The power of death in the world is increasingly taking a political
form. The prevailing social philosophies and political realities are dominated by a
cynical perspective of history; that is, "the real power" becomes the dominant
force in human history, both in the actual historical procession of events and in the
understanding of fundamental philosophies of human society.
Thomas Hobbes was an ingenious social thinker who viewed human society
as a jungle systematically regulated by an absolute power. The formation of such a society
was supposedly based on a social contract among individuals. Surviving the threat of death
is a fundamental concern in his social thought. Death or survival seems to be a
fundamental issue in modern civilization as well.
Today humankind has built unimaginably deadly weapons systems. This was
done by the superpowers and the medium powers in the name of security or survival against
the threat of death or destruction. This is the so-called "real politics" that
is rampant today, or it may be called the "balance of terror," which affects the
totality of human life in the whole world today.
Death seems to have more influence over life than anything else, for it
is not a mere end of life: it is a total dimension of life. Death is in life, and life is
over death. This is the "dialectic" of living. This is true of social and
community life as well as personal life. It is also true of life in and among nations.
It is my small task to clarify the theme of Jesus the Messiah as the
life of the Minjung. In this kind of civilization or context, I would transpose the theme
to the messianic living of the Minjung against death. The term "life" could mean
a static concept of aliveness. Therefore, the term "living" is used as a dynamic
concept. I propose to describe a social biography of the Minjung as a paradigmatic
experience of modern history, and I will seek to relate some Biblical and theological
themes to this social biography of the Minjung.
First, let me clarify the terms "Minjung" and "social
biography." Mmjung (people) is a political concept in the Aristotelian sense. The
Minjung are not known through philosophical, ideological or even scientific concepts. The
Minjung are known through their own social biography, that is, their life story. The
Minjung are not to be defined objectively by anyone, except perhaps by their own self-
definition. However, the Minjung are known in two ways: one is by knowing the Minjung in
relation to power. Minjung here are the powerless, the poor, the alienated. The other way
in which the Minjung reveal themselves is through their own social biography, their own
What then is a social biography? It is simply the story of the Minjung.
The term "story here should not be understood as fictitious. It is the basic
form of the Minjungs life. It is a drama in which the antagonist (power) and the
protagonist create events and sequences of events. There is no built-in victory or defeat;
no fixed laws are dominant in the story. The story contains memory, vision and the wisdom
of the past to create a new future, and it entertains the future vision to energize the
present course of the drama. The story unfolds in interaction with the ecological
environment, with socio-economic structures. Above all, however, the story contains the
subjective and internal experiences of the Minjung. The emotions of anger and joy are
expressed in the story.
I. The Social Biography of the Minjung:
The Story of the Korean A-Bomb Victims
The day when the atomic bomb exploded over the people in Kwangdo and
Chang Ki (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was the most terrible and tragic day in human history.
It was the day when World War II was fatefully decided. The end of world history became
manifest in qualitative terms; for the Korean Minjung, numbering as many as 70,000 or
more, suffered the "ultimate" death as far as we are able to know. In this human
tragedy, 40,000 nameless people died, and up to 30,000 survived with the curse of atomic
disease on their bodies and spirits and in their very being.
Who are the Korean A-bomb victims? This question has escaped our
perception and thinking even when we ask the most fundamental questions of human history
today. It was their story, unrelated to us. Why? Because it is the most horrible part of
the horrible event, and therefore, the powers suppressed the story of those of Korean
origin who were bombed. Perhaps human consciousness is incapable of grasping this
historical reality of ultimate death. Certainly we have no way of telling the story of the
Korean atom bomb victims in terms of their total suffering. In human history, there has
never been such an experience. There is in some sense an epistemological impenetrability
to the suffering experienced by the A-bombed Koreans. It is impossible to know the full
story. If there is a way to know it in part, it is through their own telling of their own
story of suffering. Even their own story of suffering cannot be fully known because of the
inability of the victims themselves to remember those experiences. Their memories have
somehow been erased.
