Professional Excellence: The South Korean Case

by - Gen Lee, Pil Sup ROKA ret Korea Past-Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff

I. Introduction

I am honored and privileged to be here with you today.

First of all, I would like to give thanks to God who has led my way from the opposite side of the globe to participate here in this International Military Ethics Symposium in which brothers and sisters united in Jesus Christ gather together to discuss ways to give glory to our Lord. Also I would like to thank those of you who have invited me to this symposium and I would like to congratulate the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy on its 50th anniversary from the bottom of my heart.

II. Korean Military Christian Fellowship

Today, I would like to share with you a wonderful story of how the Lord has blessed an unworthy man like me in 37 years of military service, and more broadly about the impact Christianity has had on the ROK Armed Forces and its contributions to evangelizing the nation.

Korea has a long tradition of Buddhism and Confucianism. The Gospel was brought to Korea when an American missionary founded Korea's first church in 1884 and has been preached there ever since. During the Christianity's initial phase in Korea it understandably had tremendous conflicts with Korea's traditional religions and thoughts, and under the Japanese colonial rule that formally began in 1910, it was the target of severe persecution. With liberation from the Japanese colonial rule in 1945, however, free missionary activity became possible in Korea, and at present, South Korea is blessed with some 25 percent of its population having accepted the Gospel.

It was in 1951 during the Korean War when the military chaplain was first introduced to the Korean Armed Forces. An entreating letter from a soldier fighting on the frontline moved the then President Syngman Rhee who was a man of deep faith. The letter read like this: Dear Mr. President, please send us clergymen who will put an armor of faith on the soldiers fighting in combat so that they can be freed from the fear of death by the power of prayer. This was how the gate of the Gospel was officially opened in the military and the military chaplain was introduced. At present, there are some 300 chaplains serving in the military and some 50 percent of all the officers and soldiers have accepted the Gospel.

Thus, the Military Christian Fellowship (MCF) was born in the ROK Armed Forces in 1956. This was the result of the efforts made by young Korean officers who had been deeply moved by the OCF activities in the United States while studying at various infantry schools and by the members of the American OCF who were serving in Korea. Korea's MCF which started out with only twelve members has grown into a huge fellowship with more than 45,000 officers of good faith.

III. My Personal Experience

When I was young, I sometimes went to a Buddhist temple in my hometown with my mother. It was during my fourth year at the Korea Military Academy that I first went to church through a close classmate.

For someone who chose to lead a life of a leader, who has to make solitary decisions in a hell-like battlefield and take full responsibility for their outcomes, the Word of Truth through the Bible seemed to open a new way. I needed a firm belief that I was standing on a foundation of truth.

Joshua was able to overcome obstacles, be they natural or man-made, such as the Jordan River, the City of Jericho, and the strong enemies to whom the Israelites seemed like grasshoppers. He was able to accomplish the difficult missions because the Lord was with him as He had promised: "for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:9) I believe I was able to successfully complete my 37 years in the military because the Lord helped me all the way. For me, walking close with Him was possible through prayer and reading the Word.

In August 1979, I was appointed as a regiment commander on the frontline. Back then, there were frequent small-scale infiltrations by enemy soldiers into the South to carry out assassination missions and collect intelligence. It was a very daunting task to search out these enemy soldiers who were infiltrating along the 155-mile military demarcation line and the 3,767-mile coastline. Under such circumstances, I thought the best way was to seek God's help, because "unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain." (Psalm 127:1). I continuously prayed for this daunting mission of safeguarding my nation from enemy infiltration. And when I was about to begin my new mission as a regiment commander, I fasted for three days and prayed to the Lord holding on to the Scripture, "unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain."

On March 23, 1980 at 02:45, there was no moonlight and the sky was draped with clouds. Sleet was pouring down making visibility less than 50 meters. I still wonder how a group of three enemy infiltrators, who were highly trained, select SOF agents, risking their lives, walked up to one of our sentry boxes that were set up every 400 meters. How could our newly recruited sentries completely suppress those enemy SOF agents without any casualties? Situations unfolded in such a way that defies explanation with conventional tactical assessments.

After all, I concluded that God answered my prayer. I became confident that our effort to walk with God through the Word and prayer was the key to spiritual abundance and the solution to worldly problems. The Pray and Plan directive provided by the AMCF became the basis of my command. Although things sometimes did not go as I prayed, I believed that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rome 8:28) and I was very grateful for that.

