Ecumenical Korea Peace Conference

Atlanta, GA
May 16, 2013
Katharine Jefferts Schori

We are here to speak about peace in Korea, and consider what role the churches might have to play in promoting peace and reconciliation.  I’m going to begin with a broad outline of the history behind the present situation, and consider some themes that might offer a way into the process of making peace.

I want to challenge us to consider similar situations around the world, and the roles that our respective churches might play in reconciliation and peace-making in the face of violence, military force, and war.  I know that my telling of this history is done from one perspective, and it may cause discomfort or offense.  It is not my intent to tell this history with any bias, except the one toward peace.  I know that part of the healing needed can only come through hearing the stories of multiple parties in this deeply painful chapter of history.  It is only together as the Body of Christ that we can hope to find healing, reconciliation, and genuine and lasting peace.

I have had one opportunity to visit North Korea, in November of 2007.  Then-Archbishop Francis Park of the Anglican Church of Korea planned a worldwide Anglican peace conference in Paju City outside Seoul to challenge Anglicans to work toward peace in Korea (TOPIK[1]).  The conference began with a pilgrimage to Keumgansan with the aim of delivering aid to a North Korean village that had been flooded a few months before. 

Some of you know of the immense beauty of Keumgan (Diamond Mountain).  We spent two days in the tourist area that had been developed by Hyundai, and was used for several years as a place for reunions of families divided by the war and the border.  That opportunity to travel there from South Korea has not been available since 2008, when a tourist who wandered into unauthorized territory was shot and killed.[2]

As we traveled in North Korea, our bus drove on beautiful, newly paved roads, lined with high wire fences that were topped with razor wire.  We could see the dirt roads used by the North Korean people.  There were few vehicles; the North Koreans were walking or riding bicycles.  Crossing the actual border was a challenge, with a few of our number quite frightened by the process. 

The first day we spent there was clear and cold, and we had remarkable views of the mountain landscape.  We spent the day in meetings, and waiting for permission to gather with the village leaders to convey the aid.  Not until late in the afternoon did word come that we would have an opportunity to do that.  By then it was cold, rainy, and almost dark.  We met some officials in a fenced enclosure, smiled, ceremonially transferred the tents and construction materials, and then went back to our hotel to celebrate the first public Anglican worship since the Korean War.  We were never quite sure who it was we had met.

The following day we had a few hours to visit the mountain, Keumgansan.  We set off in freezing mist, had lunch in a traditional Korean inn at the base of the mountain, and then some of us set off up the trail to climb for a while.  It was snowing by then – wet and cold and windy.  The trail was paved with large rocks, almost like a cart road, and often slippery.  I have vivid memories of climbing fast, trying to stay warm, and getting wetter and wetter.  Abp Park, who was then about to retire, was out there as well, striding up the trail.  It was an arduous but rewarding trek up that mountain, never quite certain where we were going or what we would find, but determined to let the beauty of the wind, snow, and fog fill our hearts.

Climbing Keumgansan just might be a fitting image for the peacemaking work before us.  We have a goal in mind, we’re not certain exactly where the road leads, we have good solid companions, and the way is alternately misty and challenging.  Along the way we have glimpses of extraordinary beauty, particularly when we go in company, with friends and dialogue partners, who might become friends on the journey.

History of Korean occupation, war, separation

The Korean peninsula has a long and complex political history, deeply interconnected with what are now both Japan and China.  It also has a long history of separate development of north and south.  The northern part of the peninsula and adjoining mainland has its historic political origins in the Gojoseon kingdom more than 4000 years ago.  That evolving dynastic sequence ended in the second century BCE, and was followed by a series of warring states.  Several waves of migration to Japan took rice culture there, and migration into Korea from the mainland brought metal tools and new agricultural practices.

