Koreans are ready for peace, reconciliation and unification, but those hopes are riding on what happens next between North Korea’s Kim Jung Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, Christian experts on Korea have told The Catholic Register.
Leaders of North and South Korea moved toward reconciliation April 27 when they signed a declaration to work toward “permanent” peace and “complete denuclearization” on the peninsula. The two sides have committed to negotiations that would include the United States and China in order to officially end the 1950-53 Korean war.
“It is such a great moment in Korean history,” Presbyterian pastor and ecumenical theologian Rev. Kwang Sun wrote in an email from Seoul.
“Without meeting, dialogue and friendship, how do you make a further step to build up peace on the Korean peninsula?” he asked. “Meeting is the first step toward national unity, which is the final goal.”
But South Koreans are not naive about the negotiating tactics or the ambitions of North Korea’s iron-fisted regime, said Rev. Young-Suck Simon Moon, a permanent deacon at St. Agnes Kim Korean Parish in Coquitlam, B.C.
Before his retirement in 2016, Moon chaired the department of international relations in South Korea’s Kangnam University and founded the Canadian Studies program at the university. He still serves as vice-president of the Society of Catholic Theology and Thought in Korea and has been a member of South Korea’s special advisory committee for the Ministry of Unification.
“North Korea has used diplomatic coercion and brinkmanship, twinned with offers of talks and demands for concessions to cheat their way to a nuclear arsenal,” said Moon.
Pope Francis, calling the dialogue between the nations a “courageous commitment,” has asked Catholics worldwide to join him in praying a rosary for peace during the month of May, particularly for peace on the Korean peninsula, in Nigeria and in Syria. Prior to the dramatic April 27 meeting between South Korean president Moon Jae-In and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, the Pope urged “transparent dialogue.”
In words reminiscent of Pope Paul VI, Pope Francis urged the Korean leaders to “have the courage that comes from hope, becoming ‘artisans’ of peace.”
Even if Koreans are now talking, much rests on what happens when Trump is added to the mix, said Moon.
“It is impossible to overestimate the suspicion that exists between North Korea and the U.S. 70 years after the end of the Korean War,” Moon wrote in an email. “There’s a real chance Trump could be walking into a massive trap. Trump’s own inexperience in high-stakes diplomatic negotiations increases the size of his gamble.”
For Christians in South Korea the prospect of a peace treaty and eventual reunification is exciting but challenging, said Sun.
“The denuclearization process is more complicated, since another important key is held in the hands of Mr. Trump,” he said.
The large Christian minority (more than 40 per cent of the population in South Korea, but a persecuted and vanishing presence in the North) has often been a force for peace and reconciliation, said Sun.
“A voice of peace undercut by church divisions,” is how Sun describes South Korea’s Christians. “Conservative Christians, either Catholic or Protestant, reveal their negative response to the peace process in Korea. On the other hand, many Christians hope to establish a peaceful and united Korea.
“The river of peace is flowing and we Koreans will praise God. . . . The Korean church has continuously prayed for this issue of peace for several decades. For my congregation, I put this agenda of the border summit on the church bulletin for April. We have prayed together during the public worship services.”
In the North, where Moon has visited several times with official South Korean delegations, prayers for peace are drowned out by the Kim regime’s constant presence in every aspect of daily life.
“North Korea is entirely a police state and people were struggling for food,” Moon said “North Korea’s Stalinist system is based on total devotion of the individual to an ideology. . . . Many outsiders say the ideology largely resembles a religion or cult and refugees’ accounts say those who oppose it are dealt with severely, often ending up in prison camps.”
Moon believes the best hope for a productive dialogue between Kim and Trump may be in Pope Francis’ April 29 suggestion that a third country should mediate between them. Canada has had official diplomatic ties with North Korea since 2001, though it has not yet established an embassy in Pyongyang.
Religion is not irrelevant to the peace and denuclearization process, said Moon.
“When Mr. Moon Jae-In was elected to be president of South Korea in May 2017, I proposed to president-elect Moon’s camp they send a special envoy to deliver his personal greetings to Pope Francis,” he said.
“Mr. Moon is a practising Catholic and he accepted my idea and named Archbishop Kim Hee-Joong as a special envoy to deliver the new South Korean government’s active intention to strengthen their co-operation for peace and security of the Korean peninsula.”