The mission of seeking peace, justice and reunification of the divided Korean Peninsula has been a centerpiece priority of the Presbyterian Church in South Korea for a decade. You can join the Presbyterian Church in Korea (PROK) and National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) Peace Treaty campaign by signing the online petition.
A small exchange delegation participating in the 2016 Peace Pilgrimage to Korea and representing the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ was hosted by the Global Ministries Committee of the Seoul East Presbytery of the PROK (Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea) May 16 to 23. Delegation leader Ed Evans of Sequim said the trip was the most significant and important of three exchange visits he has made to the Korean Peninsula since 2010. The hosts introduced delegates to some of the deeply held, emotional issues related to peace and the struggle for reunification of North and South Korea. Emotions around those issues run deep and are complicated. PNC delegates also included the Rev. Jim Spraker and the Rev. Darrell Goodwin Moultry, both of Seattle, and Tom Clarke, Port Angeles.
Border school focus is peace
The visit began with a journey to the Border Peace School academy near the village of Cheorwon, 56 miles north of Seoul, inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a two-and-a-half-mile wide zone stretching 155 miles across the middle of the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel dividing North Korea from South Korea. Cheorwon is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War for possession of a hilltop known as White Horse. It changed hands 24 times during attacks and counterattacks.
“Just outside the military checkpoint at Cheorwon we encountered a Buddhist monk and his mother who had come from Japan,” said Ed. “They were praying for peace and repentance for the role Japan played for much of the suffering caused by Japan in Korea."
The two stood alone facing the ruins of the North Korean House of Labor Party chanting, beating drums and praying for peace. The two have been praying and chanting for peace at the Labor Party building ruins twice a day every day for almost three years.
"There, we met with Dr. Jiseok Jung, director of the Border Peace School inside the DMZ. The school is an academy that operates a program in partnership with the United Methodist Church adjacent to a South Korean Army outpost overlooking North Korea,” Ed said.
The academy offers a three-year graduate diploma in peace studies with faculty coming from as far as Northern Ireland, Costa Rica and the United Nations Peace College in America. The school meets in a government owned building. Privately owned buildings are prohibited in that zone.
Comfort women demonstrate
Next, they visited the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul dedicated to the memory of the so-called “comfort women,” thousands of women across Asia who were captured, conscripted and enslaved by the Japanese military during World War II to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. In South Korea, 42 “comfort women” are still alive today, all in their early 90s.
The museum is operated by the Korean Council for the Women drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan – known simply as “The Korean Council.” The council reports that only 238 sex slave “comfort women” have come forward to be recognized and registered in South Korea. However, it is estimated more than 200,000 women from both North and South Korea were enslaved in the military sex trafficking network, which stretched across the Pacific war theater. Most were too ashamed to come forward and identify themselves.
While the Japanese called them comfort women, the reality is that the women were sex slaves, forcefully and systematically raped by Japanese soldiers in an elaborate network of “comfort stations.” Every Wednesday in Seoul, the Korean Council has staged a protest demonstration across the street from the Japanese Embassy demanding an apology for Japan’s sanctioning of sexual slavery by its military.
“There were hundreds of people participating in the demonstration on May 18, when we visited,” Ed said. An International Conference of all Asian nations, which had sex slaves imprisoned by the Japanese government was scheduled to begin the next day in Seoul.
“We met a woman who had traveled from the Netherlands to attend the conference. The Guinness book of World Records says it is the world’s oldest rally on a single theme, only missing one Wednesday since demonstrations began on Jan. 8, 1992. The only Wednesday protest that was missed since 1992 was during the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995.”
Demonstrators gather every Wednesday around a golden bronze statue depicting a teenage Korean girl sitting in a chair facing the Japanese Embassy. The statue is called Pyeonghwabi, meaning the Statue of Peace. A little bird perched on the young girl’s shoulder is a symbol of freedom and peace.
“The statue was surrounded by hundreds of protesters, including many young school students, nuns, monks and activists on the day we attended. One elderly woman was sitting there. We were told she was a former 'comfort woman' from the Philippines,” Ed said.
The Korean Council is demanding that Japan admit the program of sexual slavery was a war crime. They are also demanding that Japan deliver an official apology, pay reparations to the few remaining victims, punish those responsible, and include the system of sexual slavery in Japanese history textbooks.
Jeju Islanders protest base
During the next two days on Jeju Island, several miles off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, the PNC delegates learned that local residents have been demonstrating on Jeju Island every day for the past nine years, protesting construction of a huge South Korean Naval base near Gangjeong Village. Construction started in 2007 two years after Jeju had been designated as an Island of Peace by the South Korean government.
The 2005 declaration came after Island residents put sufficient pressure on the Korean government to admit its role in a brutal suppression campaign in 1948 and 1949, in which more than 30,000 island residents were massacred by South Korean police and military forces in an unprecedented eradication campaign, while American military forces there did nothing to intervene.
“We were told at the time of the uprising, the island was controlled by the United States Military Government in Korea,” Ed said.
U.S. commanders reportedly called the program to eradicate the people on Jeju who were thought to be communists and/or communist sympathizers a “successful operation.”
