Advent and Waiting for Healing and Peace

As I sit to write this update for the Advent season from Korea, we hear news that based on last week’s increase of new infections, the South Korean government has set social distancing to level 2.5 (up from 1.5 when the first draft of this letter was written). This official designation applies to all places where many people might gather. For example, schools are required to run at no more than one third capacity, restaurants can only fill every other seat, and churches can only with less than 10 persons, among other new limitations. The return to a 2.5 level of social distancing came when last week’s average of new daily local infections reached about neared 1,000 (a point that has been surpassed several days this week). The Korea Center for Disease Control set this measurement around the beginning of the outbreak. Now and again as a particular community has flouted regulations or a surprise super-spreader event has occurred the government has raised the level as high as 2 and then brought it back down once new infections and hospitalizations tapered to a more manageable level. This time, however, there is concern and growing acknowledgement that the change in weather is leading to such an increase in the infection rate which the usual universal mask usage and social distancing cannot control. We may enter into a total shutdown of society if this rate continues. This persists alongside a state of war overshadowing the Korean Peninsula.

Preparing ourselves for the Advent season feels like an appropriate time to consider what it might be like to wait for this coronavirus pandemic to subside and for life to return to some kind of normal. I wonder how much our anxiety and the fear of the spread of the virus relates to the anxiety Mary and Joseph might have felt when told to escape as refugees and seek life in exile. Such was the need to avoid King Herod’s wrath lest it come for them and take their life. “…An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” (Matthew 2:13) We cannot travel back to the US to report to supporters and churches sharing stories and answering questions about the transformative ministry happening in Korea because we are in an exile. We cannot host Young Adult Volunteers in Korea this year because we are in exile. We cannot join ecumenical conferences with partners from North Korea and around the world because we are in exile. We hunker down and we wait until a safer time when hope can spread its wings again. Until then we wait in safety and cultivate that hope together as best we can.

We are grateful that the government of Korea also recognizes the need for the whole community to go into exile together until it becomes safer again. We also recognize that neither going into exile nor our social distancing will completely rid the world of the danger. At any time, all it takes is one community to flout the regulations, or for it to lay dormant in asymptomatic people only to reappear infecting another hundred with an origin more difficult to track; which is the case with the current rise of infections this last week in Korea. So we wait, we trust the angels, the scientists and health officials, we wear masks when we go out, and we reduce the risk of spreading the virus as much as we can.

Appa joins a session practicing our Korean dictation.

We also hold on to hope, cultivating that hope in our hearts even as we wait. We turn to online communications, online worship, video recorded greetings, Zoom conferences, and phone calls to loved ones. Let us continue praying, working, learning, advocating, and caring for God’s creation and God’s community. Let us support each other in this confusing and lonely time of social distancing so that we don’t have to mourn each other’s death. Let us more fervently seek the peace and shalom of the Commonwealth of God where the health of all God’s children is prioritized, where wars have ceased, and where conflicts are reconciled. Election results will not bring this future on their own. So we hope, pray, and act for an end to this coronavirus pandemic and for an end to the state of war on the Korean Peninsula.

We thank you as always for supporting us with your prayers and donations as well as your joining us in this work of hoping, praying, and acting yourselves! Your support has brought us through another year of ministry, and we pray you can bring us through the end of the pandemic as well. In hope for the coming of the Prince of Peace, we pray. Amen.

I’ll leave you with some more images of our fall/winter days in the age of social distancing:

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Hope Despite a Pandemic

In early March of this year Susannah and Amanda, our two Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs), and I met in front of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) building discussing the ever-unfolding news of COVID-19 outbreaks in Korea and, at that time, the growing infections in the U.S. I remember being skeptical of the Korean insistence that everyone wear masks because I was reading several articles from friends in the U.S. to the effect, “masks are not proven to give full protection from airborne infections.” I wasn’t convinced it was medically necessary to wear a mask, but we three decided we would still wear them on busses in deference to our Korean hosts.

Soon after, coronavirus infections exploded in the U.S., the PC(USA) gave mission co-workers the option to return to the U.S. immediately or stay in their country of assignment indefinitely, and all YAVs were immediately to return home. Hyeyoung and I decided that it would be better to stay in Korea. Our YAVs, however, needed to pack up and find flights to their respective homes in the U.S. Most of their workplaces had already shut down anyway, so it made sense to finish their YAV year at home with their family. Still, it was tough for all of us to say an early un-planned goodbye.

Hyeyoung visits Neutbom Moon Ik Hwan School to help Susannah pack her things.

We spent a couple of days in grief packing up and saying farewell before they finally took their flight back home. We visited a café near Susannah’s placement which she frequented. The café owner who had become close to Susannah asked us, “Why is it that Korea has controlled its infection numbers, but the U.S. is still spiraling out of control? I think it is because so many of them refuse to wear masks.” At the time, I dismissed this and suggested other possible reasons, but now I have changed my mind. Then I saw so many Asian countries control the spread of the virus through universal mask-wearing while U.S. hospitalization rates continued to climb, and Korean news showed videos of anti-mask demonstrations throughout the U.S. I also began to read more scientific explanations of how “masks were not yet proven to give 100% protection, but they also weren’t sure how protective they could be because we simply hadn’t conducted enough tests to know one way or the other.” More tests have now been done, and more health authorities agree with our friend at the café here in Korea that if not enough people wear masks, the virus is more likely to spread.

Around the same time, the NCCK was also reassessing its plans to hold an ecumenical gathering in Washington D.C. in June 2020 that would include a memorial worship for victims and soldiers of the No Gun Ri massacre and a Korea Peace Treaty Campaign event. Trips to the U.S. continued to look less and less likely as March turned into April and April to May, with infection rates in the U.S. holding steady. We also began reconsidering an international convocation we hoped to host in Korea in July of this year that would declare a People’s Peace Treaty. Eventually, the U.S. trip was canceled, and our July convocation was converted into a Zoom convocation. We changed the language of declaring a peace treaty to declaring a peace agreement which wouldn’t need ratification by Congress.

