“Miracle” was the word used by Korean policy makers and bishops alike to describe the April 27 peace summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un, which yielded a joint commitment to end the 65-year conflict on the peninsula and remove nuclear weapons threatening the 80 million people who live there.
And behind the scenes, another story has unfolded, demonstrating the success of Pope Francis’ signature “Diplomacy of Encounter” in South Korea, a country led by a Catholic president and where the Church is vibrant and respected.
Wise men signal caution: Thomas Han Hong-soon, former Korean ambassador to the Holy See, reminded the Register, “This summit is neither more nor less than a first step in the resumption of a journey towards true peace,” because the North Korean leader remains an inscrutable interlocutor and the process of denuclearization is a complicated one. Cynically, U.S. defense stocks tumbled as a result of the Moon-Kim meeting — assets that jumped last summer when President Trump threatened to bomb North Korea.
Pope Francis maintained focus April 29 on the immediate achievement, praising the “courageous commitment” shown by Korea’s leaders, who built on the prayers, bridge building and concrete steps of many others.
What North and South agreed to was a highly specific nine-point plan (see accompanying info box), and while other geopolitical giants are mentioned, it is clear they want to get a head start without other countries telling them what to do.
As of April 30, both countries were taking specific steps, such as dismantling propaganda speakers at the border; the North was moving its clocks ahead 30 minutes to create a unified time zone.
And May 3 table-tennis teams from the two countries attending the world championship in Sweden announced they would unite for semifinal play.
Twice before, in 2000 and 2007, leaders of North and South Korea met to explore grounds for concluding the conflict, frozen all these years as an ominous cease-fire. At neither time did the summits result in anything more than wishful words.
Recently, the conflict appeared to be ramping up in a harrowing way.
Only five months ago, North Korea’s 33-year-old leader, Kim, approved the launch of a new, powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with the jingoistic flourish, “Fire with courage for the party and country!” South Korea responded minutes later by launching its own missiles.
Analysts confirmed the new ICBM was so sophisticated it could reach the U.S. mainland.
Just before Christmas, the United States proposed, and the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved, the toughest sanctions against North Korea yet — blocking access to fuel and vowing to expel workers sending hard currency home from abroad.
What has caused such a dramatic shift of direction in so short a period of time? A commitment to prayer, bridge building and concrete actions have established the conditions for this success, according to Catholics in Korea close to the action.
“The Catholic Church was the first to speak out with a united voice in Korean society on the need for national reconciliation in the early 1990s, when the word ‘reconciliation’ was unpopular in the social atmosphere. The mindset of confrontation prevailed,” Ambassador Han told the Register.
Han also described Pope Francis’ trip to Korea as “providential.”
When Pope Francis made his first trip to Asia in August 2014, he flew to South Korea, where the Catholic Church has grown faster than anywhere else in East Asia. Currently, 11% of Koreans are Catholic, approximately 5.6 million people, a number that more than doubled over the last 20 years. (All Christians comprise some 30% of the population.)
An astonishing 800,000 people attended a Mass offered by the Holy Father for the canonization of 124 Korean martyrs from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pope Francis also held a Mass for peace and reconciliation in Seoul’s Cathedral of Myeong-dong, where he reminded the faithful, “What appears, from a human perspective, to be impossible, impractical … he makes possible and fruitful through the infinite power of his cross. The cross of Christ reveals the power of God to bridge every division, to heal every wound and to re-establish the original bonds of brotherly love. … Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities for dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences.”
Every Tuesday evening for the past 23 years, a Mass for reconciliation between North and South Korea has been offered in the cathedral. The gathered faithful also pray for the 57 Catholic parishes that were active in the North before the country was divided, according to Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung.
Gathering for the weekly Mass April 24, Cardinal Yeom prayed for God’s blessing on the North-South talks, specifically that he lead officials toward “eliminating nuclear weapons and establishing true peace in this land,” entrusting the prayers to “Mary, Mother Immaculate.”
The Holy See’s chargé d’affaires, Msgr. Marco Sprizzi, who attended the pre-summit Mass, told the Register, “The Korean Church, the people, the faithful have prepared, especially in prayer, for many years for this moment.”
“The [Korean] bishops’ conference has worked incessantly for national reconciliation, to foster conditions, among the people and even among the elite, to build a culture of reconciliation, mutual understanding and peace,” observed Msgr. Sprizzi.
