Korean churches seek peace and reunification for divided nation

By Juan Michel
August 12, 2007

While Korean Christianity has been making headlines because of the hostage crisis in Afghanistan, another dimension of the life and work of the Korean churches, which has gone largely unnoticed, is being recognized this week.

In recent years South Korean churches have come to be known for their spectacular growth rate, which is the fastest of any nation in Asia. Less known is the role Korea's mainline churches have played in working for peace and reunification of their divided country.

In two conferences this week and next the churches in Korea will be celebrating 100 years since the great revival of 1907 and, in a second meeting, the churches' continuing role in the reunification of Korea.

For Geo-Sung Kim, chairperson of Transparency International Korea and a pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea, the most serious obstacles to achieving the country's reunification are the "barbed wire entanglements within our hearts".

After World War II and liberation from Japanese rule, Korea was partitioned into two military occupation zones, with the Soviet Union governing the north and the United States the south. This separation not only split the country politically and ideologically, but separated millions of families and divided the churches.

The Korean War, 1950 to 1953, deepened the division between what would become communist North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and capitalist South Korea (the Republic of Korea). The war ended with the signing of an armistice agreement which meant fighting stopped but the two countries remained technically at war.

To this day a peace treaty has never replaced the armistice. However, in 1991 the two Koreas did sign a non-aggression pact and joined the United Nations.

From the early days of the separation the churches of South Korea have pioneered in peace-making efforts and addressed the issue of reunification at a time when the subject was seldom openly discussed in their country.

The churches were reacting to what the Korean church leader Jae-Woong Ahn, former general secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia, called "a tragedy and a painful reality for people living on both sides". While the two Koreas were technically still at war, about ten million families remained separated and paid a huge human cost for division between North and South.

A landmark in the history of the Korean churches' struggle for reunificatio n was the 1984 "Peace and Justice in North-East Asia" consultation held in Tozanso, Japan. Convened by the World Council of Churches (WCC) the event set the stage for face to face talks between Christians from north and south Korea two years later in Glion, Switzerland.

Held in a context of high tensions and efforts on all sides to demonize "the other", these consultations started what was called the Tozanso process, later regarded by many as the precursor of Korean rapprochement.

At the time, the meetings were viewed not only as a new chapter in the ecumenical movement in the Koreas and around the world, but served as examples of how being a witness for peace is integral to Christian faith.

The wider ecumenical family supported this process by working to break down "enemy images" and "ideological walls" while at the same time advocating for an end to the arms race, the denuclearization of the peninsula and reunification by peaceful means based on the democratic participation of all Koreans.

Two decades later, the situation has significantly changed in both Koreas.

South Korea is a democracy - an achievement to which the country's churches contributed - and a number of factors have brought the South and the North closer. Notable among these was former president Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North in the 1990's which led to a historic inter-Korean summit in 2000.

But the events of September 11, 2001 marked a setback to positive developments on the Korean peninsula. Included by U.S. president George W. Bush in his "axis of evil" speech in 2002, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

Only in February 2007, in the context of the Six Party Talks - launched in 2003 and comprising both Koreas, Russia, Japan, China and the US - has North Korea committed itself to some steps towards denuclearization in return for energy and economic aid.

This week South Korea officials announced that a second summit with leaders from the North was set for Aug. 29-30 to aid in discussions about the international efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

"We have come a long way since the epoch when discussion of reunification was considered an offence, and time has proved that the churches' principled stand on this issue was prophetic," says WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia in his address today in Seoul at the International Consultatio n on the Role of Churches in Peace and Unification. "But today the struggle for peace and reunification has to continue in a much more complex geopolitical landscape." (See the WCC website for full text of Kobia's speech: http://www.oikoumene.org/index.php?id=3955 )

Sponsored by an ad-hoc group of 24 churches, the consultation was part of a wider commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Korea's great evangelical revival of 1907.

The trauma of the Korean War together with the anti-communism prevalent in society and the churches create a "social atmosphere of antagonism" regarding the North. This leads many to promote "reunification through absorption" as well as an "aggressive missionary work", Geo-Sung Kim said.

The obstacles to reunification are of both a political and spiritual nature. The 1907 revival was - in a bit of historical irony - centred in Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea.

Among the political challenges facing Korea are the geopolitical interests of powerful neighbours like Japan, China and Russia, as well as the US, according to Soo-il Chai, professor of missiology and ecumenics at the Hanshin University and member of the WCC's Commission of Churches on International Affairs. "The longer Korea remains divided, the better for the strategic and economic goals of the superpowers," he says.

Both Kim and Chai believe that achieving reunification will take several decades. They both think it will be the result of a "step by step" process of building mutual trust and a culture of peace, as well as of strengthenin g economic cooperation, which should improve the quality of life in North Korea.

International ecumenical advocacy should include helping North Korea move beyond its isolation and being better integrated into the international community, says Chai. He would also like to see greater support for North Korean Christians in order to help them improve their standing in society.

Meanwhile, churches in the South - and the wider ecumenical family - have pledged to continue helping the North with humanitarian aid and by praying for peace and reunification, as many have been doing for decades.


Juan Michel, World Council of Churches' media relations officer, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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