Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on the state of the Catholic Church in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
SEOUL, South Korea — Leery of President Donald Trump’s saber-rattling regarding North Korea, South Korea’s Catholic leadership is actively propounding an alternative: long-range strategies for reconciliation with its northern neighbor, based on constructive examples from beyond East Asia.
Thoughtful Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, archbishop of Seoul and apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pyongyang, hesitated when asked by the Register for his message to Trump, who arrived in Korea Tuesday.
“Maybe it is better not to say anything?” he puzzled out loud, channeling widespread fear that Trump’s unpredictability is itself a danger.
“I would thank him for his efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula!” rallied the cardinal. “And ask him to work tirelessly for peace all over the world.”
President Trump discussed denuclearization and peace in his Tuesday address, ending, in part, with: “Together, we dream of a Korea that is free, a peninsula that is safe, and families that are reunited once again. We dream of highways connecting North and South, of cousins embracing cousins, and this nuclear nightmare replaced with the beautiful promise of peace.
“Until that day comes, we stand strong and alert. Our eyes are fixed to the North and our hearts praying for the day when all Koreans can live in freedom.”
Cardinal Yeom, 73, elevated by Pope Francis in 2014, spoke to the Register on the sidelines of the “Korean Peninsula Peace-Sharing Forum,” convened by the Archdiocese of Seoul’s Korea Reconciliation Committee Nov. 4.
Catholics comprised 11.3% (5.7 million) of South Korea’s 2016 population of more than 50 million people — a number that has steadily increased annually and is one of the Church’s fastest rates of growth in Asia.
Although it is now the world’s only divided nation, Korea is not alone in facing seemingly intractable social conflicts marked by violence, fomenting ongoing fear.
Cardinal Yeom consequently believes Korea can learn from the experience of other countries, especially where the Catholic Church has decisively contributed to peace.
So he invited two colleagues from Latin America, Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez of San Salvador, El Salvador, and Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo, Brazil, to present national experiences at the forum, held at the Catholic University of Korea.
Both prelates cheerfully engaged with participants, including seminarians and lay faithful.
Cardinal Rosa Chavez distributed tiny relics of Blessed Óscar Romero attached to Mass cards, while Cardinal Scherer patiently stood for innumerable photos demanded by middle-aged volunteers decked in sumptuous traditional dress.
Truth, Forgiveness and Patience
Archbishop Carlos Garfias Merlos of Morelia, Mexico, joined the two visiting cardinals on a panel moderated by a former Korean ambassador to the Holy See, professor Thomas Hong-Soon Han. They explored reconciliation and healing as a way of life, modeled by Jesus.
In turn, each Church leader echoed leitmotifs highlighted by Pope Francis — and his predecessors.
Cardinal Rosa Chavez described the civil war that engulfed El Salvador 1979-1992: “Oppressed under a military dictatorship, we started to arm ourselves as part of the right to defense, but we realized violence only begets violence.”
“Instead, we followed Archbishop Romero, who exemplified mercy, and St. John Paul II, who urged us toward dialogue,” recalled Cardinal Rosa Chavez, the first auxiliary bishop ever to be elevated to the College of Cardinals and a dedicated friend of Blessed Romero, who was beatified in 2015.
Cardinal Rosa Chavez was the only Salvadoran to participate in every meeting between the government and opposition guerrilla forces, leading to a peace treaty that ended the war in 1992.
Cardinal Scherer discussed conflict between Brazil and Argentina when both were under military dictatorship. It was an especially threatening period because each country was in the process of developing nuclear weapons against the other.
Warning that governments often promote “manipulated truth or false truth,” the Brazilian cardinal explained, Church teaching allows us to appreciate the “seeds of faith” in the other side’s perspective, which opens a path for dialogue.
In his country, three approaches advocated by the Church helped the two countries overcome decades of suspicion to ultimately sign a 1990 accord renouncing atomic weapons while agreeing to share equipment and facilities for nuclear power: commitment to the truth, willingness to forgive and patience.
The third requirement is crucial because reconciliation can only be premised on trust and collaboration, which take time, explained the prelate.
“If you are impatient, you might destroy the opportunity to achieve reconciliation,” warned Cardinal Scherer.
Archbishop Merlos described problems in some Mexican states involving violence, organized crime and social breakdown. He said the Church has had to develop multiple ways to refocus all parties on the common good in order to build peace.
It is a work in progress, but shows the Church’s ability to mediate seemingly intractable social problems.
Yet, So Different
Underscoring what is unique to the Korean conflict, Cardinal Yeom brought Cardinal Rosa Chavez and Archbishop Merlos to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a strip of land about 260 miles long and 2.5 miles wide that splits the peninsula in half.
