Conference explores search for peace in northeast Asia and reunification of Korea

May 9, 2002

'We are eyeball to eyeball with the enemy every day,' said the young American soldier assigned to take groups into the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea at Panmunjom. He said that a thousand tourists come through the zone on a good day, many of them veterans. The border--4 km deep by 250 km from coast to coast and bristling with landmines--represents one of the tensest military confrontations in the world.

Straddling the border, exactly on the 38th parallel, is a Quonset hut. Inside is the famous table where the cease-fire ending the Korean War was hammered out in 1953. The border is now guarded by an international force of 550, about 60 percent from South Korea. No peace treaty was ever signed so this brutal war that claimed almost two million lives is unfinished business for Koreans.

'It is like a museum of the Cold War,' said Bishop Richard Shimpfky of El Camino Real, chair of the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He and commission members Louie Crew (Newark) and Mary Miller (Maryland) visited Japan and Korea April 16-26 at the invitation of partner churches to look at the continuing tensions in northeast Asia and the hopes for reunification of Korea.

'Our people are living in a very dangerous period of history,' said the Rev. Guen Seok Yang, vice president of Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. The school and the Anglican Church of Korea were hosts for a two-day conference on 'the peaceful reunification of Korea and the peace in Northeast Asia.' He added, 'In the next years agreements between the Americans and North Korea expire and must be clarified, adding to the tensions.' In March the Bush administration said that it would not certify that North Korea was living up to commitments made in 1994 to halt its nuclear program.

When President George W. Bush identified North Korea as part of the 'axis of evil' in his State of the Union speech last January, it sent a deep chill through the region, stalling what many had hoped was a promising thaw in relations. Although the United States denied that it had any plans to invade, North Korea has moved an estimated 70 percent of its troops closer to the border with South Korea, within easy missile range of Seoul, just 40 km away.

Ambassador says reunification still the goal

'It is obvious why we have a military presence--in an effort to preserve freedom,' Ambassador Thomas Hubbard said in a briefing for the American, South Korean and Japanese religious leaders. 'We are here at the request of the South Koreans.' He said that there are about 37,000 U.S. troops at over 90 bases and installations.

When asked about allegations by some South Koreans that the bases are causing significant damage to the environment, the ambassador said that the dilemma is that the troops must train. 'We try to maintain a presence that's as efficient as possible, with the least damage to the environment. We want to be good guests but we are here for a purpose.'

Hubbard said that the U.S. is currently upgrading its bases and hopes to return about 60 percent of the land it has been using. (Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a news wire story that the large base at Yongsan in downtown Seoul would probably be moved because of concerns over congestion and environmental damage.)

Everyone still hopes for a peaceful reunification on the Korean peninsula, Hubbard said, but 'North Korea is still building dangerous weapons while starving its people. Its missiles are a threat to the whole region and there is deep concern about their continuing development and deployment.'

Yet the ambassador added, 'We are prepared to talk and we have no intention of invading or attacking North Korea.' Hubbard admitted that the South Koreans were angry at Bush's 'axis of evil' comments--and noted that Bush was surprised by the negative reaction during his recent visit to the region. He pointed out that South Korea has been 'tremendously successful, with sustained growth,' arguing that there is 'more substantive continuity in U.S. policy.' The goal is still to reduce tension and build reconciliation while dealing with arms proliferation and terrorism, he said. 'The military presence has prevented war for 50 years while we are still groping for ways to solve other issues.'

Hubbard concluded, 'It's hard to be optimistic about North Korea but we think it's in their best interest to open up.' He doubted that they would submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Commission, however. The North Koreans are developing a light water reactor for energy but will need international assistance to complete the project. (The ambassador also shared a highly critical report on religious freedom in North Korea released in April by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.)

Site visits sharpen the issues

Several site visits put some of the issues into stark relief for commission members. An Air Force firing range on the coast near the village of Meahyang-ri has been a bone of contention since it was opened in 1952. At a meeting with village leaders, the visitors were told that the bombing sometimes goes on for 13 hours a day with up to 400 flights, making it 'a battlefield hell for villagers.'

