‘Minari’ Is About Korean American Faith as Well as Family
The U.S.-Korea relationship has always been shaped by Korean Christianity.
Lee Isaac Chung’s movie Minari won plaudits as well as an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for its nuanced and moving portrayal of the Korean American Yi family’s settlement in rural Arkansas. But while most reviewers understandably focused on race, one of the movie’s most significant themes is the Yi family’s relationship with Christianity. The movie’s focus on the Korean American family’s relationship with the church is unsurprising: Christianity is deeply interwoven with modern Korean history and especially with Koreans’ relationship with the United States. The Christian faith was a major conduit through which Koreans negotiated modernity and personally and ideologically connected with the United States.
Throughout the movie, Minari reveals Korean Americans’ complex relationship with the church. The first meaningful friendship the Yi family builds with a local is with the farmhand Paul (played by Will Patton) who—awkwardly but genuinely—bonds with the family with his off-kilter brand of Christian faith that involves exorcism and carrying a large wooden cross on weekends. A key moment of the narrative arc is when the patriarch, Jacob (played by Steven Yeun) relents and agrees to attend the local church at the urging of his wife, Monica (played by Han Ye-ri). The overwhelmingly white congregation in Arkansas stumbles as it tries to welcome the Yi family, with their good intentions poorly executed through unfamiliarity with the new Korean immigrants. Yet the Yi family, especially its young son, David (played by Alan Kim), manages to form a bond with members of the local Arkansas community.
The movie’s deep connection with Christianity is a direction reflection of Korea’s relationship with the faith—and the way it served as the country’s bridge to the United States. Unusually for East Asia, a significant proportion of Koreans are Christians. According to a November 2020 poll by Hankook Research, 28 percent of all South Koreans are Christians: 20 percent are Protestants, and 8 percent are Catholics. (In comparison, only 1.5 percent of Japan’s population is Christian; in China, 2.5 percent; in Taiwan, 3.9 percent.) That makes Christians the biggest religious group in the country, even larger than Buddhism at 16 percent, although a slight majority of people profess “no religion” in surveys (but often still follow some religious practices). Christians in South Korea wield an outsized influence relative to their numbers as Christians are more commonly found among South Korea’s elites. For example, out of the seven South Korean presidents in the democratic era (since 1987), five were Christians: Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Lee Myung-bak were Protestants while Kim Dae-jung and current President Moon Jae-in were and are Catholics.
South Korea is a rare Asian country whose Christian origins do not lie in missionary work; instead, Koreans converted themselves. In the 18th century, it became popular for Korea’s intellectuals to study seohak (or “Western learning”) and the European theories of astronomy, science, and philosophy, including study of the Bible. South Korea’s first Christians essentially converted themselves after reading and studying the Bible, establishing house churches. The Catholic Church in Korea traces its beginning to 1784, when Yi Seung-hun became the first Korean to be baptized when he traveled to Beijing to receive a formal baptism from a French Jesuit missionary there. Because it rejected traditional Confucian rituals, Korea’s first Christians faced severe persecution from the Joseon dynasty, which martyred tens of thousands of people during the 18th century. Yet Christianity continued to grow and take root in Korea, especially as it came to symbolize modernity.
Although the impetus for the first conversion came from Koreans themselves, Christian missionaries from the United States were key players in associating modernism and Christianity as they contributed to the foundation of many of Korea’s early modern institutions. So-called “medical missionary” work was, as elsewhere, powerfully effective. American Presbyterian missionary Horace Allen, for example, founded Gwanghyewon, Korea’s first modern hospital, in 1885. Today, the hospital is the Severance Hospital, named after U.S. oil magnate Louis Severance, who donated money to what eventually became one of South Korea’s leading hospitals. The hospital is a part of the Yonsei University, which was also founded by U.S. missionary Horace Underwood.
