Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan: The first Korean Catholic cardinal and a campaigner for human rights

Stephen Kim Sou-hwan had a number of distinctions within the Catholic Church: he was the youngest person ever appointed to its College of Cardinals, and he became its longest-serving member. He was also the first South Korean Cardinal.

But in wider terms his importance lay in his trenchant and outspoken insistence that democracy should prevail in a turbulent country prone to the emergence of military dictatorships. At one tense moment, the military authorities ordered him to hand over pro-democracy students who were taking refuge in his Myungdong Cathedral. “If the police break into the cathedral, I will be in the very front,” Kim told them. “Behind me, there will be reverends and nuns. After we are wrestled down, there will be students.”

He explained later: “I thought that allowing police to enter the cathedral compound to take away students was the critical juncture that would decide whether Korea went along the path to democracy or extended military regimes.” The government called off the police and a violent crisis was averted.

Some within the Catholic Church thought Kim became over-involved in politics, to the extent of stirring division and discord. Deeply hurt by this allegation, he later wondered whether he should have been even more active.

Kim was born in the provincial city of Daegu in 1922, the youngest of eight children. His father was a minor merchant, so poor that he often could not afford rice for the family. Propelled by his dominant mother towards the priesthood, Kim endured seminary life for 18 years, admitting later that he often questioned whether he had a genuine vocation.

“Even after becoming a priest,” he recalled, “I envied the happy married life of ordinary people, when all the family would gather for dinner.” But his devout mother was adamant that he was destined for the church: she took great pride in the fact that a 19th-century ancestor who had converted to Catholicism had been persecuted and died in prison.

The Second World War brought trauma for Kim when, as a student of philosophy in Tokyo, he was forced into the Japanese imperial army. He and other Koreans unsuccessfully tried to escape and give themselves up to American troops. He was so marked by the experience that for decades he could not bring himself to use Japanese goods and services.

After the war he continued his studies in Seoul as well as studying Christian sociology in Germany at Munster University. He felt that he was particularly fortunate to study under Father Joseph Hoffner, saying that this had given him “a theoretical base to sail across the troubled waters of the 1970s and 1980s”.

After spells as a bishop and archbishop, Kim was appointed Cardinal in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. It was a huge surprise to him. He recalled that, when given the news in a phone call from Rome, “All I could say was: ‘Impossible!’”

The 1970s and 1980s were turbulent times in South Korea, with military strongmen seizing power in an era which Kim described as “a long, dark tunnel”. He was by no means a natural radical or dissident, but felt that he could not remain silent as South Korean regimes allowed torture and the kidnapping and jailing of students and other critics. On several occasions he made government ministers squirm as they sat in his pews, denouncing them from the pulpit. He told one dictator during a face-to-face encounter: “I feel like we’re watching a Western cowboy movie. Whoever grabs the gun first wins the game.”

He wielded much influence inside the country and internationally, lending a spiritual dimension to anti-government sentiment. “Kim awakened the values of human rights and social justice, guiding the nation towards democratization,” said Ro Kil-myung, an expert on religion and sociology at Korea University. “He was not politically motivated in spearheading the democracy movement – his actions were rather based on the spirit of Catholicism.”

Kim himself confirmed this assessment of his motivation. Looking back years later, he wrote: “I stood, unintended, at the centre of human rights and social justice. Some might have assumed that I was personally interested in politics. Looking back, however, it was an era of oppression, a dark era. We had no other choice but to wait for the truth to free us. How could a priest, as a delegate of Christ, remain silent at such a time?”

He was never able to visit North Korea, where the authorities did not want him, but over the decades he had the satisfaction of seeing major growth in his church within South Korea. He stepped down as leader of South Korea’s Catholics in 1998, but remained active in many areas.

In his memoirs he showed an unusual degree of frankness for a prince of his church, revealing much personal vulnerability. In what appear to have been dark moments, he wondered whether he could have done more and questioned the strength of his commitment to justice and the poor. “I used to ask myself if my faith and life were blessings. I came close to answering ‘no’,” he wrote. “I always wanted to run away, and there were many times when I wanted to put down my cross. It truly was never simple. Not infrequently, I was at a loss. I felt lost myself.”

In another bout of self-criticism, he concluded that he had not done enough for the poor. He wrote that: “My dream to live with the poor couldn’t be realised, not because of my post as Cardinal but because of my lack of courage.

“I myself come from a poor family but I forgot this and spoiled myself with luxurious habits under the pretext of performing my job. As such I must lack love for the poor. I must lack generosity, patience and humbleness. I am a sinner of all sinners.”

The tributes paid to him after his death contained no such harsh judgements. The South Korean president Lee Myung-bak said that he had played a huge role during times of crisis, calling his death a great national loss. Opposition leader Chung Se-kyun described him as a guiding star in the nation’s modern history.

Former President Kim Dae-jung, a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, said that he had been a voice in the wilderness “for our people groaning under dictatorship”. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is a South Korean national, called him “the conscience of an era.”

David McKittrick

Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, Catholic Cardinal and pro-democracy activist: born Daegu, South Korea 8 May 1922; died Seoul 16 February 2009.