Where was their home? Their home was not a real place where they could
feel at home because they had come from the Korean rural areas where the vestiges of the
Yi regimes oppression and exploitation had made deep scars on their own and their
forefathers lives. The Yangban (aristocrats) had ruled them for more than 500 years;
but at the end of the Yi Dynasty, they rose up to overcome their burden. The story of the
Korean atom bomb victims thus includes the story of the Korean Minjung under Yi Korea as
Their homeland, however, was taken away from them by the power of
colonial Japan. They lost their motherland to the Japanese rulers and the Japanese
colonial agricultural company. That was not all. They were then taken as forced labor to
Japan (the hell-to-be). Some of them were forced to emigrate to find work to support their
families. They worked in weapons factories, mines and other war industries. Some were
women who were taken away to provide sexual services as conscripted prostitutes to the
Japanese soldiers at war. They lived in the slums of those grim cities of Japan.
They lost their names, their history, their culture. They were
culturally annihilated and left with no personal or historical identity. The Japanese
regime of the emperor was the "divine authority" that believed itself to have
the historic mission to create the Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere in Asia. It was an
ultrarightist, militarist regime that suppressed the people and mobilized them to become
part of the world at war. The colonized Mmnjung among the Korean people had to bear the
hardest part of the burden. This is a part of the story of the Korean atom bomb victims.
Another part of their story is that they were abandoned by the
powers-that-be. The U.S. military government in Japan first classified the Koreans in
Japan as a party to the victors in World War II. It changed its mind, however, because the
two million Koreans would have claimed enormous damages, and accordingly, the U.S.
military government revised the status of Koreans in Japan to a "special
status," which meant no status at all. Suddenly the Koreans in Japan lost their very
right to claim damages. The Korean A-bombed people lost their right to get any
compensation for their suffering.
The Japanese government, by design or by neglect, forgot about the
plight of the Korean A-bomb victims, and their stories were suppressed until the
early-1970s. As for the Korean government, it was too busy rebuilding its own country and
fighting the Cold War to remember the Korean A-bomb victims. Even during negotiation of
the Korea-Japan normalization treaty, they were completely forgotten.
Above all though, Koreans in Japan were victims of modern military
technocracy, whose deadly fruit is historys most destructive weapon, the nuclear
bomb. Modern military science and technology are behind the explosion of the bomb. The
atom bomb is not just a bomb, however: it is a systemic reality that is worldwide in
nature; it is the pinnacle of the giant global war machine. Those who died in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki were the first victims of this worlds giant "death machine."
These people were the Minjung who suffered most cruelly in World War
II. The powers, the United States and Japan, fought for their own reasons, but these
Koreans were cruelly innocent sufferers. It was the political and economic forces of the
world that triggered the Second World War over the heads of these Korean A-bomb victims
without their choice and even without their knowledge. They now shared the burden of the
Cold War; they now pervaded Korean society after the worldwide war living a very, very
lonely way of life.
During their sojourn in Japan, the Koreans were ethnically
discriminated against by Japanese society, being absolutely segregated and despised as
Chosenjin. After the atomic bomb explosion, they were virtually abandoned because of their
segregation from Japanese society. They did not have relatives or friends in the bombed
cities. The survivors suffered further because they had no place to go outside of the
A-bombed cities, having lived in groups in the slums. Thus, they were exposed to atomic
radiation for a long period of time. In life, in spirit and in body, these people existed
in a condition of disease, destruction and misery that is beyond imagination.