Christian influence pervaded the Korean elite. Mary Scranton, a Methodist missionary from Ohio, founded Ewha Womans University in 1886. As Korea’s first educational institution dedicated to women, Ewha was responsible for creating numerous women firsts in Korea, such as Korea’s first woman doctor, Esther Park, who became a doctor in 1900, or Korea’s first woman attorney, Lee Tae-yeong, who passed the bar in 1952. U.S. missionary Lemuel Nelson Bell is credited with introducing the parents of Kim Il-sung to each other as Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Pan-sok—Kim’s father and mother—were devout Christians of Pyongyang, Korea’s most heavily Christian area of the early 20th century to a point that it was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East.” (Bell’s daughter Ruth would later marry U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who visited North Korea twice and held his largest revival in Seoul in 1973.)
After Korea became independent from Imperial Japan and South Korea entered the U.S. sphere of interest, South Korea’s Christians—particularly its evangelicals—became a crucial link that shaped South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The first president of South Korea was Syngman Rhee, who made much of his Methodist faith appeal to U.S. officials, where he was exiled during the colonial period. (Syngman converted to Christianity as he attended Pai Chai School, founded by U.S. missionary Henry Appenzeller.) Under Syngman, the first meeting of South Korea’s legislature on May 31, 1948 opened with a Christian prayer. Syngman began his first address as the inaugural chairperson of the National Assembly: “We are gathered today to open our republic’s first National Assembly. We owe today firstly to the grace of God, secondly to blood and sacrifice of our patriotic ancestors, and thirdly to assistance of the United States and the United Nations.”
Following the Korean War, U.S. evangelical churches were major sources of aid to South Korea. From July 1950 to November 1952, the United States’ various Christian organizations were responsible for 44 percent of all aid destined to South Korea. The aid was distributed through Christian churches and organizations within South Korea, which further expanded the church’s influence. Moon, for example, recalled he converted to Catholicism as a North Korean refugee child in Busan as he lined up every day at the neighborhood church with a bucket to receive food from the nuns.
The Christian connection also opened a major route of Korean immigration to the United States: international adoption of war orphans, which evolved into a system that made South Korea the leading source of outbound international adoption until the early 2000s. More than 110,000 Korean children were placed in the United States, mostly to white Christian families as chronicled by Boston College professor Arissa Oh’s 2015 book, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption.
As churches in South Korea and the United States evolved, changes came to Korean American churches as well. In both South Korea and the United States, the number of Christians has declined over time. This shrinking is felt in Korean American churches as they bemoan the “silent exodus” of second- and third-generation Korean Americans. The sharp conservative turn of U.S. evangelism since the early 1980s that accelerated in the past several years has affected Korean American churches, pushing away more liberal-minded Korean Americans while radicalizing many of those who stay with the church.
Although churches played a significant role in the democracy movement today, South Korea’s conservative megachurches are the fount of far-right politics, holding rallies at Seoul’s Plaza waving the U.S. and South Korean flags together. These Korean megachurches’ close connection with Korean American churches as well as U.S. evangelical megachurches often serves as a conduit for U.S. conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, to filter into South Korea.
The cast and crew of Minari reflect this complex relationship between Korea and the United States through Christianity. Nearly every significant Korean or Korean American involved in Minari is connected to the church. The director is the son of a pastor who planted a church of their own in rural Arkansas. Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-jung, who is based in South Korea, lived in the United States for 13 years as her then-husband, a pop singer, was invited to perform at a Billy Graham revival. Both of the movie’s leads, Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri, are Christians, with Yeun alluding to his character, Jacob, as like his Biblical namesake, “a man wrestling with God.”
It is through this deep familiarity with Korean American Christianity that the movie delivers a nuanced portrayal of what the church means to Korean Americans. One of the most incisive moments of Minari is when Monica asks her Korean American colleague at a chicken farm, Mrs. Oh (played by Esther Moon), why the handful of Korean Americans in the area has not formed a church. Mrs. Oh replies politely and firmly: The Korean Americans who come all the way to Arkansas are the ones getting away from the Korean churches.
S. Nathan Park is a Washington D.C.-based attorney and non-resident fellow of the Sejong Institute.