Catholics are, in fact, “overrepresented” among military officers, politicians, engineers, doctors, professors and journalists, in part because the Church was strongly associated with the democracy movement that ended military rule in 1987. According to a 2015 poll, Catholicism is the country’s most respected religion, followed by Buddhism.
Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, the president of the Korean Catholic Bishops’ Conference, told the Register that the conference appealed to all Korean Catholics to pray “continuously” for reconciliation between North and South as the inter-Korean summit unfolded in Panmunjom, where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed.
In the Archdiocese of Gwangju, in Korea’s southwest tip, bells in 130 churches chimed for one minute April 27, as the two leaders met — public proclamation of the hope in so many hearts as the whole nation watched the summit unfold.
Archbishop Kim was sent by President Moon to Pope Francis in May 2017, when the president took office, unexpectedly replacing Park Geun-hye, who was impeached for corruption.
The archbishop’s mission was to brief the Holy Father and request his assistance — and prayers — to bring the two “estranged brothers” back together.
Moon’s platform during his campaign mirrored the Church’s position, that all efforts should be made for reconciliation through dialogue and specific trust-building efforts with the North. As Moon is a practicing Catholic, known for a humble demeanor, it was not surprising that he sought to build a bridge to Rome when he took office.
Even at the height of North-South tensions last fall, Moon maintained his commitment to sustain humane relations with the North through aid to the poor.
A North Korean press outlet released a statement Sept. 13 condemning South Korean leadership. “Our army and people’s resentment at the South Korean puppet regime is getting stronger,” read the statement. “The group of pro-American traitors should be severely punished and wiped out with fire attack so that they could no longer survive.”
Just a few days later, Moon announced his government would donate $4.5 million to provide food to North Korean hospitals and day care centers through the World Food Program and $3.5 million for vaccines and medicine for children and pregnant women through the U.N. Children’s Fund.
The government of Japan complained, on the grounds that such assistance could undermine the international effort to pressure North Korea to change its policies, but Moon explained, “In principle, giving support for infants and small children and pregnant women should be handled separately from politics.”
South Korea’s president also seized the opportunity of the Winter Olympics to continue bridge building with the North. As a result of the spirit of reconciliation so evident in Moon’s government and across the nation, athletes from North and South marched into the Olympic stadium together and fielded a women’s ice hockey team together.
In a surprise, Chairman Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, led the North’s delegation to the Olympics, introducing an important new interlocutor closer to her brother than any other.
Moon welcomed her like a sister. She invited him to meet her brother in North Korea.
The new spirit of exchange and dialogue continued after the Olympics to include South Korean pop stars performing in North Korea and Taekwondo exhibitions there, too.
On April 27, the spirit and imagery of the inter-Korean summit was personal from the start, giving the feel of a family reunion more than a political meeting.
The day began with cheerful handshakes at the DMZ. Later, the wives of both men participated (Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, has only recently been seen in public) as well as Kim Yo Jong, the only woman at the negotiating table.
At the day’s end, Moon and Kim stood, holding hands, watching a film of the day projected on the building in which they signed the agreement.
Medical Mission to the North
Meanwhile, a medical mission serving thousands of tuberculosis patients in North Korea made its way from South to North via Beijing, bringing lifesaving medicines for patients dependent on the treatment provided by the Eugene Bell Foundation.
Maryknoll Father Gerard Hammond is a leader of the mission, a ministry he has participated in for more than 20 years. Father Hammond — known by his Korean name, “Father Ham Je Do” — has lived in Korea since 1960.
He told the Register the emotional impact of the Olympics on the people of Korea was significant.
“It was a beautiful thing to see, the beginning of a trust relationship between North and South,” he said. “With trust, so many things fall into place.”
Father Ham Je Do has long advocated small, concrete steps, such as cultural exchanges and joint participation in sporting events, as key to reconciliation.
“We have to be realistic,” he said.
“There is a longer road to travel, but there is new energy and commitment. The Spirit is moving. I want to walk into the North across the DMZ!”
Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine and
Blueprint for Peace?
- North Korea and South Korea’s nine-point plan for reconciliation consists of:
- Declaring the Korean War over;
- Setting denuclearization as a common goal;
- Hosting President Moon in North Korea’s capital by year’s end;
- Ending hostilities on land, air and water;
- Stopping propaganda broadcasts;
- Establishing a joint liaison office;
- Holding reunions of families separated by the Korean War in August;
- Reconnecting an inter-Korean railroad; and
- Participating in the 2018 Asian Games together