By the first century CE, the peninsula and neighboring Manchuria were controlled by the three kingdoms of Goguryeo in the north and on the mainland, and Baekje and Silla in the southern portion of the peninsula.  The Baekje kingdom in particular welcomed significant Chinese cultural influence, including Buddhism and the use of Chinese characters.  That heritage was transmitted to Japan as the court sought refuge there when the three kingdoms were unified under Silla in 676 CE.  Several waves of migration to Japan between 250 and 710 CE brought horses, Buddhism, and probably the ancestors of the Japanese imperial line.  In the next two centuries three kingdoms again emerged on the Korean peninsula, until 918 when they were again unified under the Goryeo dynasty.  Goryeo is the root of the modern name of Korea, and it persisted until a coup in 1388.  These four and a half centuries were also a remarkable time of cultural flourishing, which saw the invention of the first moveable metal type and introduction of celadon pottery.  The Mongol empire began campaigns against Goryeo in 1231, and in spite of a treaty in 1256, Goryeo continued as a vassal for most of the rest of its history.

In 1392 Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon (Chosun) dynasty rooted in neo-Confucianism, and moved the capital to Hanyang (modern Seoul).  That ruling system persisted until the Korean Empire emerged in 1897, although the Japanese invaded in the late 16th century, and the Manchu in the early 17th.  Joseon then essentially closed its borders to foreigners, becoming known as the Hermit Kingdom – a name now sometimes applied to North Korea.  In the last two or three centuries of Joseon, slaves (nobi) probably constituted a third of the total population.

In the latter part of the 19th century Korea suffered from the military adventures and invasions of France, the US, the UK, and Japan.  Japan forced an opening of Korea’s ports in 1876, and before long the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) resulted in Korea’s separation from its protective relationship with Imperial China.  Joseon became the Korean Empire in 1897, and by 1905 was a protectorate of Japan, which effectively annexed Korea and deposed the royal family in 1910.  Japanese colonization resulted in suppression of Korean culture, currency, governmental structures, and beginning in 1919 a vocal and activist independence movement.  Cultural repression increased after military rule was established in 1931, and the occupation continued until the end of WWII.  During the war Japan conscripted some 5.4 million Koreans as laborers; several hundred thousand were sent to work in Japan, and around 200,000 became part of the Japanese forces.  Some 200,000 women and girls were forced into sexual slavery.  Those so-called comfort women are still seeking constructive response and recompense for their suffering.  While Japan’s government has apologized to those women, the attitudes continue – note the Mayor of Osaka’s commentary on the need for such systems just a couple of days ago.[3]

The end of World War II

Korea was liberated in August 1945, and the peninsula was divided less than a month later, with the US administering the southern portion and the USSR the northern part.  The Japanese surrendered the following day.  The ROK declared independence in August 1948, and was recognized by the UN later that year.  Russian troops withdrew from the north in late 1948, and US troops in June 1949.  South Korea established diplomatic relations with China in October 1949.

Communist forces from the north invaded South Korea in June 1950, beginning the three-year Korean conflict.  The communists moved south, taking Seoul.  Seoul was recaptured by American forces in late September. 

UN forces proceeded north across the 38th parallel, eliciting China’s request for aid from Russia.  The UN troops reached and took Pyongyang in mid-October, and a South Korean unit reached the Yalu River.  China responded by moving into North Korea, and pushed the UN forces back south across the 38th parallel.  They moved farther south, taking Seoul; it was retaken by US forces in March 1951.

Truce negotiations began in July 1951, and one was actually signed in November 1951, but fighting continued until the armistice of July 1953.  In August, the US and ROK signed a mutual security pact.  No final peace agreement has been reached between the ROK and DPRK.  Both states were received as members of the UN in 1991.

During the war, about 2.5 million people were killed, of whom two million were civilians.  In the months immediately following the invasion, the South Korean government arrested many suspected communists and sympathizers, and executed tens of thousands of political prisoners and civilians.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated 100,000 suspected sympathizers were executed during the war.[4]  In the first months, US forces often treated civilians in the battle zone as enemy combatants, and massacred hundreds of refugees; others were killed by American strafing, napalm, and bombing.  In addition to the political prisoners executed by the South Korean government at Taejon, hundreds more were killed by police and local militia at Dokchon, Cheju, Namyangju, and elsewhere. 