“We stood at the site of a beach where hundreds of villagers, including women and children, were massacred by government forces turning the sea red with blood. Having Jeju declared as an Island of Peace followed two years later by the beginning of construction of the largest naval base in South Korea over the objections of 90 percent of the residents of Jeju was too much for them,” he said.
So they have been staging protests against the naval base every day since then. More than 600 people have been arrested over the years.
“We were there on May 19 and watched protesters as they paraded and danced down the road toward the main gate of the naval base,” Ed said. “Many wore costumes and were dancing and singing while being filmed by Korean police and security forces. We were told that some in the group that day would likely be arrested for participating in those protests. The Navy base is nearly completed and will be formally dedicated soon. When completed, it will be the largest Korean military installation in South Korea with rumors that it will likely be expanded to include an air base,” he said.
Pastor visits peace activist
“I spent the last four days of my journey in and around the city of Jeonju, a city of 600,000 about a three hour drive south of Seoul. I visited there in 2012 when I spent nearly six weeks teaching English to a group of PROK pastors in Seoul,” said Ed.
On that trip, he met the Rev. Kansil Lee, co-pastor of Gobek Presbyterian Church in Jeonju. At the time, her husband, the Rev. Sung Yoel Han, was serving a three-year prison sentence. He had been imprisoned for the crime of going into North Korea without permission of the South Korean government.
He had gone there on peace mission visits there before to meet with people to explore possible avenues of communication. He sought to help open channels of discussion for ways for the reunification for the two Koreas to happen. His previous visits were at a time when they were legal. That changed when former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak changed the policy declaring that such visits would now be illegal. What had been legal, had now become a crime. On his return, Sung Yoel was tried, convicted and sent to prison in Seoul.
“When I learned about his fate then, I told his wife I’d like to meet him some day,” he said. “Well, I did on this visit. When we arrived at Gobek Church, and having never met him before, Sung Yoel came running out of the house, threw his arms around me, and held me tightly with a huge bear hug for a couple of minutes,” Ed said. “I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. I didn’t think he’d ever let go."
“It was remarkable how excited he was to see me, someone who cared about his story,” he said. “After dinner at a small restaurant that evening as we walked back to our cars, he held my hand tightly with our fingers intertwined. Before departing, he reached over and touched my chest, then his chest, and said our two hearts had come together as one. The moment nearly brought me to tears.”
The PROK celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2013. The church says it felt called into existence to affirm its prophetic role in society, as well as to equip its leaders and members with a contextual understanding of the Bible, so the Gospel could be lived in the present.
Peace and Justice have been foundational centerpieces of the PROK’s purpose and social justice mission. In 2013, the World Council of Churches Assembly in Busan adopted a resolution calling for peace and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. It included a recommendation to replace the Armistice Agreement of 1953 with a Peace Treaty. Without a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically continue to remain at war.
In view of that resolution, and on its 60th anniversary, the PROK has started a program of special prayer and worship services every Monday night for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea. Those services began in March 2014 and have been held every Monday night since. They will continue to be held every Monday night until the day of reunification.
“The PROK believes that peace building is a global enterprise shared in close partnership and relationship with churches and Christians not only in Korea, but around the world,” Ed said.
They have designated the Sunday before Aug. 15 as the “Sunday of Prayer for the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.” That Sunday this year is Aug. 14.
“One of the primary goals of reunification is to end the suffering endured by separated Korean families, hopefully within their lifetimes,” he said. The PROK is calling for an end to joint United States and Korean military exercises, concerned that live fire drills and missile launching and the demonstration of military power could put the Peninsula and the Northeast Asia region at the brink of war.
“As I’ve thought about our visit, I think about the anguish many people in Korea feel, people who feel they have lived under one form or another of oppression since the beginning of the Japanese occupation that began in 1910,” Ed said. “Many people feel betrayed that their peace island was transformed into a home base for the machinery of war. I could feel the angst of women who had been kidnapped and conscripted into sexual slavery and who still have not received an apology from Japan. I also felt the passion of an activist pastor imprisoned for attempting to do the right thing, to find ways to talk about peace and reunification. Regardless of one’s perspective, it’s complicated,” he said.
“I found our time together in Korea to be a living example of understanding how we are all people of God, related to one another more intricately than we might have ever known or believed: living in a world together, singing together, praying together, being the church together, leaning and experiencing new cultures and new traditions, and knowing that we are each a gift in God.”
In that spirit, during the closing worship service, the Rev. Joongtek Lee, chair of the Global Ministries Committee of the Seoul East Presbytery, presented Ed with a “Harmony Stole,” as a visual reminder that all of God’s people are called by God to live in harmony, one with another. Ed recalled a line in the hymn “In the Midst of New Dimensions” that says, “As we stand in a world divided by our own self-seeking schemes, grant that we, your Global Village, might envision wider dreams.”
“That’s my prayer as we continue to reach out to be partners and friends all around God’s world,” he said.
Ed Evans serves as the convener of the Global Ministries Committee of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ and the Northwest Region, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The committee is a shared ministry of the two denominations.