Several serious accidents in recent years have led to organized demonstrations. In June 2001 over 3,500 people formed a human belt around the firing range, drawing international attention and comparisons with the firing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Villagers have also had some success filing lawsuits for compensation in Korean courts.

One leader of the opposition to U.S. military presence showed the group a 'tank killer,' a powerful shell with a radioactive tip--part of the ordnance that is contributing to environmental damage. Villagers have made a 'Korean God of Liberty' from fragments they have collected from the firing range.

Near Camp Stanley south of Seoul the group visited 'My Sister's Place,' a haven for an estimated 200 prostitutes working in the area, most of them from Russia and the Philippines. The hosts described a brutal murder of a prostitute a few years ago by an American soldier who was quickly sent home as the evidence mounted against him.

On their way to Korea commission members had visited a huge U.S. Navy base at Yokosura, just outside of Tokyo, described by local church leaders as the most advanced in the world. They said that pollution at the base had become a major problem. Protests had blocked attempts to expand the base--but only temporarily since the Japanese government supports the military presence.

In fact, the church leaders pointed to controversial legislation in the Diet (Japan's parliament) that would give the Japanese Defense Forces more flexibility in responding to crises. They regarded the legislation as part of a growing tendency toward militarism.

Members of the commission sent a short statement to a peace rally being held in Tokyo on April 19 to protest the legislation, urging Japan 'not to follow the example of the United States of eroding individual rights, including the right of conscientious dissent. We urge you today, as fellow peacemakers, to resist efforts to rearm Japan.'

Shrine visit stirs painful memories

When Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a monument of the nation's indigenous Shinto religion and a magnet for nationalists who glorify the emperor, the growth of militarism suddenly became an international issue. The surprise visit provoked bad memories and alarm among nations who had suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism--especially South Korea and China. In defending the visit, Koizumi said that 'the purpose was to pay respect to those who left behind family and sacrificed their lives for the nation' but a spokesman for the opposition said that it was 'an attack on peace in northeast Asia.' At least 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni. With his approval rating hovering near 40 percent, some were convinced that Koizumi was attempting to shore up his conservative support.

China responded quickly by saying the visit 'hurts the Chinese people's feelings and is an erroneous action that damages ties between Japan and China. People will not easily forget the savage behavior of Imperial Japan in the Pacific area.'

South Korea had only begun to reconcile itself with the Japanese after the prime minister visited the shrine last August. Japan's occupation of Korea for 35 years was particularly brutal. Many saw the visit as risky, coming only six weeks before the opening of the World Cup soccer tournament, jointly sponsored by Japan and Korea. National flags are flying everywhere in Seoul and a new park just opened surrounding the huge World Cup Stadium. A stunning new airport opened a year ago at Inchon, site of General Douglas MacArthur's bold landing that changed the course of the Korean War.

Japanese militarism growing issue

Japanese militarism was the theme of a major presentation by Professor Heok-Tae Kwon of Sungkonghoe University, founded by Anglicans about 10 years ago. He said that militarism and nationalism had always been a part of Japanese society but now it is spilling over to other institutions as well, especially those democratic forces that have provided a 'defensive wall' against the right wing. The U.S. wants Japan to shoulder some of the military costs and risks of maintaining a military presence in the region--but that contributes to the rise of a new brand of militarism and could substantially alter the relationship between the two countries. It will also complicate relations with Korea because the right wing has always thought of Korea as a weapon, poised and ready to stab Japan.

Noting the flush of optimism prompted by the meeting almost two years ago of the leaders from both North and South Korea, Professor Wook-Shik Jung said that the region was still 'the last threshold of the Cold War,' where there is still much talk of a war breaking out at any time. 'The political climate is inclement right now,' he said in his keynote speech.

