The Struggle for Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula

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Introduction

The 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) took place in Busan, Republic of Korea, from 30 October to 8 November 2013. I had the privilege to participate in the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI), which brought together about 160 participants from all regions of the world and various Christian denominations. This program was carried out parallel with the Assembly in Seoul and Busan. GETI was designed to bring young theologians to the Assembly for an intensive ecumenical discourse. Its curriculum focused on the future of ecumenism and the transformation of world Christianity in the 21st century and was geared to the theme of the WCC Assembly “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”1

GETI has become a place for ecumenical leadership formation, intense theological learning and mutual dialogue, as well as intergenerational dialogue with important heads of the ecumenical movement. GETI was a special initiative which was prepared and supported by the Ecumenical Theological Education (ETE) program of the World Council of Churches in cooperation with Bossey Ecumenical Institute and a network of theological institutions both in Korea and abroad. Along with the lectures given during GETI, the participants were assigned into seminar groups to discuss various issues in light of the ecumenical visions for the 21st century. The participants had faculty mentors who led the seminar groups and facilitated the paper presentations. Seminar sessions provided excellent opportunities to reflect with other participants challenges of the ecumenical movement. This provided a rich vantage point as we listened to each other’s voice from varied contexts and perspectives. Personally, Busan was my hometown where I was given birth, and Seoul was my home since I was one year old until graduation from college. So, this journey literally meant coming home to me.

The Assembly, as a whole, provided space for celebration, dialogue and reflection through common prayer, bible studies, thematic plenaries, ecumenical conversations, business sessions, workshops, a weekend pilgrimage with the Korean churches, and the madang exhibition hall (a Korean term for a courtyard in a traditional home which is used for encounter, sharing, greeting a visitor and welcoming a stranger). Ecumenical conversations, in particular, engaged Assembly participants in sustained and in-depth dialogue on critical issues that affect the mission and witness of the church today – issues that require a common response. The results of the conversations would help to guide future ecumenical cooperation. There were 21 ecumenical conversations. Each conversation focused on an unique topic and provided four ninety-minute sessions. Among these ecumenical conversations, one was The Korean Peninsula: ecumenical solidarity for justice and peace, in which I had the opportunity to take part. The delegates discussed the impact of the tense situation on the Korean peninsula on other regions of the world and how to strengthen ecumenical networks that could promote a vision of unity. As a result, the Korean peninsula was one of the topics of the public statements at the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan. Through the statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula, churches “call upon all stakeholders in the region to participate in a creative process for building peace on the Korean peninsula by halting all military exercises on the Korean peninsula, by ceasing foreign intervention, withdrawing foreign troops and reducing military expenditures.”2

The WCC Assembly in Busan and the Reunification of Korea

The Assembly also highlighted the significance of peace. During the peace plenary session, the Korean theologian Chang Yoon Jae spoke about peace on the Korean peninsula. He urged to advance beyond the Korean armistice agreement of 1953. After the armistice Koreans are still living in fear of war. He stated there needed to be a transition from unfinished war to permanent peace.3 Chang added that, in order to achieve peace, we need a world free of nuclear power plants and weapons. Since the WCC Assembly in India in 1961, the number of nuclear powers in the region has more than doubled. Chang asserted: “Nuclear weapons cannot co-exist with peace and Christian faith.”4

The Peace Train was another initiative for peace and reconciliation of the Korean peninsula. It was sponsored by the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) and the Korean Host Committee for the WCC Assembly. The project aimed to raise awareness of the 60-year division of the Korean peninsula. Around 130 people from 15 countries participated in the event. The train started its journey in Berlin, Germany on 9 October and travelled through Moscow, Irkutsk, Beijing, Dandong and Seoul, before it finally arrived in Busan on 28 October prior to the beginning of the Assembly. A friend of mine joined this pilgrimage, so I was able to listen to first-hand stories from the journey. After the train arrived in Beijing, the initiators had originally planned to go on to North Korea’s capital Pyongyang by plane. They had hoped for the permission from North Korea up to the final minute – but it did not come. Instead, the participants travelled by train to the Chinese city of Dandong, located on the border with North Korea, where they held a church service with a Chinese community that also included North Koreans. They then took a ferry to the South Korean port of Incheon, and continued by bus to Seoul. The group completed the last stage to Busan by train again. The participants were somewhat disappointed about not having been able to make the journey to Pyongyang; however, this project was a success. “The trip is an initial impetus,’ said one of the participants, and he added: ‘our commitment will continue.”5