The NCCK successfully held an online Convocation to Declare a People’s Peace Agreement on July 23rd, marking 67 years of waiting for the war to end since the signing of the Korean Armistice on July 27th, 1953. Over 80 participants from more than 40 countries worldwide joined the online convocation, including our PC(USA) representatives. Though socially distanced, we raised our voices together and renewed each other’s energy for hope that the war would end so that peace would have a chance to spring forth.

The NCCK broadcasts the People’s Korea Peace Agreement convocation with minimal staff presence.

For next year, the NCCK is considering current plans and how we might plan new online gatherings as the pandemic continues worldwide. We especially hope to gather ecumenical partners to help strategize what form advocacy for Korea’s peace process might take with the newly elected administration in the U.S.

The YAV program is also trying to discern what its program will look like moving forward. Last year’s YAVs were all returned home early. This year no YAVs traveled to their sites. Instead, the YAVs were asked to volunteer in their home community and connect with the program in online conference meetings. We are still waiting to see what the program might look like for the 2021-22 year as the PC(USA) has a travel ban for staff in place until June 2021.

In these times of uncertainty, we are ever more thankful for your support of our ongoing ministry. We apologize that we had gone radio silent for so long, as I think many of us are still searching for a foothold as the pandemic progresses. We are more sure of our daily routines now and confident of our ability to offer online sessions with any of your communities, whether it be a Skype call to a missions committee, joining your Zoom worship service for a Moment for Mission, or a recorded video message of greetings. Please ask us, we would love to make ourselves available!

So let’s batten down the hatches together, prepare to ride out the storm as a global community, wear our masks when we go outside, and hold firm to the faith that God is weathering this storm by our sides, empowering us to work for the peace, wellbeing, and healing of all our communities.

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The Shalom God Has Envisioned

“Kurt, thank you for sending us the translation of the communiqué last night; however, we have made some changes again. We need you to spend your lunch translating the new version so that we can have a draft ready for the forum discussion immediately after lunch!” Before I was able to begin drinking my coffee at breakfast, this was the greeting I received from my supervisor at the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), Rev. Shin Seung-min. We were several days into a meeting of the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification, and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula (EFK), and each forum meeting releases a communiqué on the state of the Korean peace process. I had finished translating the first version, written by the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) from North Korea, and sent it to Rev. Shin at 3 a.m. the night before, but the South Korean delegation wanted to make a few revisions before proposing it to the full international forum. So back to work I went!

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Kurt greeting Rev. Kang, chair of the Korean Christian Federation at the EFK meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

This meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, was the second time I had attended a meeting of the EFK, but it was the first time I had attended since being appointed its coordinator. I also quickly became, ostensibly, the de facto translator of Korean documents into English. Rev. Kim Jin Yang, a Korean working for the World Council of Churches, joined me for part of that lunch to help smooth out the language. Most importantly, Ms. Yun Mi, the coordinator for international affairs of the Central Committee of the KCF, was on hand to make sure that our English translation matched the intent of the original Korean communiqué. The three of us together made quick work of translating the revisions proposed by the South Korean delegation so that both South Koreans and North Koreans would be able to sign off on the final language.

The Korean peace process has come to a frustrating halt since the NK-U.S. summit in Hanoi in February. A surprise meeting between Chairman Kim and President Trump, brokered by South Korean President Moon, gave some hope that a way through the deadlock might be found, but we are still waiting for that to materialize. In the meantime, the NCCK of South Korea and the KCF of North Korea have pledged to continue finding ways to build off their example of gradually building trust through humanizing relationships and meetings that stand in sharp contrast to the demonization of North Korea we might see all across the spectrum of U.S. media. These forums move beyond simply enjoying the time of meeting together — they include engagement in advocacy through the drafting of communiqués that present the ecumenical movement’s requests for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Members can then share these communiqués with their representatives in each respective government.

This year, the communiqué lifted up the initiatives taken by the leaders of North and South Korea at both inter-Korean summits, Panmunjom and Pyongyang. The leaders committed to taking mutual steps toward rebuilding each other’s trust, such as demolishing guard posts throughout the DMZ. The communiqué also celebrated the steps taken by North Korea to implement the Singapore agreement, while lamenting the lack of corresponding steps from the U.S. As we have seen, North Korea has gone so far as to demolish a nuclear testing facility, while similar demolitions on the part of the U.S. have yet to materialize. In particular, the communiqué notes continuing U.S.-South Korea joint military drills as problematic: “We … denounce the joint military exercises and oppose them as a key factor that keeps the situation tense on and around the Korean Peninsula.”

Read the full communiqué here.

Corresponding to the tension of the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, the atmosphere of the forum was generally more tense this year; hence, the deliberations over language in the communiqué took longer than usual. Several partner churches shared examples of how their projects for people-to-people exchanges and resource sharing with North Korea have been hindered and sometimes outright blocked by U.S. interpretations of sanctions. The United Methodist Church invited the KCF to a roundtable conference in the U.S. last year, but the U.S. State Department denied their visas. Another partner, the American Friends Service Committee, tried to send TB vaccines, but the shipment was blocked because it included the needles necessary for administering it. These sanctions were designed to kill North Koreans. Another organization was told they needed to close their office in Pyongyang, North Korea, where they had operated for several decades, or else the bank would close their account due to warnings from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

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Representatives from partners in the USA, Canada, and Finland discuss the effects of sanctions on their programs for humanitarian resource sharing and people-to-people exchanges.

Our EFK meeting sought to close with some notes of hope as we discussed plans for NCCK events to be held in the U.S. in June of 2020 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. However, we just received news that all South Koreans who have visited North Korea since 2015 will be denied the usual 90-day tourist visa upon arrival, and they will instead have to apply for a special visa that requires in-person interviews at the U.S. embassy for any kind of visit to the U.S. This would include almost every member of the NCCK involved in the work of reconciliation and reunification.

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Rev. Kang, from the North Korean Christian Federation, giving the blessing and sending at the closing worship service of the EFK.

