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    Two Songs for a Freedom Struggle

    An old hymn and a song about two lovers were the unlikely soundtrack to South Korea’s pro-democracy movement.

    By Helen Huleatt

    May 21, 2022
    • Aimee

      Beautiful reflection. May we all learn to pen the lyrics of our faith for the generations to follow. They could be their lifeline in the face of increasing oppositions.

    • Kevin Oh

      Wow!! I knew this song very well. We sang it everywhere, especially on the streets when I was early twenties. Thank you, Helen for the articl. We greet you and Matin.

    Seeing Myanmar’s student uprising so cruelly quelled in early 2021 was painful, but those reliving events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge or Tiananmen Square must have felt the anguish more keenly than most. Some of my friends found themselves transported back to South Korea’s pro-democracy student movement of the 1970s and ’80s.

    It’s an awe-inspiring phenomenon that repeats through history: young people, armed with little more than their solidarity and belief in a better future, standing up in the face of vicious state violence. And one recurring element – whether in Nazi labor camps or rural Mississippi – has been the role of song. For oppressed peoples, singing can both give and express astonishing courage.

    Perhaps the best-known song from South Korea’s freedom movement is 임을 위한 행진곡, “March for the beloved,” composed in 1982 in memory of two lovers, activists both, who died during the struggle. Accounts vary as to how the young woman, Park Gi-sun, died; her lover, Yun Sang-won, was shot by the army. The lyrics by novelist Hwang Sok-yong and music by student Kim Jong-ryul resonate beyond Korea, however, as apparent in this video.

    The song’s melody captures the pain and longing of those left behind after their friends were killed. One translation reads,

    We will leave no honors, no love, no fame.
    We promised to keep working on, long as we shall live
    Dear comrades have gone; our flag still waves.
    While working for days to come, we will not be swayed.
    Streams and mountains remember, though the years pass by.
    Wakened spirits are calling us, as they shout this cry
    We are marching on; keep faith and follow us.

    However, the song’s message runs deeper than “working for days to come.” That line might be rendered, “Let us not waver until the new day comes,” a declaration of faith that there will be a coming time of peace and justice.

    I was surprised to learn recently that another theme song of that movement was an old hymn I’d heard often as a child; while its Welsh tune impressed me, I most recall stumbling over its words.

    Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide
    In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.
    Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
    And the choice goes by forever ’twixt that darkness and that light.

    Then to side with truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
    Ere her cause bring fame and profit and ’tis prosperous to be just;
    Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
    Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

    By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
    Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back;
    New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth;
    They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

    Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
    Though Truth’s portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong –
    Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown
    Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.1

    James Russell Lowell (1819–91) wrote the poem as a protest against the Mexican War, which could have increased the area of slaveholding states. For Korean youth so much later, crying out their rage and yearning, the song was far more than a collection of outmoded words about a faraway struggle. For them, the meaning was only too real.

    “… Though truth’s portion be the scaffold and upon the throne be wrong, yet that scaffold sways the future …” In April 1975, eight South Koreans were hanged in the capital city, Seoul, on false charges of being communist sympathizers. And five years later in Gwangju, further south, the military opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds of students and other civilians. Through their sacrifice – and surely of others we’ll never know about – dictatorship finally fell in South Korea, in the late 1980s.

    Linda Jones, an American living in Seoul at the time, supported the fight for justice by secretly conveying information between Korean students and international news media. As a foreigner, she could access materials the censors withheld from Koreans – and her punishment if caught would be mild compared to theirs. The hymn they sang together stayed with her long after she left Korea.

    “To this day, I get tearful when I sing that hymn,” Linda writes. “We sang it with Korean women and men, young and old, who had endured imprisonment and torture; with people who could be arrested any moment; with people who were hiding others in their homes … with people willing to risk arrest by telling the truth to the international press.” She says the anthem “became our ‘marching song,’ and we all stood as we sang it together. The words expressed both what we believed and why we were assembled – without revealing exactly what we meant to the KCIA agents listening in the back of the room.”2

    protesters marching in South Koreas pro-democracy movement

    Protesters in South Korea’s pro-democracy movement (1970s)

    For many of those Korean activists, hope was rooted in the faith the hymn proclaims: “Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track.” Christianity has been in Korea since the 1700s, introduced by Yi Seung-hun, a Korean who found faith in Christ during a stay in China. Returning home, Yi baptized several others, founding Korea’s first Christian community.

    These first Korean Christians were Catholic, and in 1795 they smuggled in a Chinese priest. He was later beheaded, as were the lay people hiding him. Persecution continued, and historians believe that about eight thousand people – half the Catholic population of Korea – were killed in 1866.

    Protestantism arrived in the 1880s, also introduced by Korean believers. They invited evangelists from western countries as well; these westerners too were fervent for Christ, and a number died for their faith. They never became a large presence, however, because of cultural challenges and the difficulty of mastering the language. So the gospel was spread primarily by Koreans.

    Japan forcibly occupied Korea in 1910, ruling for the next thirty-five years. Anyone refusing to bow to their emperor’s image could be hunted down and killed, and authorities targeted pastors and evangelists. Yet the faith flourished despite repression.

    After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Korea fell prey to Cold War powers, who split the peninsula across the middle. The Soviet Union regulated what went on in the north, and the United States influenced events in the south. The Korean War (1950–53) solidified that divide, at terrible cost of life, after which a series of dictators and generals governed South Korea, hand-in-glove with the US military. But of the few American Christians still around in the 1970s, many stood with their Korean brothers and sisters in the struggle against despotism, until freedom finally came in the late 1980s.

    Many countries – North Korea and Myanmar among them – are still clenched in the grip of totalitarianism. People risk their lives if they speak their minds. Even if we cannot send them freedom (or food), we can uphold them through our own songs and prayers, continuing to believe that “behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”


    1. The Boston Courier first printed the original eighteen-stanza poem in 1845, and the tune (by Thomas J. Williams, 1869-1944) was first published in 1890. The shortened version appeared as a hymn in the 1905 Methodist Hymnal.
    2. More than Witnesses: How a Small Group of Missionaries Aided Korea’s Democratic Revolution, ed. Jim Stentzel (Nightengale Press, 2008), 425–26.
    Contributed By

    Helen Huleatt is a member of the Bruderhof and lives at the Fox Hill Community in Walden, New York.

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