Jung argued that South Koreans don't think that the North has done anything in recent years to undermine U.S. interests in the region. Yet he is convinced that the Bush administration doesn't seem to see any possibilities of change through diplomacy so they are ready to use force instead. As a result, he said that 'we are standing at a dangerous crossroads.' A Cold War mentality still persists and the hard-line attitudes of the United States create an environment where dialogue is very difficult.

Jung said that North Korea has been weakened because of the economic crisis of the late 1990s and they now realize that they would not be able to win a war on the peninsula. As a result, they are sending signals that they would abandon the export of missiles if the U.S. would compensate them--if not with cash, then with food. 'They can't make weapons with food,' Jung said.

In response, the Rev. Brian Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Peace and Justice Ministries, said that might be difficult since 'Bush's political base is ideological, defining everything as a battle between good and evil. And the terrorist attacks of September 11 have given new meaning and reinforcement of his ideology. That's the challenge to those who are concerned for world peace, greatly complicating our work in places such as the Middle East.'

The Rev. Sam Koshiishi, general secretary of Japan's Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican), said that there is a strong sentiment against North Korea in his nation but that the church's official policy is still in favor of reunification. 'It is difficult to promote peace in Japan,' he said. While there are demonstrations against globalization around the world, there are none in Japan. While Christians opposed the prime minister's visit to the shrine, he said that 'many are happy with the development. That is the reality of Japan today.'

Koshiishi agrees with those who contend that modern Japan is being dismantled, and the government is no longer able to provide the levels of welfare as it has in the past. 'The result is a high degree of unpredictability with strong nationalist trends. Unless the Japanese people themselves do something the trends will be difficult to stop.' He pointed to the government's approval of controversial nationalist textbooks last year and the rejection of those books by parents as one sign of hope. 'And the women of Japan are becoming more active politically so that brings some hope for change,' he said.

Etsuko Maruyama from the Nippon Sei Ko Kai said that, following the Second World War, 'Japan never reflected on the past, never changed its ways and behavior or its aggression. As a result,' she said, 'post-war democracy was never fully implemented. Japan has lost its source of identity and has no understanding of its past or its history. With economic recession everyone is feeling insecure, doing a lot of soul-searching. The right wing is using imperialism to provide identity but it is only a temporary measure, not a solution.'

China's role is crucial

Although they sent last-minute word that they were not able to attend the conference, the Chinese were very much a part of the conversation. Professor Nam-joo Lee, who teaches Chinese studies at Sungkonghoe University, made it very clear in his address at the conference that 'China is a very important partner in any search for peace in northeast Asia.'

He joined other Koreans in stressing that 'we live every day with the military issues, living in a framework of risk, knowing that our lives can be dismantled at any time.' Yet he did not agree with those who argue that everything would be solved if the United States left Asia. 'All issues are interrelated in this region so all of us are responsible for building peace,' he said.

Lee said that, by the middle of this century, China would become the number one economy in the world. It has handled its transition to a socialist market economy very well, is more actively involved in international forums, and its attitudes toward the global community have changed. 'It is poised for additional changes and therefore poses a challenge to other nations,' he said. 'China will have a great, positive impact on Korea, for example.'

He added that 'China thinks economic development is more important than human rights. Therefore they are more concerned about economic issues than political ones. Yet there is more potential for conflict than for peace,' he said. Since China formalized relations with Korea in 1992, the exchange between the two nations has been 'astonishing' and now there is a great deal of mutual trust.

Chinese and Americans competing

Yet the growing competition between China and the United Sates complicates all relations in the region. Lee said that, as long as there are U.S. troops in Korea 'it will be difficult to create the structures of peace. If China continues its military expansion, the U.S. military presence in Korea and Japan are obstacles.' He predicted that 2010 would be 'a breakthrough date for peace in northeast Asia.'