Despite the setbacks, we continue working to find more opportunities for people-to-people encounters throughout the world so that more of our partners can truly see the need for all sides of the conflict to engage in mutual trust-building rather than unilateral demands that require only one side to take actions toward denuclearization while the other side continues practicing attacks in joint military exercises next door.

As humans, we may find ourselves leaning toward a desire for control, or revenge, or protecting what we assume to be our own. Nevertheless, as Christians we are called to reconciliation and to acknowledge the light of Christ within all God’s children. This is the path that will most likely lead to an end to violence and the end of the war, even if it means struggling to understand each other’s language. We thank you all for continuing to support us through your prayers and donations. May we continue on this journey together toward the shalom that God has envisioned.

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A Lifetime of Peacemaking: Rev. Lee Moon-Sook

“I remember when I first started working here at the New Family Magazine offices and these streets were filled with people and with tear gas,” Rev. Lee Moon-Sook said as she gestured toward the streets while she and I (Kurt) walked down the road from the cafe to her office building next to the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK).

I asked, “Did you know that your office area would be that chaotic, or did it come as a surprise?” She grinned as she responded, “That was why I wanted to take the job in that building. The NCCK was very active in the movement for democratization. I wanted be a part of this.”


Rev. Lee Moon-Sook gives a sermon during the NCCK Peace Treaty Campaign to the US in 2016.

Rev. Lee was referring to the year 1987 when another round of demonstrations had broken out around South Korea and engulfed Seoul as activists sought to break the stranglehold of the US-supported dictatorship that had been ruling the South since its foundation in 1948. 1987 was also the year that Rev. Lee began working as an editor at New Family (새가정 – Sae-Gajung) Magazine, whose offices shared the same building as the NCCK in the Jongno area. She currently serves as the executive secretary of the Asian Church Women’s Conference, but she is getting ready to visit the U.S. this coming fall for International Peacemakers, an opportunity created by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. She will go to talk about her experience in Korea’s peace movement and work as a co-chair of the NCCK’s Reconciliation and Reunification Committee, which I also support as ecumenical partner staff at NCCK. I knew this letter would give me a good opportunity to hear more of her life story and to share it with you all before she heads Stateside.

Rev. Lee joined me in the summer of 2016, when the NCCK brought its Korea Peace Treaty Campaign to the U.S. We spent 12 days driving from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., visiting cities in between. On that trip we connected for the first time and came to know each other as colleagues.

As I spoke with her, Rev. Lee mentioned one of the first projects she worked on as editor of the New Family Magazine. On January 13, 1987, Park Jongcheol, a pro-democracy activist and college student, died during an interrogation at the Anti-Communism Division of the South Korean National Police Agency. Park, the student chair of the linguistic department at the Seoul National University, was arrested for helping his colleague who was also wanted by the police for pro-democracy activities. He died while being tortured with water and electricity, but authorities tried to conceal this. The democracy movement found out the truth through their underground network and revealed it on May 18 of that year. There were many other students who had been arrested and whose parents feared their beloved sons or daughters would also become the victims of torture.

Soon afterward, Rev. Lee had the mother of Park Jongcheol meet with the mother of another student who had recently been arrested and recorded their conversation. Through presenting their stories from the mothers’ points of view, New Family Magazine considered the way authoritarianism affects families.


Rev. Lee leads a session on the history of Korea’s ecumenical movement for democracy, reconciliation, and reunification.

For the NCCK’s Korea Peace Treaty Campaign, Rev. Lee has not only visited the U.S., but also the U.K., Switzerland, France and Japan. This summer Rev. Lee will not join them, but the NCCK will connect with Russian and Eastern Orthodox Churches in Russia, Turkey and Greece. The NCCK will implore them to advocate to various international governments, especially to the U.S. government, to cease hostile military threats and inhumane sanctions and instead approach North Korea in authentic dialogue through the step-by-step, trust-building process that South Korea and North Korea began with the Panmunjom Summit last year on April 27. The International Peacemakers Program will bring her again to the U.S. in the fall. If your community would like to invite Rev. Moon-Sook Lee to speak about the peace movement in Korea and about how the U.S. can help, or rather move out of the way, you can still apply to host her at this link! She will visit the U.S. September 13 – October 7. Applications to host are due July 1!

I was curious about what events might have led Rev. Lee to join the resistance and take up the candlelight of democracy and peace in Korea, and I think I found out when we were talking about each other’s childhoods. She told me about how when she met one of her former high school teachers, he mentioned that she had a reputation, that the other teachers warned him, “That Lee Moon-Sook is trouble!” Rev. Lee explained to me that her high school had one class called “School Drill (for National Defense) Discipline,” where they learned, for example, how to care for wounded people on a battlefield in addition to learning why North Korea was their enemy. She could sense that something was wrong with this curriculum that the government brought into schools, so she refused to listen or to study. When every other student received scores of 100, she was the only who failed that exam with a score of under 40. From an early time, she realized that she would refuse to participate in irrational dehumanization. Participating in the movement to resolve the Korean War with dialogue instead of bombs came naturally.

Since then, Rev. Lee has visited North Korea many times and has also participated in the Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK), the structure that facilitates the meetings between the NCCK of South Korea and the Korean Christian Federation (KCF – the federation of Protestant Christians recognized by the North Korean government; and by the way, I just became coordinator of the EFK, and our next meeting will be this July in Thailand). Now Rev. Lee actively participates in re-humanizing trust-building activities and exchanges as well as advocacy seeking to turn U.S. foreign policy away from military threats and sanctions. If she comes to visit you this fall, I encourage you to ask her about her trips into North Korea!

We thank you for your support in the form of reading our letters, praying for our relationships, and making financial donations. When you join our work, you become a part of the community working alongside Rev. Lee Moon-Sook in facilitating re-humanizing exchanges across the boundaries of an entrenched conflict. Without your donations, I could not coordinate the EFK, and we would not be in Korea to hear the stories that we are sharing with you. Thank you!


