JNS) International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach closed the 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Sunday, declaring the Olympics “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 10 Israeli athletes competed in the 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 that Israel and South Korea have been on a trajectory toward closer relations for at least a decade.
A key catalyst behind Israel-South Korea ties: 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, where dazzlingly large mega-churches attract tens of thousands of people.
“South Korea is about 25 percent evangelical,” said Parsons, “making it the largest per capita in the region.”
Parsons said this turn toward Christianity is not driven by Western missionaries, but indigenous ministries that are undergoing a revival. He explained that countries “closed to the Gospel” for more than 2,000 years are opening to it—something he sees as a part of the prophecies spoken about in the Bible being fulfilled in modern day.
“God restoring the Jewish people to their land and a place like Jerusalem prospering are part of prophecy being fulfilled,” he explained. “And what we feel is the true church flourishing among the nations is also part of that prophecy—this true church has a heart for Israel.”
Already, Israelis can see the fruits of this shift in the streets of Jerusalem, where Christian groups from Asia visit the holy sites 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.
The visitors are people like Joyce Jung. She was first introduced to Israel in the Bible in 2008 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 after, 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. She said Love 153 offers these services to show God’s love.
“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. She travels there twice a year to share the truth about the Holy Land.
“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.”
Parallels, past and present
Israel and South Korea share some remarkable similarities.
Both have ancient traditions that date back more than 5,000 years and have 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.”
Litzman, who was born and raised in Israel, said the South Korean economy is “very strong.” He regularly hosts for meals visiting Israeli companies interested in doing business in the country.
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.
He hosted a support team for M-Systems in South Korea before selling to SanDisk. He then established a small R&D office for Modu, a company with a new modular phone concept, which Moran founded after M-Systems and eventually sold its patents to Google in 2011.
Another similarity between the two nations? Tense borders, though Litzman said people 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 anti-Semitism 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 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, according to The Post. 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 said he believes Israel will start to see the benefits of the surge in evangelical Christianity not only in tourism and economics, but in politics.
“We are already seeing it from Guatemala, and some other countries in Latin America and Asia,” he said, referring, for example, 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.”