The weekend pilgrimage program of the Assembly was a unique experience with the Korean host churches. On Saturday 2 November 2013, more than 800 participants joined in a pilgrimage of peace to Seoul, expressing solidarity with the people of Korea and endorsing the worldwide call for the unification of the Korean peninsula. The group moved to the pond at Imjingak, where participants gathered under the bridge which is the front line of division. This spot “integrated the past, present and future.”6 At the bridge, the pilgrims shared messages of peace. Singing together, they offered a hymn called Now go in peace as they placed ribbons with a prayer for peace on the iron fence along the military demarcation line, adding to the thousands of ribbons already present on the fence. It was a powerful symbol of solidarity amidst of hostility.

Korea, my home country, is the last country still divided as a consequence of the Cold War ideology. Since 1945, Korea has become an “indicator of the state of peace and security in the world.”7 God’s intention for the world is shalom – justice and peace for all creation; yet the world is wounded by violence and broken by war. Forces of brutality and aggression are at work in all areas of human life, even within the church. Christ came to break down dividing walls of hostility and to establish God’s reconciliation in the world. All who follow Christ are called to live as peacemakers in a world that lacks the deep reality of God’s concord and unity. As we live in unity with brothers and sisters around the world, working ecumenically to overcome violence, we both embody and proclaim the fullness of the Lord’s peace. Rodney Peterson, executive director of the Boston Theological Institute, urged in his powerful lecture Reconciliation as an Ecumenical Key Mandate: Is Forgiveness Possible? during a GETI session that “reconciliation is the resolution of violence.’8

Ecumenical Conversation on the Korean Peninsula

Among various subjects, the ecumenical conversation on The Korean Peninsula: Towards an Ecumenical Accompaniment for Building Justice and Peace drew many people’s attention. According to the reference document of this conversation, the aim was to promote ecumenical accompaniment for building justice and peace on the Korean peninsula and to foster reconciliation with a vision towards future reunification. The participants were introduced to the range of initiatives undertaken by the Korean churches and ecumenical bodies. Each gathering of this conversation consisted of an opening and closing prayer, a plenary session, buzz group discussion, presentation of report and feedback.

The conversation allowed me to meet various ecumenical leaders from the Korean churches and all over the world. It was a wonderful experience, for example, to listen to Erich Weingartner who began to plan what has come to be known as the Tozanso Consultation. This consultation was held in the city of Tozanso, Japan in 1984 on Peace and Justice in Northeast Asia. Despite the walls of separation that were both physical and spiritual, Tozanso initiated lines of communication between Christians of North and South Korea. Weingartner recalled that the Tozanso consultation was the most tension-filled event of his entire WCC career. He continued: “To the very end, there was nervousness, fear and resistance to what everyone knew would have to be the next step. In prayers both public and private, we wrestled like Jacob for God’s wisdom and blessing to assure us that the moment of kairos had really come.”9 Weingartner, in conclusion, emphasized the importance of ecumenical accompaniment. According to him, “above all, accompaniment means being there for them as sisters and brothers, in sickness and in health, through trials and triumphs, without judgment or prejudice. Ecumenical accompaniment is about being witnesses of hope in the midst of despair.”10 The outcome of this consultation was accepted by the ecumenical community and became known under the name Tozanso Discipline.

The confidence built in the subsequent Tozanso Process, enabled representatives of the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) from North Korea to travel four times to the USA between 1989 and 1997 for official meetings with US church counterparts. These ecumenical efforts opened the way for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) officials to request the WCC international humanitarian assistance for flood victims. WCC’s involvement in Korea was certainly a unique ecumenical story that deserves to be documented. Important aspects of this effort which could serve as lessons for ecumenical methodology include: unity among partners within and out of Korea; clear objectives around which the actors coalesced; well-defined strategy and discipline in implementation; identified roles and responsibilities for the network of supporters; excellent coordination in the implementation of the strategy. The Tozanso process placed the WCC at the centre of the unfolding drama still being played out on the peninsula. Not only has it been for three decades a pioneer in promoting peace and unification in North East Asia, it has also developed a unique access to the political authorities on both sides. The situation calls for a renewed commitment for justice, peace and reconciliation of the Korean peninsula.