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US and Korean Peacemakers Meet

“I didn’t hear … these kind of stories when I came to Korea last time,” remarked Carl E. Horton, director of the Presbyterian Peacemaking program, while our guide, Gayoon Baek, led our travel study seminar group toward a large hole in the ground on Jeju Island in South Korea. The hole was actually an entrance to Seonheul Doteul Cave, where Jeju villagers went to hide from the South Korean military after they began villages that refused to support the US and the new South Korean government, which began in 1948. Gayoon studied human rights at university in England, and eventually came back to Korea to work on human rights at home. She now runs Jeju Dark Tours, which uses a tourist fad of visiting macabre history sites to bring attention to the need for justice and reconciliation for the islanders affected by U.S. and South Korean policies.


2018 Presbyterian Peacemaking Travel Study Seminar participants looking into the entrance of Seonheul Doteul Cave, where Jeju Island citizens hid, and were ultimately killed, during the April 3 Uprising and Massacre. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

This visit with Gayoon was a central part of our Peacemaking Travel Study Seminar to Korea that brought a group of U.S. participants to Korea on November 5th – 17th, 2018 to see God working alongside Koreans striving for peace and human rights, and especially to focus on our own nation’s (U.S.) role in the conflict, division, and current state of war. Then the participants were asked to consider what God might be calling them to do in this context. The seminar participants spent twelve days traveling throughout South Korea from the southern tip of Jeju Island to the northern edge at the De-militazed Zone (DMZ) border with North Korea.

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Statue dedicated to the over 3,000 victims who “disappeared” in the Jeju massacres, whose bodies were never found.

Our seminar group met young activists like Gayoon Baek as well as women who have been leaders within partner churches, like Rev. Moon Sook Lee who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and also currently serving as the Executive Secretary of the Asian Church Women’s Conference. Rev. Lee shared the story of the Korean ecumenical and Christian women’s movement opposing the U.S.-supported South Korean dictatorship and developing relationships with our North Korean partners, the Korean Christian Federation, that promote peaceful reconciliation of the Korean War.


Rev. Lee had also joined our group for a drive up to the DMZ to visit the Border Peace School inside where we met Rev. Jiseok Jung who founded a school upon the vision of planting schools on both side of the border with North Korea teaching that conflict should be overcome with mutually respectful dialogue instead of military threats.

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Rev. Jung shares his story with the seminar participants.

Rev. Jung shared with us his frustration that progressives in the U.S. seem unwilling to support the efforts of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to bring Chairman Kim of North Korea and US President Trump together for dialogue to end the Korean War. At that time in November, the US military under the name of the UN Command had recently blocked the joint railway project to which Moon and Kim had agreed at their Pyongyang Summit in early fall.  He urged us to encourage our fellow Americans to support respectful dialogue with North Korea and to drop the dehumanization that perpetuates distrust of North Korea and their willingness to make denuclearization agreements. Rev. Jung is helping to organize a DMZ Human Peace Chain for April 27 this year. Koreans will hold hands across the 500km line from the west to the east coast in order to show the world that numerous South Koreans support the dialogue and summits with North Korea.

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Rev. Raafat Zaki leads a prayer at the DMZ with the mountains of North Korea visible behind him.

We also traveled to the peace park near the bridge at No Gun Ri where Dr. Koo-Do Chung told the story of his father seeking to uncover the truth of the massacre that occurred when Dr. Chung’s mother and would-be older sister and brother hid under a bridge with their village while US soldiers fired upon them for three nights and four days. Dr. Chung shared with us his vision of bringing together survivors from under the bridge and US soldiers who were present so that both may be given a chance for worship service of reconciliation and healing.

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One of the No Gun Ri survivors whose family was trapped under the bridge, points out the bullet holes and remains of US military shells indicated by paint circles on the wall of the bridge.

Dr. Chung reminded us that past acts of unjust violence not only lead to suffering for the surviving victims, but also suffering for those who pulled the trigger, and acknowledging the truth of one’s actions can open space for healing. The National Council of Christian Churches in the USA (NCCCUSA) is planning for such a worship service with Dr. Chung, No Gun Ri survivors, and those US soldiers at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in June 2020.


Our group split into two to worship with a congregation from both of our Presbyterian denominational partners, the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK).

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Kurt Esslinger and Rev. Raafat Zaki place flowers at an outdoor worship service honoring workers’ rights activist Cheon Tae Il. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

The church Kurt’s group joined was marking the anniversary of the death of Tae-il Chun, a young laborer whose protest of self-immolation in 1970 helped to inspire many groups, including Korean Christians, to oppose South Korean military dictatorship and to demand that the government uphold human rights and labor laws.

We also visited Kurt’s offices at the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) in Seoul to converse with Rev. Hye-min Roh, who works with the Reconciliation and Reunification Department and the Human Rights Center (HRC) of the NCCK. Rev. Roh told the story of NCCK’s creation of the HRC during the military dictatorship of the 1970’s to focus on human rights violations in South Korea. One participant asked why the NCCK HRC did not work on condemning North Korea for human rights violations. Rev. Roh explained that when the HRC was created, South Korea’s military dictatorship was torturing and assassinating political rivals. The dictator at that time, Chung-hee Park, still created a Human Rights Commission that focused only on North Korean human rights, but only as a strategy to de-legitimize North Korea in order to conquer them and achieve reunification by force.

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The Rev Hye-min Roh, Program Director for the Reconciliation and Unification Department of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), speaks with Presbyterian Peacemaking Travel Study Seminar Participants. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Rev. Roh suggested that trying to condemn our enemies for their violations while also threatening them with destruction and ignoring our own violations is not likely to convince them stop or instill the kind of trust that might help bring an end to a current state of war.


Our partners in Korea asked Carl and the participants of the seminar to share their stories when they return to the US. Hyeyoung and I also believe that is our job as mission co-workers! It is your support through prayer and financial donations that allow us to continue this work of learning from, striving alongside, and sharing the stories of God’s mission in Korea with our communities in the US. We thank you for your support, and we ask you to keep marching toward peace along with our partners in Korea.