As long as South Korea and Japan are seen as allies of the U.S. 'it will be difficult to put an end to Cold War thinking so that fundamental changes can happen,' added Professor Young-Jon Jin of Sungkonghoe University in his address at the conference on the peacemaking efforts of civilian networks. 'Yet the scale of risk and threat may diminish with an increase in the probability of reunion. It is also possible that the military threat could increase, however, and could precipitate a regional war, given the right spark.'

For North Korea the isolation and threat continues and even increases since it has lost its Cold War allies, Jin said. He believes that America's position as a global superpower is increasing the threat of war. 'The war on terrorism is a new concept but directly related to and stemming from Cold War mentality. A rise in anti-Americanism comes from a perception that the U.S. is frustrating hopes for reunification,' he said.

'The Korean church has a vision of peace--it is the goal of the church and the core of its mission,' said the Rev. Jae Jeung Lee, founder of Sungkonghoe University, a member of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) and a member of Korea's parliament. He said that the ecumenical movement has expanded into a peace movement and he believes that the ACC can be used to promote relations between north and south.

Where do we go now?

The question hanging in the air at the closing session was, Where do we go now? Lee said that the ACC meeting in Hong Kong this summer should put peace in northeast Asia high on its agenda. It should also encourage further overtures to North Korea and include a full-blown discussion of U.S. policy in the region.

Lee also said that Christians must find a way to 'coexist with evil powers.' He added, 'For 50 years we have lived as enemies. We must find a way to solve the enmity. We need to understand and implement reconciliation in our daily lives so that this kind of war should never be repeated.'

As a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, Lee said that as a people and a civilization 'we are asking new questions, fundamental questions. Whether it is policy or personal feelings, Bush's comments about the 'axis of evil' has immense implications for the Korean peninsula. That simple utterance drove Koreans into panic and fear.'

In the wake of the shock of 9-11, 'What is our role as religious people?' asked the Rev. Satoshi Kobayashi from the Diocese of Kyoto in Japan's Nippon Sei Ko Kai. 'We lack the hunger for peace in our daily lives.'

Looking for new directions

Grieves called attention to the crucial timing of the conference and said that the Episcopal Church is expanding its relationships with other churches in the Anglican Communion. It is paying particular attention to the Middle East where the church is under enormous pressure but also Africa, a continent that now has the most Anglicans. 'But the eyes of our church haven't been looking in this direction and we have been looking for a way to demonstrate our concern for issues in this region.'

In her closing comments, Mary Miller, who headed the Episcopal Peace Fellowship for over a decade, said that 'we must not let our governments define peace for us or dictate who our enemies should be. The church must not be satisfied with politically defined peace. We are called to seek peace and pursue it, and to be ready to give an account of the hope that is in us.'

Koshiishi said in an interview that the visit and the conference was the first time that representatives of churches from the U.S., Japan and Korea have met to discuss peacemaking in the region. 'We have been looking for a new direction on how to cooperate--that's why this meeting is important. It has laid a groundwork and now we must find a way forward.'

Koshiishi said that the signs of a thaw between the U.S. and North Korea could make all kinds of things possible. 'We also need to send a visiting team to North Korea but developments must wait for the political climate to improve.'

As participants dashed off to the airport, the newspapers were reporting that North Korea had indeed sent signals that it was ready to resume a long-stalled dialogue, according to comments by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. 'We took serious note of this apparent change in attitude,' he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Among other signs of hope, the Unification Minister for South Korea, Jeong Se-hyum, said that he was proposing that the reference to North Korea as a 'main enemy' could be deleted in this 'era of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation.'

The Korean papers also announced plans for a reunion of families from North and South Korea at Mount Geumgang in the north--and plans for another group of 470 South Koreans later. It will also be the first time that the families will be allowed to take a brief excursion together. The north is also allowing the south to bring in satellite relay equipment for live television broadcasts of the reunions.

There are also promising attempts to reestablish a rail link between the north and south that was originally built in the 1890s, making possible some new forms of economic cooperation.

'From a distance these developments may not look momentous but, for our friends in the region who have been living with the threat of war for half a century, they are very welcome indeed,' said Grieves.