This summer Sung-Deuk Oak, a UCLA faculty member in Asian Languages and Cultures, was chosen to be the first scholar funded under the Dong Soon Im and Mi Ja Im endowment. He'll be charged with telling a remarkable story in the history of religion.
American missionaries were well received by the people, and Korean leaders thought the United States would help them be an independent nation.
Although Sung-Deuk Oak, 47, spent two years as a full-time junior minister in Korea and was ordained there, he says his calling has always been as an academic. His perspectives on religion and history were shaped by serious times: South Korea was under military rule when he returned to Seoul National University from the army.
"My generation, of the '80s, they are very serious. They thought about world history, politics, theology, those big things, because every month we would see public suicides or demonstrations on campus," he says.
Oak, an assistant professor in the UCLA Asian Languages and Cultures department, this summer was named UCLA's first Im scholar in Korean Christianity. The appointment puts him on a track to become the Dong Soon Im and Mi Ja Im Chair in Korean Christianity at UCLA, which was created last year following a $1 million donation from the Fullerton couple. Established under the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, the endowed chair is thought to be the first of its kind at a western, secular university.
As Im scholar, Oak plans to launch an online Korean Christian library to index English-language primary and secondary sources like photos, articles, and books. Up to now, he says, the religious tradition has been written about extensively only in South Korea.
Korean Christians made worldwide headlines this summer when 23 South Korean missionaries were kidnapped by Taliban militants in Afghanistan. Two of the men were murdered, and the rest were released in August after negotiations and a ransom was allegedly paid. Oak says more than 200 teams from South Korea have gone on short-term missionary trips to Afghanistan in the past two years.
But that's just one episode in the history of religion and the Korean people. Today, roughly one-third of South Koreans are Christians, as are 40 to 50 percent of the country's politicians and around half of its business leaders.
The undergraduate class that Oak has taught for four years at UCLA covers the history of Korean Christianity—mostly its dominant Protestant wing—from the 19th century to the present. Because Korea's political and economic transformations are tied to the religion, Oak says, the study of Korean Christianity is the study of modern Korea.
Oak first took an academic interest in Korean Christianity as a junior at Seoul National University. With the encouragement of a mentor, he returned to study Korean history even after completing his degree in English literature.
"The year was the centennial anniversary of Korean Protestantism," Oak says. "At the same time, that year was the bicentennial year of the Korean Catholic church. So in 1984 many people thought about the history of Korean Christianity."
So it was after two undergraduate degrees and an ordination that Oak came to the United States to earn a masters degree at Princeton Theological Seminary and a doctorate at Boston University School of Theology. Along the way, he has studied English, Chinese, French, Japanese, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
Oak says that Korean Christianity is unique as a western religion that arose and succeeded within a framework of eastern nationalism. After 35 years of Japanese rule in the first half of the 20th century, Koreans had come to view Christianity as a means of rejecting colonialism.
"Politically, Korea was colonized by Japan, so American missionaries were well received by the people, and Korean leaders thought the United States would help them be an independent nation," Oak says.
In the decade after the Korean War, Oak says, Christianity was also seen as one way to stave off communism. Before the war, two-thirds of Korea's Christians, including most of the church leaders, lived in the northern part of the peninsula, but when the war broke out, they fled south.
Later and in different ways, political upheavals and industrialization in South Korea aided the spread of Christianity. Villagers who moved to the city for work wanted a sense of belonging, and churches created de facto families.
Widespread pro-American sentiments were crucial too, according to Oak. Korean political leaders were often educated in American missionary schools and later in the United States. And America engendered good will through programs like U.S. Food Aid. Oak remembers eating free corn soup and tasting cornbread provided by the United States as an elementary schoolchild.
"So many people [who are] now in their 50s, 60s, 70s regard the United States as a savior because of the Korean War, and after the war, they were supported by [America.]" Oak says.
In Los Angeles and on trips to Seoul, Oak has often pointed to the need for grants to advance English-language studies of Korean Christianity. One of the people he spoke with was Rev. Hyung Cheon Rim, senior pastor of Young-Nak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, where Dong Soon and Mi Ja Im are members. Lee introduced the Ims to Oak after they expressed an interest in donating a portion of their real estate investment to a worthwhile cause. Following meetings with Oak and others and many prayers, the Ims more than tripled the size of their planned donation to create the endowed chair.
On June 20, 2007, the Ims held a reception over dinner in Koreatown to congratulate Oak on his new title and role. In addition to rare prestige, endowed chairs provide faculty members with a budget for research.
"They are very excited, and they expect much from me," he says and smiles.
A four-member search committee formed within the UCLA International Institute selected Oak as Im scholar after considering some 20 candidates and bringing top contenders to campus for interviews.