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Following the SK President to NK

Merry Christmas to you all. We hope you find the story in this letter to be an example of the hope of Advent. Despite the peace process being currently stalled because of the US increasing sanctions on North Korea, releasing false “intelligence” in its media, and refusing to consider trust-building a mutual responsibility; nevertheless, we believe the constant progress made between the two Koreas will eventually lead the US and the rest of the world toward an irreversible peace. This story from the NCCK is a testament to that hope!

On September 19, a crisp Wednesday evening, South Korean president Moon Jae-in stood before a large stadium audience in Pyongyang, North Korea. He gave a speech that ended with “we had lived together for 5000 years but apart for just 70 years. Here, at this place today, I propose we move forward toward the big picture of peace in which the past 70-year-long hostility can be eradicated and we can become one again. Chairman Kim Jong Un and I will firmly clasp the hands of 80 million Koreans in both the North and South and move forward to create a homeland anew.” Then, around 150,000 North Koreans gave the South Korean president a standing ovation. This was the first time a South Korean president had ever given a speech in North Korea.


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Rev. Lee Hong-jung shown here behind President Moon (SK) and Chairman Kim (NK) on top of Mount Baekdu.

Greetings, in the name of Jesus Christ, who is our peace. Fall is beginning to chill the land here in Korea, and yet some extraordinary events are slowly thawing the Cold War atmosphere on the Korean peninsula. In September, President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang for the second inter-Korean summit since he won the South Korean election in 2016. Since that election, his leadership has brought hope that the state of war might finally end soon. For this summit, the leaders of both Koreas focused on the agreement in section 1.4 of the Panmunjom Declaration, signed at the first inter-Korean summit in April: “South and North Korea agreed to encourage more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels in order to rejuvenate the sense of national reconciliation and unity … in which participants from all levels, including central and local governments, parliaments, political parties, and civil organizations, will be involved.”

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Rev. Lee and other South Korean religious leaders pose for a picture with Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

Thus my boss, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea, Rev. Lee Hong-jung, was invited to North Korea to join over 100 other representatives of various levels of Korean society. Rev. Lee represented Protestant Christians in South Korea, and he was joined by representatives of South Korea’s other three main religions: the archbishop of the Catholic Church of South Korea, the head monk of Korean Jogye Buddhism, and the Head Dharma Master of Korean Won Buddhism. They met their North Korean counterparts — the leadership of the Korean Federation of Religionists that includes the Christian Federation, the Buddhist Federation, the Cheondoist Church, and the (Eastern) Orthodox Church Committee of North Korea. There they sat down together and held a discussion about how to lead their respective communities into further cultural exchanges across the border of division.

When Rev. Lee returned from North Korea, I asked him where he saw signs of hope from the summit. He responded, “I could feel intuitively my dream for Korea being realized, a dream for harmony overcoming differences. I could feel this dream being realized in the transformation of North Korean society that I observed since my last visit. I could see that North Korea’s social system is not a system of fossilized immaturity, but a fluid, organic system that responds to new trends and pursues change in accordance with the flow of history.”

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Rev. Lee and the civil society delegation was hosted by Ms. Kim Yo Jong.

Rev. Lee said that he also saw hope in the way that Chairman Kim Jong Un took risks that would have been unthinkable for an unassailable dictator. Not only did Chairman Kim open up the possibility for a South Korean president to speak to the North Korean people unfiltered, but he bowed his head when greeting President Moon in front of the stadium audience, and then he spoke honestly about scarcity in his country, acknowledging its weakness. This does not mean that everything is perfectly fine — 70 years of war and hatred cannot be healed overnight — but surely a new way and a new hope have now opened.

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Rev. Lee telling his stories to Kurt, so he can share them with you.

I also asked Rev. Lee what concerns might remain for the future of the peace process, and where our communities should focus in the future. I especially asked if he had any suggestions for US Christians such as you who support Hyeyoung and me. He explained that he hoped the US will no longer use its force as a great power to make one-sided demands but will instead begin to follow the peace process with reciprocity. Corresponding measures would significantly increase the mutual trust and help guarantee that the Korean peninsula will not turn the clock back to the time before the Panmunjom Declaration of April.

Rev. Lee also acknowledged that Korean Christians have a similar responsibility. So far, the South Korean Church is within itself divided into a South-South conflict (South Koreans against other South Koreans) that could easily persist even after a peace treaty is signed. One side is using missionary activities, refugee ministries and condemnation of human rights violations to “reconstruct” a North Korean Church based on the implicit goal of abolishing the current North Korean system. The other side honors the existence of the Korean Christian Federation in North Korea. Its missions focus on a theology of peace and relationship-building to restore mutual trust that cultivates an environment that is necessary both for a peace treaty to end the war and as a first step before seeking to end human rights violations in both South and North Korea. He sees hope in those within the Korean Church seeking reformation in the spirit of seeking confession and a renewal of a commitment to God’s vision for peace.

Rev. Lee said that his visit to North Korea, Pyongyang, and Mt. Baekdu reminded him that “Christ is a God of peace. It is God who heals and reconciles enemies, breaking down walls within God’s own body, God’s people. In this body there is equality and love, where justice and peace kiss each other; there God makes the two into one, harmonizing differences. This God is a God who lies upon the cross, traversing the gap of Korean division and the original sin of the South-South conflict, inviting us all to step with him across the boundaries of Korean division.”

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I include this pic with Rev. Lee where our colleague got some shots of us giggling through our conversation about the silliness of trying to have a picture taken of us just talking. I share it also because he sent me a note afterward to say, “Thank you for laughing with me, today, Kurt.” I can imagine he might not get all that many chances to laugh with all his responsibilities as general secretary of NCCK. I suppose if this is something I can offer to our partners here, then I am of some value in this assignment!