When the Korean A-bomb survivors returned home, their hopes and
expectations were totally crushed. They found no liberation at all. Hopelessness and
severe loneliness filled their broken lives. Their language and customs were alien to the
Korean people, who hated them for their cooperation with the Japanese and who treated them
as "national traitors." They did not have any knowledge about their own disease
that was caused by their exposure to the atomic bomb. Their poverty and their disease
formed the most vicious cycle of life. The medical knowledge developed in Japan was not
available to them. Their bodily pain, disfiguration and destruction are practically beyond
Because of their disease and the prejudice against this disease, they
could not get married. Those who did not show signs of the disease initially and got
married have had to get divorced when their symptoms appeared years later. As for their
children, it is said that the atomic bomb disease is not inherited by the second
generation, but strangely, the children of A-bomb victims have suffered unexplained
Loss of memory is also a common phenomenon among the Korean atom bomb
sufferers. Often they cannot remember their life in Japan and their direct experience of
being bombed. Strangely, when they do remember, it is only expressed in the Japanese
language, which in turn makes them feel ashamed.
When they do remember their experiences, their memories are most often
the sorrow of losing or being robbed of their national identity; the memory of being taken
away from their families as they were conscripted as forced laborers; the memories of
Japanese oppression and hard labor; or the shame of being a prostitute. These memories
surge up, and then a feeling of extreme sorrow, a sense of hopelessness, resignation and
helplessness sets into their lives.
When they came home, they were also Minjung. They returned to Korea to
find their home, but there was no home for them on earth. They were alienated almost
totally from their own people in their own nation. They continue to be segregated as
A-bomb victims, strangers from the darkness of outer space. This prejudice against them
has pressed their excruciating pain into the marrow of their own bones and to the depth of
their souls. They cannot find jobs because of their A-bomb disease. As a consequence, they
have to live as beggars in many cases. In their home country, they have become the lowest
part of the Korean Minjung, who are also caught in the suffering of a divided nation and
in recent social and political developments.
This is the bare frame of the social biography of the Minjung who
suffered through the atom bomb explosion in 1945. They were "conscripted
prostitutes" to the colonial military in World War IL; they were forced laborers in
the military industries of imperial Japan; they were forced migrants in search of work for
survival; they were the children and families of these people.
This social biography is the story of broken lives in terms of spirit,
body, community and history - the heritages of oppression and exploitation of the Yi
Dynasty, the destructive power of brutal colonialism, the horror of the atomic bomb. The
whole accompanying military technocracy of the atomic bomb, the matrix of world economic
and political dynamics of World War II and the political process involving the United
States, Japan and Korea are all directly related to the infinite and unfathomable
suffering and death of the A-bombed Minjung.
II. Jesus the Messiah as the Life of the A-Bombed Minjung
It is in the context of this social biography of the Minjung that
the Korean Christian koinonia is called upon to witness to Jesus Christ, the Life of the
Jesus the Messiah lived bodily among the Minjung, and Jesus experienced
Sheol. Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper: "This is my body, broken for
you." The body is che, the foundation of the human being, and soma, the concrete
stuff of life and living. It is the body of the spirit, and the spirit is in the body as
the body is in the spirit. The body, which is the concrete form of the spirit, the
concrete form of life and the living (che) of Jesus the Messiah, is broken for the Minjung
(you). This means that the cross as the broken body and the broken life of Jesus is the
same brokenness as the life of the Korean A-bomb victims. To say this more simply: In the
suffering and the broken bodies of the Korean A-bombed people, we find the cross of Jesus
Furthermore, one traditional part of our creed is that Jesus after His
death at the cross went down to Sheol. I believe there is special significance in this
confession within the context of the A-bombed Minjungs social biography. This makes
Jesus Messianic identification with them more realistic and profound than in the
cross alone. The seriousness of the death of Jesus the Messiah is amply confessed in this
creed. In short, the praise of God is said to be impossible in Sheol. Indeed, the social
biography of the A-bombed Minjung cannot be described in relation to thanksgiving and
praise of God without making the reality of the Gospel cheap.
