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.

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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!
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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.)

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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.

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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

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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.”

break time

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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Threats of Destruction and Stories of Hope

Hyeyoung Boston joint worship

Hyeyoung presents at a joint worship of a Korean church and Multi-cultural church in Boston.

Hyeyoung, Sahn, and I have been traveling the US now for four months. We are nearing the end of our six-month itineration trip of visiting churches and sharing the stories of the work we are doing alongside our partners in Korea. Our visit to the US began with a note of some trepidation in August. Our plane from Seoul arrived in Atlanta late in the evening, so we went straight to the Mission Haven house that would be our base of operations for a well-earned sleep after a 13-hour flight. We woke up the next morning to see that President Trump had given a press conference in which he threatened North Korea with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen” if North Korea threatens the US again. North Korea immediately responded that they would prepare to strike the US territory of Guam if the US moved toward a pre-emptive strike. The world media then collectively forgot the conditional nature of North Korea’s response, and they tried to tell the world that North Korea would definitely strike US territory. Subsequently, we met with many anxious and concerned US Presbyterians as we began our visits to churches in the US soon after.

We found a heightened interest in our work in Korea and received a flurry of questions at each community we visited, and we felt a renewed sense of the need to share the stories of hope that we bring from Korea. As usual, most people in the US have only heard about the threats of war, as most media merely share stories of conflict. They share little about the Koreans consistently calling for dialogue and negotiations to bridge the gap of the conflict and find resolution without the need for war, leading people to assume erroneously that violence is the only way to solve this conflict.

The most common question we received from supporters in the US focused on how Koreans in Korea are feeling with the increased threats of war. We talk about how, for Koreans, life simply goes on. A visitor would not be able to feel much of the anxiety of possible war arriving in Korea, as Koreans have learned to live their lives with decades of threats of war. Many in Korea feel anxiety, but they have learned to keep it under the surface. When they hear comments like that from Senator Lindsey Graham, “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there,” then many South Koreans wonder whether it is worth spending energy on worry. If someone is going to push the button across the ocean, they may feel their anxiety will not do much good if they will be vaporized anyway.

Kurt Athens

Kurt presents at First Presbyterian of Athens, Texas.

In this darkness, Hyeyoung and I share the stories of our Korean partners like Emily and the village of Gangjeong who continue to exert their strength in creating a peace community, hosting conferences, and training Korean and international groups in building a peace community despite having part of the village taken away to build a naval base. We share the story of our former YAV, Simon Doong, who responded to the suggestion of our partners in Korea that we participate in the candlelight demonstrations in Seoul demanding the South Korean president be held accountable to justice and democracy. He now volunteers as a second year YAV at the New York site and is placed at the PC(USA) Ministry at the United Nations. We also share the story of Dr. David Suh who went through the experience of transforming his hate and desire for revenge against his North Korean enemies into love and reaching out in compassion to build humanizing relationships alongside our partners, the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK).

As threats of war increase, partners such as the NCCK increase their urgency in asking partners around the world like us in the USA to help convince our leaders to turn from threats of war and instead build authentic bridges of humanizing relationships to resolve the conflict and establish a peace treaty. Even if our leaders refuse to do so, we nonetheless endeavor to build those relationships ourselves, learning about the untold stories of the conflict to better understand what successful solutions could look like.

War vets peace treaty

Korean War Veterans add their names to the NCCK Peace Treaty Campaign.

We have seen amazing responses, such as a group of Korean War veterans who, after hearing each of our stories, walked up and signed the NCCK’s petition to the US administration for entering negotiations for a peace treaty without pre-conditions blocking the dialogue.

In this way we embody the inquiry of the prophet Habakkuk, who brought the question to God, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” We also embody the response that Habakkuk received from God, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”

Thus, we wait for the promise of God and for justice. We wait to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace into our lives, but we do not wait passively. We actively write the vision, creating that reality with the power God has given us. We hold the light in the darkness so that the darkness may not overcome it, no matter how small our light seems to be.

We thank you again for your support this year with prayers, donations, and hosting our family on these visits and filling us with good warm food and compassion. With you alongside us on this journey, we are reminded of the power of the Spirit to inspire and fill us with the passion necessary to transform narratives of hate into narratives of hope.

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