Post-1953 Armistice

One writer has noted that effective democratic government requires attending to three sequential and additive priorities:  national security (internally and externally), a healthy economy, including the development of infrastructure and public services; and political development (freedom and individual rights).[5]

The governments of the ROK have struggled to address and balance the three.  Syngman Rhee governed South Korea from 1948 until he resigned in 1960.  His government was removed and Parliament began investigations into summary executions during the Korean War.  In 1961 Park Chung-Hee led a military coup which ended the investigations.  He continued in office until 1979, surviving an assassination attempt in 1974 which killed his wife.  He was murdered by the head of Korean CIA in 1979.  A military coup followed.

In 1992, Kim Young Sam was elected president, the first democratically elected civilian since Rhee.  He governed rather ineptly until 1998, though he did wage a fierce anti-corruption campaign.  Kim Dae-Jung held office from 1998 to 2003, improved the economic climate, and worked hard at improving north-south relations, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize.  However, he left office under an enormous cloud of corruption.

Post-war North Korea

Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the division of Korea resulted in Soviet administration of the northern sector.  Kim Il Sung chaired the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, which was set up in early 1946, and quickly nationalized industries and instituted land reforms.  Initial hopes for a unified peninsula quickly buckled under emerging cold war realities, and two separate states emerged, with divergent political and social understandings.  The People’s Republic of Korea was established in the North in September 1948, and Soviet forces withdrew.  The Soviets resisted the idea of unification through northern military action against the south, but eventually approved the invasion in 1950 which launched the Korean War.

Since the 1953 truce, the North Korean government, like the one to the south, has focused on security, expressed as Songun (military first), and Juche (welfare or self-reliance), but a democratic focus on developing individual rights or freedom is absent.  North Korea is among the world’s most militarized societies, with 9.5 million people subject to military duty or recall, of a total population around 24 million.  Its standing army of 1.2 million is the 4th largest in the world.

Economic recovery following the Korean War was assisted by the USSR and China, and pre-war levels of production were again attained within just a few years.  Economic growth in the North exceeded that in the South until the 1960s, and the two economies were roughly equal until 1976.[6]  Economic realities are now harsh, and have worsened since the breakup of the USSR in 1991.  Widespread famine from 1994 to 1998 killed up to a million people, and a series of floods in recent years have prompted the government to ask for international aid.

The Kim dynasty is beginning to be understood as a quasi-monarchy or personality cult, rather than a communist nation.  There is little attention in founding political documents to the principles of communism or socialism, and some believe the underlying ideology is more closely allied to the racial theories of pre-war Japan or Germany under National Socialism.[7]  The Songbun system assigns persons to classes based on family lineage, proximity to the struggle to escape Japanese colonial domination, and worker-class history.  The resulting assignment of individuals and families as loyal, wavering, or enemy controls access to educational, political, and occupational opportunities.[8]

Current escalation and conflict

A review of the history of relations between North and South Korea in the last decade or so shows an interminable series of sudden escalations and more peaceful interludes characterized by a retreat from posturing.  There have been a couple of seemingly significant overtures toward peace negotiations, particularly between 2001 and 2007.  During that period, rail and air service between the two nations began or was restored, and the tourist area at Keumgansan was opened, where family reunifications took place.  Economic partnerships led by Hyundai resulted in a joint economic enterprise zone in Kaesong.[9]  Spies and POWs have been repatriated.  The positive developments have often been interrupted by threats and demands from both sides, as well as military skirmishes over disputed islands off the coast.

The recent increase in rhetorical violence followed the death of Kim Jong Il in late 2011, and his succession by Kim Jong Un, together with ongoing demands by the US and other nations for an end to the development of nuclear weapons in the North.  It has become worrisome enough that South Korea and the US signed a mutual defense agreement on 22 March of this year.

US presence in Korea and region

Many scholars and political theorists understand the Korean War to have been a proxy conflict – a substitute for a potentially far more destructive Cold War “showdown” between the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies.  The US continues to maintain a military presence in South Korea, as it does in Japan and in several island territories in the Pacific.  China’s growing economic and military presence is a shadow in the background.  Forward military capacity in East Asia has been of strategic importance in the recent wars and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It is also seen as a deterrent to expansive territorial aims by surrounding nations, as exemplified by the continual skirmishes by Japan, China, and the Koreas over coastal islands.  American military presence is also seen as a potential guard against the use of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, American military control has brought challenges in South Korea similar to those seen in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, where the US military presence is outsized and oppressive to the island’s residents.  Protests against that US presence have increased in South Korea as they have grown in Okinawa, due to accidents[10] and the criminal behavior of individual soldiers,[11] but probably more importantly, from a growing nationalism as South Korea seeks to regularize its relationships with North Korea and the wider world.[12]