Later in 1989 I took the post of the Superintendent of the Korea Military Academy. I was particularly thankful for the opportunity to involve myself in raising future military leaders who are spiritually armed. To help activate religious activities of the cadets, I established within the church a new religious organization that became known as the "Hwarang Mission." Upon their entry into the Military Academy, all cadets who have no professed religion are encouraged to take one religion of their choice after attending each of the religious ceremonies performed by the Protestants, Catholics, and Buddhists. Today, the Hwarang Mission is active and contacts the freshmen cadets prior to their arrival in an effort to encourage them to come to church. As a result of these efforts, 132 of the 260 freshmen cadets for this year became Christians. We raise them for four years based on the Bible. And after that we help them with their various religious activities through on-site visits and correspondence from the time they are commissioned roughly until they complete their duties as company leaders.

In 1990 I was assigned the Commander of the Second ROK Army or SROKA. To defend our 3,276-mile coastline and to deny enemy infiltration, I had no choice but to field my soldiers at numerous small sentry boxes. As the ROK Armed Forces can only afford to assign a military chaplain to units at the level of a regiment or higher due to an insufficient supply of chaplains, religious activities were not well performed at smaller units. To address this problem, I selected devout Christians among the enlisted and let them play the role of a chaplain. So far some 360 enlisted men were selected to play the role and they have devoted their time entirely on the religious activities of their units. During my two years as the Commander of the SROKA the rate of all officers and men with religion soared from 75 percent to 95 percent. The figures reflected Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants combined, some 70 percent of which were registered as Protestants.

As a newly commissioned officer I was continuously taught that a soldier's duty is to lay down his life for his country. The teachings of Jesus such as "Your care for others is the measure of your greatness" (Luke 9:48) and "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) impressed me greatly. They gave me confidence that my job as a professional soldier is a very worthy and proud one. Such confidence allowed me to fulfill my duties with joy under any circumstances, and indeed I did joyfully all the duties that were given me.

After all, the teachings of this faith were the spiritual pillars of mine. They enabled me to carry out my duties with a positive attitude under any circumstances during my 37 years in service, fulfilling over 30 postings from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the Korean peninsula to the frontline in Vietnam.

On the other hand, Suntzu's Art of War emphasizes that the most important factor in building a strong military is Dao or the Moral Law. Dao teaches that the commander and all the other members of a unit have to unite themselves in mind and spirit and such unity reaches its sublimity when they, united as one, can gladly confront life and death together. This is exactly what Jesus prayed as He went to the Garden of Gethsemane with his followers: He prayed that "they may become one as we became one."

The Art of War teaches that, in order to unite, the commander has to love his subordinates as he loves his own children, and then the soldiers will be willing to die together. Indeed, loving one's subordinates like his own children is the basic teaching of the Bible, which says "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you." (John 15:12)

Again, let me relate my own experiences. Every time newly assigned soldiers reported to me as a commander, I repeatedly pledged myself to the proposition that we should love them like our own children. At church, I have repeated the practice of reflecting on whether I truly love my fellow Christians like myself. Such a long practice of self-training enabled me to love my subordinates.

Experiences of the ROK Military

The ROK military as a whole has learned a valuable lesson. The Korean War that broke out on June 25, 1950 and lasted for three years took everything away from Korea. The war ended with an armistice, leaving us to wonder when peace might turn into another war. As a result, we had to maintain a large military force despite many difficulties in doing so. Families were torn apart, jobs vanished, and there was no hope for the future. Under these severe economic conditions, youngsters were volunteering for the military. When GNP per capita was around $100, support for the military was not sufficient and indeed the military could be maintained largely by the support of friendly countries. While unit commanders were making great efforts, accidents continued to happen in the military. Every year there were considerable number of AWOL, suicides, and assaults.

One day a field army commander was visiting a unit and he found that this unit had a significantly low rate of accidents compared to others. He found that the main reason for this was that the unit was training its soldiers with biblical values. Thinking that Christian belief was the best spiritual weapon against the communists, the non-Christian commander, whose units were then suffering with many accidents, recommended that all his subordinate units look to the other unit as a model. Consequently, this campaign spread out to the whole military and contributed greatly to reducing the number of accidents. We named this the "All-Military Christianization Campaign" and the result of this campaign is shown on Slide 1.

In 1970 when this campaign started, some 110,000 army officers and men out of 550,000 believed and followed biblical principles and there were 19,248 accident-related casualties. After roughly ten years of campaigning, in 1982, 340,000 believed in the principles and the casualties dropped to 5,715. Although we cannot assert that the campaign was the only reason for the decrease, it certainly played an important role as the following survey shows.

Regarding whether the campaign had great impact on strengthening spiritual armament, 96 percent of the units that were actively participating in the campaign answered yes, whereas 84 percent of the units that were passively participating in the campaign answered yes. Regarding whether the campaign was effective in preventing accidents, 97 percent of the former and 87 percent of the latter answered yes.

Regarding whether they were satisfied with what they were doing at their units, 96 percent of the former and 86 percent of the latter said yes. And regarding whether the campaign had been a big help in competing with other units, 95 percent of the former and 85 percent of the latter said yes.

