Facing North Korea

The rhetoric about North Korea is very different in South Korea

By Paul R. Dekar | 2004-01-01 12:00:00

In July of 2003 I spent a week in South Korea. The image of a beleaguered Korea that I brought from North America could not have been further from the reality I found. I was surprised by the absence of any sense of crisis on the part of ordinary South Koreans. I was also surprised by the unwavering commitment to the sunshine policy of former President Kim Dae Jung and by many grassroots programmes to promote reunification.

One of my hosts, a former McMaster student, serves as a chaplain to South Korea's armed forces. One afternoon we traveled together to two bases near the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. As we faced North Korea, evidence of military preparedness abounded, yet everyone with whom I talked discounted the rhetoric that names North Korea part of the so-called axis of evil.

This is not to say that North Korea does not pose a threat to peace. Nicholas Eberstadt's argument is plausible that credible military menace is at the heart of North Korea's strategy to survive.1

While I did not have enough data to assess North Korea's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons capability, I nonetheless heard loudly and clearly more criticism of US presence than of North Korea's nuclear posturing. South Koreans often recounted how two teenage girls died in 2002 after being hit by a U. S. military vehicle. That December the two soldiers whose vehicle killed the girls were acquitted of negligent homicide charges in US military courts. Throughout South Korea an estimated total of 250,000 people took to the streets, the tip of an iceberg of anti-US sentiment.

My visit coincided with the visit of President of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun to China for talks related to de-escalation of tensions between North and South Korea. The summit sought to open dialogue. The summit should advance humanitarian efforts like those that followed the June 2000 meetings Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il.2

South Koreans expressed many reasons for reunification. Many ached for news of loved ones in the North. Everyone with whom I talked understood that the division drains resources, fosters instability, and creates risks of accidental war. Everyone thought that reunification is a prerequisite for peace in the peninsula and region.

The revolutionary impact on globalization of technological advances, notably in weapons development, was a source of concern. The present threat of war has an omnicidal dimension. This is because war has become so total, and old distinctions between civilian and military or between the human sphere and the biosphere have become meaningless. Pressured by the United States, the government of South Korea may find it impossible to remain aloof from the so-called "war on terror." Despite the efforts of civil society such as the People's Forum, South Korea could experience greatly increased tension and a renewed arms race, and may yet find itself the theatre of nuclear war.

There are Muslim immigrants in Seoul

The main purpose of my all-too-brief trip to Korea was to participate in the opening of a new church related to the denomination for which I teach. Opportunities to address several audiences of students on nonviolence, reconciliation, and global resistance to the war in Iraq encouraged me. Overwhelmingly the youth with whom I entered into dialogue opposed moves on the part of South Korea's government to send troops to Iraq.

One reason articulated by those who oppose South Korea becoming more entangled with the so-called coalition of the willing was practical. South Koreans have developed extensive trade contacts in the Middle East. A Muslim population, largely of immigrants admitted on work visas and of asylum seekers, has been growing in South Korea. Imagine my surprise when I found a mosque near the home of my hosts. Like their response to the influx of North Korean refugees who escape to South Korea, primarily through China, ordinary Koreans bend over backward to welcome Muslims.

Less encouraging was my experience at two mega-churches, Yoido Full Gospel Church, with some 750,000 members the largest Christian church in the world, and Myunsung [Brightness] Presbyterian Church, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the world. These McDonaldized mega-churches have erected a chain of identical houses of worship under the influence of charismatic pastors concerned primarily with numerical growth. The leaders of these churches have ties with conservative evangelicals in the United States.

By contrast, the Christians with whom I dialogued seek the unification of Korea by Koreans themselves and without any external influence. They are looking for ways to achieve unification peacefully, to reunite separated families, and to promote economic, social, and cultural cooperation between the two countries.

I learned of concrete initiatives to further reunification. For example, the People's Forum on Peace for Life held workshops in 2003 in Seoul and elsewhere with the goal of creating a long-term process that is open, participatory, and Korean. Growing out of meetings under the Christian Conference of Asia umbrella, the People's Forum enables participants to frame a vision for future peace and security. One objective is to create an interfaith peace movement grounded on realism vis-à-vis the geopolitical situation.

My hosts embodied a theological current known as minjung, a Korean word that combines two Chinese characters min (people) and jung (mass). Minjung expresses the han not only of my hosts, but of the Korean people as a whole. Han is hard to translate but the meaning commonly ascribed to it is "to sigh with heartache." When I heard the word han used, my hosts referred to the collective experience of loss engendered by recent history of occupation by Japan, the Korean War, and the continued partition as well as of resignation amidst unyielding forces that separate the two Koreas.

Love in a Sea of Violence

I found it hopeful that South Koreans resist all effort to deny North Koreans the fullness of their humanity. As I prepared to return to North America, an image came to mind to describe my friends. They are islands of love in a sea of violence. The phrase was once used to describe the protestors who in the 1970s resisted the regime of President Park Chung Hee. Today, it characterizes the ever increasing numbers of Koreans in the North and the South who, though divided, yearn for healing, reconciliation, and transformation in the future and who live the power of nonviolence in the face of domination systems.


1 The End of North Korea (Washington: AEI, 1999)

2 See John Feffer and Karin Lee, "Building Peace in Korea" Peace Magazine vol.16, no.3 (July-September 2000): 6-8.

"Han" means " to sigh with heartache." That's their experience.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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