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Let’s not be shaken by this

“What are you all doing here now?” A middle-aged man nervously shouted at a group of people who were doing a “human chain” protest in front of the naval base in Gangjeong village in Jeju. The man started an argument with the participants in the “human chain” and then showed off his anger by aggressively taking off his shirt. At that moment, I was doing the peace dance with the people who were participating in the Inter-Island Solidarity Peace Camp. I became a bit nervous because of the conflict happening right next to me, but I continued to dance the peace dance with other camp participants. The conflict did not last long, but I was very confused, nervous, and frankly frightened. A lot of thoughts came to my mind, wondering, “Who was that man? Why is he so angry? Will he use violence to attack us?”

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Human chain

Terra, who was leading the dance, said: “Let’s not be shaken by this, let’s concentrate.” Even in this confusing moment, we were able to dance to the end because of fellow protestors who were there together to encourage one another. However, the question that the man asked, “What are you all doing here?” stuck with me. Why I am dancing here in front of the naval base in a small town called Gangjeong village with a group of strangers whom I just met three days ago?

Gangjeong village is a tiny town located on the southern tip of Jeju, also known as a Peace Island, in Korea. The Korean name, Gangjeong, is translated literally as, “Village of Water,” and it refers to the abundance of surface fresh water in the area, a rarity on this island of volcanic rock. The clean water from the Gangjeong stream makes nearby farmland some of the most fertile on the island. However, there has been an ongoing nonviolent struggle to stop the construction of a Jeju naval base project that was forced upon Gangjeong Village against their will.

The southern sea of Jeju is a critical geopolitical point linked to the Southeast Asian Sea. Since 2007, the South Korean government has been aggressively trying to build a naval base on top of the village and its precious environment despite the opposition of a strong majority of the villagers (94% of voters). The Jeju naval base construction project was pushed forward by the government without proper democratic consultation. A wide range of human rights abuses against peaceful protesters have been taking place in Gangjeong village on a daily basis to ensure that the construction goes ahead despite strong local opposition. This project is not only destroying the natural environment, but it is also jeopardizing the wellbeing and health of villagers. The once peaceful and prosperous seaside community of Gangjeong is now falling to pieces as the very foundations of its livelihood, the water and the land, are being destroyed. More importantly, the Jeju naval base project will contribute to the further militarization of the Asia Pacific region, increase tensions, and add to regional insecurity.

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Peace camp participants

In light of this, I participated in the “2018 Inter-Island Solidarity Peace Camp,” which was held from July 25 to 29 for four nights and five days. This camp is made up of activists from the islands of Jeju in Korea, Okinawa/Ishikagi in Japan, Taiwan, and Hawaii. Camp participants gather together for the peaceful, anti-nuclear, and unarmed peoples of each island to talk about the situation of their island and share common struggles. This year, the camp was made richer with attendees from Canada, the United States, Hong Kong, Ireland, Korea, and Japan. The camp, which first started in 2014, celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. This international Peace Camp has continued for five years because participants share a common struggle with military bases being built indiscriminately on each island due to pressure from the state power. I have known about this camp for years, but this was my first time attending. What I felt throughout the camp is that the pain we see in Gangjeong village is deeply connected to the pain of other islanders. We have all realized that opposing the militarization of our islands should not come from a local nationalistic point of view, but that people from around the world must work together to build an unarmed “sea of peace” for peaceful coexistence.

I found out later that the angry man who yelled at the “human chain” was there to visit his son who was serving at the naval base. After I learned that, I could understand his feeling to an extent. Our non-violent act of achieving peace can be understood as offensive to some. To narrow the gap of misunderstanding, we must continue to dance, sing, and maintain our solidarity through constant dialogue. Peace in Gangjeong is not comfortable. It is very tiring and hard and sometimes tedious.

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100 bows

Villagers and activists pray every morning at seven o’clock while bowing 100 times in their desire for peace, and they protest with dance and song as a “human chain” from 12:00 to 1:00 every day. And it’s been more than 4000 days since they began this protest. It was the same when I first visited Gangjeong five years ago. However, this persistent direct action is a new inspiration for some and challenge for others. It seems that these tedious processes are inevitably necessary to achieve peace. I believe that people encountered in this process are gathered and added to create the wind of peace. The reflection that I had throughout the camp was, “How will I carry out my actions in my daily life as I desire peace?” I did not get a clear answer by the end. However, more importantly, I met friends and colleagues who will say, “Let’s not be shaken by this, let’s concentrate” to one another as we walk this journey together to find the answer.

Thank you for your support and prayer. I hope that you will hold our hands to walk and dance with us in this peace journey. May God’s peace be with you.

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The Perils and Possibilities of Translation


The moderator of the Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK), Peter Prove, had just presented the proposal that I be appointed as the new EFK coordinator. The request for confirmation was now being translated from English into Korean for the North Korean delegation, and I have to admit I could not help but feel a twinge of apprehension as it seemed to take longer than I imagined translating what I thought was a simple question with a simple answer! I had earlier given a brief statement to introduce myself in front of the more than 40 forum members and observers from denominations and church institutions from various other countries. I went to sit at my round table next to some of the German and South Korean delegates, and our moderator was explaining that all the other members had already given tacit approval, so we were only waiting on North Korean confirmation. As I was sitting a few tables over, I watched the North Korean translator lean over to speak to the chair of their delegation. The translation took so long that I felt an awkward silence and I began to wonder, are they were having a conversation rather than a simple translation? Maybe they understood, but actually they were trying to figure out how to disapprove of the proposal?

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North Korean and South Korean delegates discuss potential ways to follow up on the governmental Panmunjom Declaration.

At this point, I should give some context. The Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK) is a forum hosted by the World Council of Churches (WCC) that is based on the face-to-face meetings between the National Council of Churches of South Korea and the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) of North Korea, which is the federation of Protestant Christians officially recognized by the North Korean government. These consultations including other international church partners began in 1984 in Tozanso, Japan, hence it is also referred to as the “Tozanso Process.” The North Koreans first attended at the 1986 consultation in Glion, Switzerland. Since then, they have met almost every year and later they created the EFK forum, whose longer name is the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, which also helped to expand membership to other international partner denominations and organizations. This year was the first EFK meeting since the Panmunjom Summit between North and South Korea and the North Korea-US Singapore Summit, so our discussions focused on follow-up to those summit agreements. (Panmunjom is the joint security village on the border of North and South Korea where the armistice agreement was signed and where the current leaders met this April.)