Also, there was a dig difference in the rate of accident among the soldiers who had biblical training and those who did not. The soldiers who did not have biblical training show 2.4 times as many in AWOL (Absent Without Leave), twice in suicide, twice in safety accident, and 2.1 times in the total number of accidents compared to those who had biblical training.

As a result of this campaign, decreased accident rates and other positive impact have boosted the morale and efficiency of the units, and now most commanders of the ROK armed forces are accepting this campaign as routine.

Evangelizing the Nation through the Military

Now let me report on how we have pushed forward Vision 2020, a plan to evangelize the whole nation of Korea by evangelizing the military. As some of you may know, South Korea, in a military standoff with North Korea, maintains a compulsory draft system. Each year young South Koreans at the conscription age join the military to serve, for example, 26 months in the Army. Each year some 350,000 young men including those in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police and other fields enter military training centers to receive basic military training of six weeks, and each year roughly the same number of young men are discharged from their duties.

In other words, most of today's young South Koreans who will be responsible for the future of their country have to go through these military training centers. Therefore, chaplains serving in the military and MCF members pay keen attention to these centers and go preach the Gospel there and give baptism.

It is against this backdrop that the goal of Vision 2020 is to make some 37 million Koreans, that is 75 percent of the total population, Christians by the year 2020. (See Slide 2)

As a concrete strategy, at one thousand military churches they preach the Gospel and baptize some 220,000 of those 350,000 young men who join the military each year. Of these 350,000 young men some 30,000 have already accepted Jesus as their Lord. This means each year the military sends out some 250,000 young believers to their local churches. By the year 2020, the target year of Vision 2020, there will be a total of 6,250,000 believers, 250,000 believers times 25 years. (See Slide 3)

As for me, I was born into a Buddhist family but later while serving in the military I accepted Jesus as my Lord, making me the first believer in my family. Now I have a family of more than ten believers including close relatives. Let us assume that these young men who receive baptism in the military settle in their local churches after discharged from their duties, and that over the next 20 years most of these 6,250,000 believers establish their own family of four on average. Then in these 6,250,000 families there will be roughly 25 million new believers, which, if the current 12 million believers are added, will make Korea a Christian country of more than 37 million Christians. This means some 75 percent of the Korean population in the 2020s will believers. If this vision is realized, the National Assembly that represents the will of the people should do legislative activities in the spirit of the Bible, and the Judiciary should execute these laws. Thus, Korea will be a country where Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is the goal we like to achieve through Vision 2020.

There are three important tasks in proceeding this campaign. First, each year the military should have 220,000 baptisms. In 1997 over 177,000 soldiers received baptism, in 1998 over 208,000, and this year up until the end of August over 150,000. Taking into consideration the progress made up until now, I predict that we will reach this goal by devotional efforts of the military chaplains and MCF members and by the blessing of God.

Second, local civilian churches should help this campaign of military baptism. As Jesus while preaching the good news fed some 4,000 and 5,000 people who gathered around Him, we should do something for young soldiers who do not know the real taste of the Gospel. We need material assistance and yet the military has no budget for this kind of religious activity. Giving baptism to several hundred and several thousand soldiers at a time definitely requires many civilian pastors and financial assistance as well. At present, most military baptisms are being performed at over 40 recruit-training centers, and many big civilian churches in Korea are actively participating in this baptismal campaign, meeting the necessary requirements.

Third, we should help these young men who have received baptism in the military so that they can continue their religious life in their hometown churches after discharged from their military duties. As Jesus' disciples went back to their jobs, some as fishermen, after Jesus passed away, today's young men often hide themselves in the darkness of this secular world after baptized and discharged from the military. Our military churches, therefore, are sending the list of baptized soldiers to their hometown churches and missions at various universities and colleges, making one-to-one connections possible. Currently, 1,033 churches in South Korea are participating in this project and they are carrying out the following ten-point Love Program: (See Slide 4)

At present, 1,033 churches out of over 45,000 Korean churches are designated as partners of this program and they receive the list of young men who receive baptism in the military. And many more churches have begun to take some of the measures listed above. It is the result of these efforts that many soldiers upon their discharge have come to attend their hometown churches.

Concluding Remarks

In the life of a military commander characterized by tension and solitude, faith is invariably the source of a new stamina. And the military provides opportunities to us who are commissioned to preach the Gospel to as many people as possible. With the help of the Holy Spirit Peter did his first missionary work toward pagans at the house of Cornelius, the centurion, and Paul the Apostle changed the Roman Empire and the whole world afterwards by preaching the Gospel to the roman soldiers standing on guard. I believe our Lord who is saying even today, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation" has special expectations of us soldiers.

Thank you very much for your attention.

[Paper Titles, Abstracts & Texts] [Program] [Ethics Main Menu] [Home]

View My Stats