The US also has a significant economic interest in a stable South Korea, which has historically been a major trading partner.  In 2005 it was the largest US trade partner, and is now sixth largest in total dollar value.[13]

Historic and often unspoken themes

What do we do with this long and complex history?  The challenge of seeking peace on the Korean peninsula is of necessity caught up in that history.  I want to note several deeper themes that seem significant to one who is a relative outsider to the context.  Others will have to assess how important they are, and how best to seek reconciliation and healing in response.

I think we have to at least give a nod to the long history of small political units alternating with unified monarchies – a pattern that endures through millennia.  There is, I believe, a concomitant yearning for reunion that remembers those times of larger political units as eras of peace when cultures flourished.  The Goguryeo period (37 BCE – 668 CE) and the Silla kingdom that continued thereafter to 935 CE are perhaps the most significant examples.  Even in the short period after World War II and before North Korea’s invasion of the south, there was widespread yearning for a reunified whole.  Both governments sought elections for a unified state, in addition to trying to consolidate their internal differences.  And even though it was often framed in the goal of one side overtaking the other, that yearning is part of the cultural heritage, and something which can be invoked in peacemaking.               

There is also a long history of colonization on this peninsula, times when the native political and cultural realities were overrun or controlled by forces on the mainland (Han, Mongol, Chinese) or by Japan.  Long existence as a client or vassal state has bred a deep cultural deposit of bitterness and resentment which is easily linked to new or perceived initiatives toward invasion or control.  The protests against American military presence readily draw on this history of complex client relationships, particularly given the underlying suspicion of the Korean conflict as a proxy war between other opponents.

I would name another contributory theme as the long history of monarchical, hierarchical, patriarchal, and authoritarian governance on this peninsula.  It includes a significant history of slavery (not least the nobi during the Joseon period and what the “comfort women” suffered during World War II).  The repression of dissent both in the south and the north, during the Korean War and much more recently, is another manifestation.  Attitudes toward women that see them as lesser beings, as commodities to be employed for the service of men, continue to cause social and political difficulties today.[14]  The discrimination against North Koreans who flee to the south and the thinly-veiled status preference system in the north are both born of attempts to confine some human beings to one circumscribed sphere of existence. 

Until voices that oppose this kind of discrimination have an honest and open forum in the larger society, it will be very difficult to achieve a real peace.  The kind of tit for tat rhetoric that has been so common in recent political exchanges between north and south exemplifies the struggles of children for attention or the powerless for space in a wider dialogue.  Demonizing the opponent only ends in diminishing one’s own community – in that environment truly human relationships really are not possible. 

There are hints of fatalism or determinism in a lot of the rhetoric, which may be linked with the history of authoritarian control, or with some forms of religious adherence.  The economic fragility and insecurity in both states since the War also contribute to the generalized high level of political anxiety. 

What is sought and needed in peninsular peace?

The yearning for reunion is born of ancient human desire to live in peace with one’s family and neighbors, well fed, suitably employed, and free of fear and want.  Korean peacemaking needs to move from a cease-fire to reconciliation that will permit a truly just peace to grow and mature across the peninsula.  That work will have to aspire to end threats of nuclear weapons and militarism and open both societies to diverse access to the material necessities for dignified life.  There will be no peace while people go hungry or endure slave-like working and living conditions.  There will be no peace if women, particular ethnic communities, or other feared groups are excluded from access to any way of life that builds up the larger community.

Christians have many resources to offer in this quest.  Our understanding of the incarnation tells us that God’s own self yearns for reconciliation.  God’s Trinitarian nature and Jesus’ presence among us offer a vision of what life in community is meant to be.  Each person in a healed and holy community has irreducible dignity, possesses irreplaceable gifts, and enacts a vocation of creative ministry on behalf of the whole.  Our life in Christian community is grounded in hope – hope that God is always doing a new thing, and that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God walks with us.  We were made for that healed world, for which we pray ceaselessly:  your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  We seek that vision of flourishing as God’s dream of shalom for all that is, and we will not cease from that yearning until the end of all things.  That healed and reconciled world is meant for all sorts and conditions of humanity – for every language, race, people and nation – and it means the end of all poverty, exploitation, slavery, colonial control, militarism, and war.

