Today, Dec. 10, is Human Rights Day. The day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." This first article of the declaration sounds as if it were taken from the Bible.
Throughout the country this week, the Catholic Church, in its many parishes and institutions, has examined the social teachings of the Church. Many will hear a review of Catholic Korean history concerning human rights, and specifically about an incident that happened in a small country parish on an island in Incheon during the 1960s.
The Young Catholic Workers Movement (JOC) was started in this country parish in 1965 by the Maryknoll priest-pastor. Many of the members worked in the textile factory on the island. Because of their membership in the JOC movement, they were sensitive to the human rights abuses they experienced and decided to start a labor union within the factory; management was opposed and the young workers were fired. About 30 Catholics were detained at the police station, and the pastor was threatened by the president of the company, government officials, and the police. No Catholics, it was decided, would be hired in the future.
The president of the JOC was the bishop of Masan, who at that time was Bishop Stephen Kim, later to become the cardinal-archbishop of Seoul. He strongly backed the workers, and Bishop McNaughton of Incheon also proclaimed the right of the workers to unite. This response to the incident in Kangwha, the first formal declaration of the Bishops Conference on a societal issue, marked the official entrance of the Church into the problems of society. The company did rescind its order and rehired the workers and all, at least temporarily, returned to normal.
Some years later, another Maryknoller was forced to leave the country because of his involvement with a so-called spy conspiracy plot by the members of the Peoples' Revolutionary Party, who were considered communist spies. They were arrested and quickly executed. The Maryknoll priest very vocally sided with these men and was forced to leave the country. However, with the change in the political climate of Korea, many years later he was invited back with a hero's welcome and invited to the Blue House by the president. The eight men who were executed were later declared innocent, and their families given a large sum of money in reparation.
Many of the very visible problems concerning human rights violations have been solved to a large extent in Korea, and past history will be part of the education for the future. The Church hopes the consciousness-raising during this week of proclaiming the social teachings of the Church will help to open the eyes of our Catholics to an important teaching that many still are not sufficiently aware of. It will give added meaning to the first article in the Declaration of Human Rights.