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?

Group 1

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.

2018-06-22 18.27.31

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!

2018-06-23 18.20.21

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.

Kang and Kurt WEB

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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