All participants of the EFK forum meeting in Geneva, June 2018, including members, observers, and staff.

This was my first experience of meeting people who currently live in North Korea.  I heard the chair of the KCF, Rev. Myong Chol Kang, present their delegation’s opening remarks for the meeting of this EFK meeting alongside the South Korean NCCK. They spoke of the positive reaction within North Korea to the news of the April Inter-Korean Summit and the DPRK-US Summit in Singapore in June, and the rising hope for an end to the war and peaceful reunification among the Korean people. He explained that justice and peace are not merely abstract concepts for North Koreans, but rather their spiritual lifeline. He affirmed that the Lord had taught us to be salt and light to the world in order to bring peace, which is why the KCF considers this ecumenical forum to be so important to them. He also emphasized the need for any denuclearization agreement to reference weapons of destruction on the entire peninsula, rather than the unilateral disarmament of North Korea. Both the NCCK and the WCC reiterated their concurrence with this position of denuclearization of the entire peninsula in their following presentations.

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EFK members on the way to our lake tour.

That evening, we took a boat tour on Lake Geneva, and I found the opportunity strike up more conversation as forum members gathered outside the boat to watch the sunset. Koreans in North and South speak the Korean language, but dialects differ as there are also different dialects within South Korea. To my dismay, after trying to use my Korean language, Rev. Kang immediately turned to my South Korean friend, Dr. Hyunju Bae and asked, “What is he trying to say?” My Korean wasn’t quite good enough to transcend the North-South border. That was quite a blow to my ego and the work I’ve put in to learning Korean.


The moment Kurt stuck his foot in his mouth.

I thought, maybe I can take this as an opportunity! If they ask me to make a comment when they announce the proposal for my appointment, I’ll mention that I hope to learn from them how to better communicate with them. I planned out what I would say, that I have learned the South Korean dialect of Korean, but I hope to learn the North Korean dialect from our sisters and brothers in the KCF, so we can understand each other. However, I used the Korean word “saturi” which means, “dialect,” to say, “I hope to learn North Korean saturi from you.” I found out that night “saturi” carries a diminutive connotation as if Seoul is the upper standard and all other “saturi” are deviations! So just before hearing the North Korean response to my appointment, I imply that they speak an inferior dialect. Another shot to my ego!

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Rev. Kang, a North Korean, preaching at a church we visited in Geneva to bring the forum to an end.

Then came the extra-long translation before Rev. Kang finally answered during which I began to sweat. Thankfully, despite me sticking my foot in my mouth, after the translation and the explanation of the need for an answer, Rev. Kang pronounced loudly in English, “I agree!” Thus, I became the new coordinator for the EFK. During that meeting, the EFK also set its vision to follow up on the Panmunjom Declaration of the two Korean leaders, to move from a “Tozanso Process” to a “Panmunjom Process.” The EFK will increase its focus on humanitarian exchanges inspired by the Panmunjom Declaration.

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Rev. Kang and me after our surprise meeting on the streets of Geneva.

The next day, I surprisingly met Rev. Kang and the KCF delegation walking around Geneva looking for a cafe to watch a World Cup match between England and Panama. He stepped out of a gift shop and greeted me heartily. I finally remembered to ask for a picture since I had not yet gotten one together with any of the KCF members. He agreed and said he looks forward to our next meeting, at least I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.


I want to thank you for all your support and prayers especially in this time of growing roles and appointments and international summits to end the war in Korea. I depend upon your gifts and support to cultivate these relationships across the boundaries of conflict, re-humanizing our images of each other. I hope to share more stories with you of God’s work for reconciliation on both sides of the Korean peninsula through the EFK in the future. Amen.

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NCCK Letter on Peace Summits

Dear Mr. Jim Winkler and The Rt. Rev W. Darin Moore,ncck peace campaign

I bring greetings from the member churches and organizations of the National Council of
Churches in Korea. First of all, let me express a deep gratitude to you, all the member churches of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and all Christians and peace-loving people in the US as you all have prayed and acted for peace-building on the Korean peninsula.

Since the national division in 1945 and the following Korean War of 1950-1953, we Korean people in North and South have sinned against one another, hating and even killing each other. For more than 70 years’ the division system has brought us unbearable pain and suffering. Above all, we always live with the fear of another war as the Korean peninsula has been a flash point in which the world super powers can clash at any time. Even until the end of last year, the fear of the nuclear war reached boiling point among Korean people with North Korea’s nuclear tests and the strong reactions of the US.

Since the PyeongChang Olympic Games, however, North and South have cultivated a peace momentum as we recognize, “the result of an extreme military confrontation would be a total catastrophe to not only the Korean people, but all people in the neighboring countries.” This peace momentum culminated in the two inter-Korean summit meetings on April 27 and on May 26 in which the two leaders agreed to “end the Korean War”, to “work on a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean peninsula”, and a “comprehensive denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Furthermore, two inter-Korean summit meetings have played a catalyst role in arranging the US-North Korea summit on June 12, even with the bumps in the road. Now it seems almost certain that President Trump is committed to the summit. Despite many obstacles ahead in consideration of 70 years of hostility, we Korean people strongly believe that the summit will be held as planned and it will address “the denuclearization process of North Korea and normalization of diplomatic relation” between the two countries.

We, the people in the Korean peninsula and the US, are situated at a kairotic moment of time in which the decades-long hostility dissipates, and an era of peace, reconciliation and prosperity shall blossom. However, we are all aware that we just began this long journey together on a new road. On this journey we will face dangers and obstacles lurking in the darkness, but we believe that God will eventually lead us to reconciliation and peace.

We are called by God as agents of peace, and this peace mission is not an option, but an
obligation for us Christians. Hence, let us lift all our hearts to sincerely pray and act for the success of the US-North Korea summit and peace on the Korean peninsula. Let us also bring all our sincere prayers for the whole world so that we can pull down this wall of hostility by Your grace.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14-16)

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Inspiration of the Korean Church’s 1988 Declaration

Shin opening

Rev. Shin Seung-min opens the conference day with announcements.