The WCC Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula

It is noteworthy that the delegates of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches adopted the Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula, bearing witness to the suffering of the Korean people through decades of violence caused by war and hostility that have left them divided into two nations. The statement pointed out that “the present situation in the Korean peninsula prompted us to a renewed engagement in efforts to work for justice and peace throughout the region and for the reunification of a divided Korea.”11

“Changing geopolitical dynamics among the four major powers – the United States and the three other ‘power poles’ China, Japan and Russia – can stifle the aspirations and hopes of the Korean people for peace and reunification. Increasing arms build-ups in several Asian countries make this one of the fastest growing regions for military spending in the world, including nuclear arms and high-tech weapons of mass destruction. The peace we envision is a condition of justice embracing the whole of life and restoring harmony among neighbours. We are convinced that it is the right time to begin a new process towards a comprehensive peace treaty that will replace the 1953 armistice agreement and secure just and peaceful relations among nations in the region while normalizing relations between North and South, and facilitating Korean reunification.”12 The Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula affirmed “that as we pray with and for the people of Korea, the churches and ecumenical partners have a specific responsibility towards working together for peace and reconciliation in the Korean peninsula with renewed energy, in close partnership and transparent relationships with each other and with the churches and Christians in both North and South Korea, the National Council of Churches in Korea and the Korean Christian Federation.”13

The message of the WCC Assembly also refers to Korea.14 Describing their time in Busan and other parts of the country, the delegates of the 10th Assembly declared: “We share our experience of the search for unity in Korea as a sign of hope in the world. This is not the only land where people live divided, in poverty and richness, happiness and violence, welfare and war. We are not allowed to close our eyes to harsh realities or to rest our hands from God’s transforming work. As a fellowship, the World Council of Churches stands in solidarity with the people and the churches in the Korean peninsula, and with all who strive for justice and peace.”15

Conclusion

Participating in the GETI program alongside the 10th Assembly of the WCC was not only a homecoming time for me, but a pilgrimage on a faith journey. As WCC staff Guillermo Kerber said: “A pilgrimage is always a transformative experience.”16 After this once-in-a-lifetime event, I came back to my American home filled with enormous energy. My new obligation has begun. It is not a lonely endeavour. It is a journey for reconciliation which gives us courage to heal the divisions between the churches. This ecumenical solidarity will lead us to peaceful co-existence and finally full visible unity. God of life, lead us to justice and peace.’

 

Jieun Kim Han

MDiv (Presbyterian)

Note: This article originally appears in _____________________!


  1.  http://wcc2013.info/en/news-media/all-news/theological-education-initiative-begins-in-seoul (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  2.  http://wcc2013.info/en/news-media/all-news/wcc-assembly-addresses-contemporary-public (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  3.  http://wcc2013.info/en/news-media/all-news/busan-assembly-highlights-significance-of-peace (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  4.  Ibid. 
  5.  http://wcc2013.info/en/news-media/all-news/by-train-to-busan-journeying-for-peace-in-korea (accessed 18 July 2015). (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  6.  http://wcc2013.info/en/news-media/all-news/wcc-assembly-participants-make-pilgrimage-for-peace-on-korean-peninsula (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  7.  In: Lorke, Mélisande/ Werner, Dietrich (eds.): Ecumenical Visions for the 21st Century. A Reader for Theological Education, Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013, 41. 
  8.  Peterson, Rodney, Reconciliation as an Ecumenical Key Mandate. Is Forgiveness Possible?, GETI Keynote Lecture, World Council of Churches 10th Assembly, Busan, Korea, 31 October 2013. 
  9.  Weingartner, Erich, Ecumenical Accompaniment for Building Justice and Peace in Korea, Ecumenical Conversation plenary lecture, World Council of Churches 10th Assembly, Busan, Korea, 4 November 2013. 
  10.  Ibid. 
  11.  http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/2013-busan/adopted-documents-statements/peace-and-reunification-of-the-korean-peninsula (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  12.  Ibid. 
  13.  http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/2013-busan/adopted-documents-statements/peace-and-reunification-of-the-korean-peninsula (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  14.  http://wcc2013.info/en/news-media/all-news/message-of-the-wcc-assembly-201cwe-intend-to-move-together201d (accessed 18 July 2015). 
  15.  Ibid. 
  16.  http://wcc2013.info/en/news-media/all-news/peace-train-takes-a-journey-towards-reunification-of-koreas (accessed 18 July 2015). 


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