The death of the A-bomb victims is not just the end of their natural
life. It involves all the forces of destruction, of brutal Japanese colonialism, the
military technocracy of the A- bomb, the historical insensitivity of the powers, all the
forces of death in the social story of the A-bomb victims and their suffering before and
after the A-bomb experience.
Indeed, the death and cross of Jesus the Messiah have cosmic
significance. They have got to have such a scope; otherwise, how can He be the Messiah of
the Minjung in the 20th century?
What this means is that death and life is not a question of simple and
natural transition between one state or span of time and another - no matter how radically
this is understood. Death is the ultimate power to destroy the life and "living"
of the people.
The death of the atom bomb victims is a total one: a spiritual,
psychological, somatic and social-political death. The spirit is lost together with the
broken body. Spiritual disintegration and demonetization is the most profound destruction
of life and the ultimate death, but here it takes the form of bodily disintegration, of
somatic corrosion, both individual and corporate. In political and social terms, the body
of the bomb victims is so feeble and weak that their political destiny and social
relations do not give them power for a fruitful life. The body of the Messiah in His
person and in His ecclesia (koinonia) is truly with the body of the A-bombed people in the
historical experience of destruction and death. This is not possible in human terms; it is
realized in the cross and Shed of Jesus the Messiah. Messianic politics (the Kingdom)
overcomes the power of death:
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the
first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished, and I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her
"I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: now Gods
home is with humankind [Minjung]. He will live with them, and they shall be His people.
God Himself will be with them, and He will be their God.
"He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no
more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared (Rev.
It would be desirable to take the vision of New Jerusalem, the new
Polis of Shalom, as the overarching theological point of reference in the context of the
social biography of the A-bombed Minjung.
First of all, in the new Polis of Shalom, the death, tears, grief,
crying and pain of the A-bombed people will be overcome. The vision reminds us of Exodus
and the Year of Jubilee. In the Exodus, the destructive power of "i despotism"
(ancient Egyptian politics) was broken; and in the year of the Jubilee, all the unjust
social and economic relations were righted, and the slaves were freed. The A-bombed
Minjung will have a similar social and political biography. The imperial power of Japan
was far worse than the Egyptian despot, and the A-bombed laborer and conscripted
prostitute suffered far more than the Habiru in Egypt.
This new shalom is then possible because God lives with the people.
This is the praxis of God, His life with the people, vindicating them with His justice.
The life of the A-bombed people would not be possible from a human point of view; but by
Gods justice, their life is vindicated, for they are His people; He dwells and
shares the same abode with them.
Finally, the new Polis (body) of Shalom emerges in the koinonia of the
wedding between the bride and groom after the palace of Sheol (the sea, the seat of the
power of death) has disappeared. This is the overreaching vision of shalom (peace). This
reminds us of the prophet Isaiahs vision of shalom in which shalom is not the simple
state of absence of war or conflict; it is the dynamic historical strength of koinonia,
justice and liberation that creates the fullness of life of the people and that overcomes
the power of death. This should be possible, by the grace of God, in the context of the
social biography of the Korean A-bombed people.
Shalom is the making of the living of the Minjung full in spirit and
whole in body. It is not a static order but a dynamic movement. Here lies, I believe, the
focal point of the true peace movement in the world today.
How is it possible though to speak of the resurrection of the dead
(Minjung) in the context of the social biography of the A-bombed people? The resurrection
of their body? That is impossible, humanly speaking. It is not an easy task to witness to
the resurrection of the dead that is based upon the Messianic Resurrection.
Here theodicy (the Justice of God) could be taken as a point of
reference again. The victory of death makes the justice of God impossible and vice versa.
The Korean atom bomb sufferers, in individual terms, however, could create a life for
themselves in a new way in the belief that the God of justice is and will be victorious
and that the body (the concrete form of life
- not, perhaps, physically at this time, but through living
participation in the Messianic life of Jesus) will be resurrected. However, in this sense,
this cannot easily take place outside of the body, the resurrected body of koinonia
(Church) of the Messiah.