Praying with the Korean People
The political environment of the Korean Peninsula has long been characterized by a state of temporarily suspended war, ever since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953. Since then North Korea has repeatedly threatened to end the ceasefire, and both countries have violated paragraph 13(d) of the armistice by increasing the weapons present on the Peninsula. The United States maintains around 28,500 troops in South Korea today, and it remains an area of great insecurity.
So far, efforts have failed for a more permanent peace treaty that could de-escalate this hostile environment. But PC(USA) Korea Mission Co-Workers Hyeyoung Lee and Kurt Esslinger, interviewed below, remain hopeful. Knowing that the threat of violence hurts all sides, together we pray for the peace which passes understanding.
Unbound: What do you see as your primary role as Mission co-workers? Would you say that you are focused mostly on South Korea and the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), or is the engagement with the [North] Korean Christian Federation (KCF) a major part of your work?
Hyeyoung: About 50% of our job is working with as Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) Coordinators, hosting US young adults who live and volunteer in Korea for a whole year, and teaching them about Korean culture, history, and issues & how it relates to them as US citizens. And then the other half is other things—for example, my work with migrant women & women Christian activists working for gender justice & peace.
Kurt: And I do work with the NCCK helping with international communication about the movement for peaceful reconciliation of the Korean conflict. Moving forward, I’ll be more involved in the relationship to the KCF, through the Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK)
Unbound: I understand you’re stationed in Daejeon, Korea. When did you leave to come back and visit? A lot has changed since then, no?
Kurt: We got back on August 7, and yeah, the “fire and fury” comments were just about as we were coming back to the US.
Unbound: How does faith influence your take on foreign policy and diplomacy in Korea?
Kurt: For me, God’s call to us is to be peacemakers—is to the ministry of reconciliation. God calls me to add my voice to the movement for creating relationships with our so-called “enemies.” I am called to support human-to-human contact, especially with our brothers and sisters in N Korea who are Christian.
Hyeyoung: Yes. For me, peacemaking is a core value; my faith is very much correlated to what peace is all about, and practicing it in daily life. It means interacting with people around me in a way that is peaceful.
Unbound: Could you articulate exactly what, from a Korean perspective, has changed since last week?
Hyeyoung: It’s hard to speak this as one “voice from Korea”, but I can speak from my own experience—my friends in Korea have said that it is very disheartening to hear the kind of comments without thinking about what that means for the people of Korea. And as a Korean citizen myself, listening to someone who is a leader of a powerful country speaking about wars without thinking about what the consequences for people might be—it’s not a business negotiation. We really need to resist this kind of [rhetoric] to make sure people realize it is not acceptable.
Kurt: NCCK has noted that in the past, US presidents have always kept their speech measured, like “we are ready to defend our allies in S. Korea”, even when North Korea makes threats. For example, just last year Korea threatened an attack—Koreans are used to such rhetoric from N. Korea, and used to North Korea not following through. But this “fire and fury” rhetoric from the United States is surprising, it’s shocking, and it increases the uncertainty about what will happen. Koreans know that any strike like that will lead to nuclear war and the complete destruction of life on the peninsula—so neither side wants active war. But these statements could threaten backdoor State department diplomatic solutions, giving North Korean hardliners credibility when they question any U.S. commitment to peace negotiations.
Unbound: Do you have a message for President Trump specifically?
Kurt: “Please, you have a chance to solve this through dialogue and diplomacy. If you continue depending on verbal and military threats, you will guarantee that we move closer to chaos and destruction. But if you move toward dialogue and trust, then there is hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”
Hyeyoung: “Hostile violence or language can not get us to the place where people want to be. So, please stop that!”
Unbound: So, before all this—how realistic was a path to peace for North and South Korea? And is it still feasible?
Hyeyoung: A lot of people had hope that the new S. Korean president would move toward a dialogue. People were upset that it was moving slowly—but we still had our hopes up that the conversation would finally start.
Kurt: The most realistic hope was and is to at least end the official state of war, because there is growing confidence in the idea that North Koreans do not want to effectively commit nuclear suicide. But so far the US has only responded with refusals to treaties.
BIO: Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee are PC(USA) World Mission mission-co workers serving in South Korea at the invitation of the Presbyterian Church of Korea.