Our international gathering began with prayer and a devotion. Then Rev. Shin, Seung-min, my supervisor, announced that a South Korean government delegation had returned from a visit to North Korea and declared their meeting a success. The delegation would also soon head to Washington D.C. to deliver a message to President Trump in a move toward dialogue. (see video of the North-South meeting that just happened today!) The gathering welcomed such hopeful news, since the past two South Korean administrations had effectively closed the door to dialogue with the North. Elected on the wave of candlelight demonstrations for democracy, this new administration brings hope for new possibilities and peaceful reconciliation. We offered up another prayer and dedicated ourselves to continuing our work of building bridges across the conflict. As many participants knew from experience, the potential for meetings does not guarantee a solution, so we should continue to rely on God and continue the work of peacemaking to which God has called us.

Soon after Hyeyoung, Sahn, and I returned from our 6-month itineration to the US in mid-February, I began working on this conference. Our gathering was hosted by our partners, the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), in cooperation with the World Council of Churches (WCC) to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the creation of the 1988 “DECLARATION OF THE CHURCHES OF KOREA 1988 NCCK,” and to reflect on the need for renewed efforts to realize its vision. We heard some of the story of the creation of the declaration from a few of the authors who are still with us.

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Dr. David Suh stands with others who helped to create the 1988 Declaration.

Readers might recognize one of them, Dr. David Suh, whose story I shared in an earlier Mission Connections letter and in sermons given throughout our itineration trip to the US. Dr. Suh served as chief editor for the 1988 Declaration. He spoke to the conference about the NCCK’s efforts leading up to 1987 to resist South Korean authoritarian dictatorship and how their struggle to realize democracy as well as their first meetings with the North Korean Christian Federation beginning in 1986 informed their vision of faith and the vision for peace outlined in the Declaration. He explained how the dictatorship used Korea’s division and the resulting Korean War as a pretense by which efforts toward democracy were suppressed from 1945 through 1987, and that it continues as a strategy for anti-democracy forces in South Korea today. Dr. Suh also described the suppression they faced within churches as they worked for liberation from dictatorship. Hence, they included passages that address the need for their own confession and responsibility:

“We confess that the Christians of the south especially have sinned by turning anti-communist ideology into a virtual religious idol, and have thus not been content to treat the communist regime in the north as merely the enemy, but have further damned our northern compatriots and others whose ideologies differ from our own (John 13:14-15; 4:20-21).”

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Ms. Ko Wan Soon describes her experience during the Jeju massacres of 1948.

At other times in the conference, panel speakers also told stories of the pains of division they experienced throughout the years following liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945. One defector from North Korea, Mr. Hong Gang Chul, told of psychological manipulation and a forced false confession at the hands of the National Intelligence Service (Korea’s CIA). One woman, Ms. Ko Wan Soon, told of her experience on Jeju Island when almost all of her village was killed by South Korean soldiers in one day, January 17, 1949. She described walking past the dead bodies when South Korean soldiers brought her family out with other villagers to a space near the school. When her brother on her mother’s back began crying, a soldier brought his rifle down on his head, an injury he would die from three years later. She asked the group why the US and South Korea would allow such brutality to occur under their supervision.

Another panel speaker, Dr. Jeong Se-hyun, a former minister of unification for the Republic of Korea (South), not only spoke of his own experience in negotiations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North), but also provided a fuller account of the history of such negotiations than you might read in Western media. Participants were particularly taken aback by the mention that the United States had introduced nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958 in abrogation of the armistice agreement, thus sparking North Korea’s interest in acquiring its own nuclear deterrent. He described times during negotiations in which US or South Korean actions scuttled negotiations, such as implementing sanctions one day after releasing text of the September 19, 2005 agreement, after which North Korea turned back to development and tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006. Dr. Jeong also noted that the principles for reunification that the 1988 Declaration proclaimed — independence, peace, national unity, humanitarianism, and people’s participation — inspired South Korean government negotiators to adapt them for agreements with North Korea during previous North-South government summits on peace in Korea. The 1988 Declaration also helped to shape the policy of President Kim Dae-Jung and his administration. They used these principles in the June 15, 2000 North-South Joint Declaration (the “6.15 Declaration”), which laid out policies for unification approved by both North Korean and South Korean governments. For example, the humanitarianism and people’s participation principles of the 1988 Declaration inspired the 4th provision of the 6.15 Declaration that states, “The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.”

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Kurt Esslinger stands with Frank Hernando from the Philippines Church (UCCP) and Derek Duncan from the Disciples/UCC denomination from the US during a break in action.

To honor the spirit of offering a vision of God’s peace to the world, the conference approved a communique to share the lessons and hopes of the participants. Rev. Shin Seung-min asked me to submit the first draft of the communique, but thankfully a draft committee met to perfect the language and to incorporate further suggestions from conference reflection groups. The communique articulated a theology of peace and an invitation to Christians like you in its opening paragraph. As President Trump has now agreed to a summit with North Korea this May or early June, these words resonate:

“God’s vision for this world sees swords being beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4), nations gathering together under the light of God’s justice and peace, sisters and brothers once in conflict embracing each other, and all God’s children fearing neither hunger, nor thirst, nor threats of war. So long as nations practice invading each other, developing bombs and missiles to destroy each other, and refusing to sit at the table until unrealistic conditions are met then we move further away from God’s vision for our world. We invite Christians around the world and all people of goodwill to join us as we walk the path of peace with our God proclaiming the promise that God will one day redeem this whole creation.”

Your support through financial donations, prayer, and joining your voice with our partners in Korea and abroad helps keep us able to continue our ministry here in Korea. We thank you so much for all that you have given us so far. It provides us with the sails needed to catch the wind to follow the movement of God’s spirit. If you have not yet, we encourage you to consider joining our movement. May the Spirit move us on a course to God’s everlasting peace.

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