This work of peacemaking will need to draw in many levels of society, from the Korean, US, Chinese, and neighboring governments, to more local community initiatives that seek to break down barriers to peace.  All of it must seek to foster the basic human dignity and human rights of all peoples on this peninsula, to foster development that will end the scourges of poverty, to demilitarize, and to build constructive and peaceful relationships with other communities and nations, particularly in that part of the globe.  That work will have impact on other seemingly intractable conflicts around the world.

The work of peacemaking begins in encountering our own fears and vulnerabilities, and then discovering our solidarity with others who are fearful and vulnerable.  That is most profoundly what the incarnation is about.  The ones we would exclude, those others, must come to be seen as essential to our own flourishing, and we to theirs.  No one person or community can be reduced to the level of commodity.  We must discover that our lives and salvation are bound up together.

The underlying fears – of domination or colonization by another power or person, of extinction by an enemy, of territorial expansionism, of nuclear war, of sharing power with people judged to be inferior, or of threats to economic or political interests – are the only real obstacles standing in the way of peace. 

The ancient and most central part of the Christian gospel is about answering fear with love.  Our task can be none other than challenging military responses to fear with non-violent and peaceful approaches.  We proclaim that loving the enemy is the only ultimately life-giving response.  That is why the Archbishop of South Korea took the group gathered for the first worldwide Anglican peace conference into North Korea.  That is why Japanese, Koreans, and Americans continue to ask and offer forgiveness for the sins of old wars that continue to infect our world and diminish the possibility of embracing more abundant life.

Until we begin to examine our own participation in those varying kinds of fear, we have little hope for reconciliation.  Why does North Korea oppress its citizens, and why do they permit it?  Why does South Korea so often demonize its neighbors, and why do its leaders so often succumb to corrupt impulses?  Why do Americans permit and encourage ongoing colonial occupation of other lands?  Why does Japan, more than 60 years later, refuse to address the suffering of the comfort women?

Underlying all of these is a fundamental fear of the other, of people who seem different from me and my kind, and fear that they will take from me what I most want and need.  Those fears grow out of a sense of scarcity – that there is not enough land to live on, not enough food to eat, not enough economic possibility, not enough hope for the future, not enough honor to sustain acts of repentance.  The church’s role must be about proclaiming the good news of God’s creative encouragement of new possibility, engendering hope, and proclaiming the vision of abundant life for all God’s creatures.

Our hope is based on the reconciling love of God – and reconciliation requires vulnerability.  Without some openness to a future different from the present entrenched reality, there is little real possibility for lasting peace.  It’s interesting to consider how challenging it is even to find words and metaphors for that lifeless reality of being stuck that aren’t violent or evocative of war.  Trench warfare is often used to describe this kind of immovability.  It evokes those crushing stories of dug-in troops lobbing projectiles toward each other, and never seeing the enemy’s face except in the sights of a sniper’s rifle.  That’s what many of the battles of WWII and the Korean War were like.  But those images also evoke stories of profligate possibility – the German and English troops of World War I who listened to their enemies singing Christmas carols, recognizing the tunes but not the words, and then crawling out of their muddy holes for a few hours during the Christmas Eve ceasefire.  They exchanged signs of peace with the few luxuries they had – cigarettes or shots of schnapps – and shared pictures of their sweethearts.  And then those precious hours drew to a close, with officers calling their troops back to duty and the work of killing the enemy.

Reconciliation just might require sitting in the trenches long enough to hear the song of other human beings, both lament at what is lost and yearning for what might be.  Reconciliation requires sitting in the mud, knowing despair and depravity, and daring to dream of a different future.  When we know the depths of our helplessness, that we are made of dirt and cannot ultimately save ourselves or fix the emptiness, we just might begin to welcome the stranger as an essential part of our own salvation.  When that recognition begins to be mutual, reconciliation becomes possible.

The trenches in Korea are the DMZ and the tunnels that pass beneath it.  They are the pedestals of power on which political leaders sit.  The stark realities of increasingly anxious threat and violent rhetoric, development of nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them, hunger and economic straits in the North, the almost perverse intention to mistrust, the increasing interest in oil and other natural resources in the region, and the provocation to conflict over coastal islands could be the prod needed to get people out of the trenches.

It is time to climb out and tell the stories of lament and hope.  Build relationships with the other, and go search for opportunities to tell the truth of your own experience, using surprising, novel, or humorous methods to destabilize old habits, expecting creative results – and keep showing up for this radically vulnerable work of reconciliation. 

And finally, expect that what is birthed and learned here might offer creative possibilities to other systemic conflicts, like Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Syria, and the Middle East.

The hard work of reconciliation requires an openness or vulnerability to being transformed.  The cosmic transformation we claim in the paschal (Easter) mystery is a result of divine vulnerability.  We won’t experience a different outcome or a shift in the status quo without that vulnerability. Our own efforts at reconciliation must echo or imitate that same relinquishment of power, privilege, and fixity of position. 

Reconciliation requires dreaming that emerging future and moving toward those we see as enemies.  The fear that separates us is a symptom of frustrated yearning for that different future.  Interacting with our differences creates possibility, and it requires the ability to climb out of the trenches of despair that anything will change.  That is another definition of hell!  We must walk into the division and conflict to find a new possibility – like joint administration of those Yellow Sea islands, or cooperative security efforts that relieve colonized peoples and places.  Reconciling work creates a different future, something that would never have existed without the tension that called forth our journey across that boundary of fear.

The question is only where and when and with whom to begin.  Practice here, with those who advocate different avenues toward peace.  Discover that the tension of difference will create an alternate future to what any participant expected.  That is the kingdom of heaven at work in our midst!

There was a hopeful report just a few days ago, from some of the South Korean managers who have left Kaesong.  They spoke of their admiration for the North Korean workers they supervised, and their yearning for peace.  One said, “Just because the father and mother fight doesn’t mean their 10 year old child should be sent to an orphanage.  It will be very sad if Kaesong closes, because it planted a dream of peace.”  They also spoke about learning to navigate the cultural divides between them.  Another said, “The human relations that we have built have a value that go beyond calculation….  Kaesong has been good for business, but it has also been good for the two Koreas.  When people spend that much time together, they start to realize that even North Koreans aren’t that different.”[15]

Where have we learned to cross boundaries or climb out of trenches in pursuit of reconciliation.  How have you chosen vulnerability?  Who has forgiven you, and how have you received it?  How have you disconnected from the spiral of fear, retribution, and violence?  Those choices flow from a deep well of hope, sometimes deeper than we can express in words.  In the darkest time of crucifixion, as Jesus hung on the cross, feeling abandoned, God was still at work.  The creative and unexpected response to that particular entrenchment is what we call resurrection.  Do we have faith enough to dream that God’s creative possibility might yet emerge from this seemingly intractable conflict? 

Can those of us caught up in this web of interconnection dream of being drawn more closely and deeply into the ties that bind us?  Will we, like Jesus, pray for the fellow on the next cross, and the ones who set the cross into the earth?  Peace and harmony in every part of the world ultimately depend on discovering our common humanity, our shared yearning for a meaningful place in this life, the hopes we have for our children and the world around us.  No one, no other, is beyond God’s love – or else we are all beyond that possibility.  Our task is to continue to plant and nurture hope in the face of fear when threat arises.  We must confront our own fear and move toward the human beings behind the threat, rather than retreat or dig deeper trenches.  That is what it means to run to the empty tomb; that is the direction of more abundant and resurrected life.  May resurrection begin again in Korea and in the hearts of all people – those we fear and those who fear us.


The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church


[5] The Korean Presidents: Leadership for Nationbuilding.  Choong Nam Kim.  Eastbridge, 2007

[7] The Cleanest Race.  Brian Myers.  2009

[9] The only city in Korea to have moved from southern to northern control as a result of the Korean War and the redrawn boundary.