Unlike the Argentina-Brazil case study, in which both countries were majority-Catholic and living under similar political regimes, or the examples from El Salvador, Mexico and Columbia, where protagonists were all living in the same national space, the 64-year-old Korean conflict cleaved a nation and spun its halves into radically opposite directions.
To the DMZ’s south, Catholicism is more dynamic than anywhere else in Asia. Liberal democracy has produced prosperity, stability and civic engagement so efficient that a corrupt president was ousted and replaced last year, without a shot being fired or a downtick in the gross domestic product.
And so loathing of war is the Republic of Korea (ROK), President Moon Jae-in constantly affirms his refusal to develop or accept nuclear weapons on its territory.
In the upside-down world to the DMZ’s north, not one Catholic priest is known to be offering the sacraments — that’s how thoroughly and oppressively atheistic the one-party Marxist regime is, despite its historical identity as the “Jerusalem of Asia.”
Obsessed with building an arsenal against the world, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has established a terrifying habit of testing nuclear missiles this year, propelling an unprecedented crisis.
The peninsula is now surrounded by U.S. military muscle: three gargantuan aircraft carriers and scores of warships, bearing hundreds of tanks, jets and nuclear missiles — with 80,000 American troops in the immediate area poised to pounce.
Dependent on the United States for its defense, from a purely strategic perspective, the ROK has little autonomy, making its people and government bystanders to a fight that could bring Armageddon.
However, Moon insists military action requires his country’s permission.
He won office in May promoting dialogue with North Korea, a position that reflects his Catholic faith and is strongly supported by Church leadership in the ROK.
Archbishop Kim, Moon’s Envoy
Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-Jong of Gwanju serves as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea (CBCK).
He was sent by Moon to Rome in May to meet with the Holy Father on the president’s behalf.
In an interview with the Register at CBCK’s headquarters in Seoul, Archbishop Kim stated his conviction that the punitive approach to Pyongyang has failed.
“Pressure and economic sanctions against North Korea are not the solution,” the 70-year-old prelate said.
“Over the last 10 years, the [ROK] government applied pressure and sanctions toward North Korea, but it just provided a rationale for them to develop nuclear weapons,” he continued, adding, “Communication and negotiation are the only solution.”
The archbishop said his opinions were shaped by his experience as a translator for the U.S. Army (and seminarian) while doing required military service in Vietnam in 1972.
“You know the term ‘Pax Americana’? I have a fear of this. Control through arms. Domination through the army. We must transform the civilization of the world to a civilization of peace … and U.S. dominance to cooperation,” Archbishop Kim declared.
He favors negotiation with no preconditions, ideally “direct dialogue with North Korea, with no interference from foreign countries, because I strongly believe the Western countries have different mentalities; but we have the same traditions, same history and the same mentality,” said the Church leader.
The problem is: North Korea has rebuffed many attempts by the Catholic Church to build South-North bridges in recent years.
Good Faith Efforts
Cardinal Yeom was the first Korean Catholic leader to officially cross the DMZ border and travel a short distance into North Korea when, in May 2014, he visited a joint South-North industrial park, the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), where goods for the South Korean market were produced, employing some 54,000 North Korean workers and hundreds from the ROK.
The KIC venture was long seen as an important bellwether of potential cooperation, which was why it was established in 2004.
But the government of President Park Geun-hye shuttered it last year following a nuclear test and rocket launch by Kim Jong-un. (Moon says he hopes to reopen the operation.)
Archbishop Kim visited Pyongyang with a CBCK delegation of four bishops and 13 priests, guests of the state-run North Korean Catholic Association two years ago. As Vatican Radio reported, the landmark visit heralded a breakthrough: It was supposed to inaugurate regular visits of Catholic priests to the North, beginning at Easter 2016.
Unfortunately, the plan never got off the ground.
Archbishop Kim blames President Park’s government, but Cardinal Yeom thinks the problem has been with North Korea’s tendency to politicize the relationship.
“We have been disappointed when the North says, ‘You can come,’ then it doesn’t happen,” explained the cardinal to the Register.
“This is why, perhaps, it is far better to solve [ecclesiastical] problems mainly through the Holy See,” he added.
Another dimension that has plagued efforts to create new North-South bridges is money.
Father Se-Teok Chung, chairman of the Archdiocese of Seoul’s Korean Reconciliation Committee, described an innovative plan for laypeople with ecological backgrounds to provide know-how — and trees — to plant on mountainsides in North Korea suffering deforestation.
“When they said $100,000 was required to implement the project, we couldn’t do it,” said Father Chung, shaking his head.
A missionary priest who has visited North Korea with tour groups confirmed North Korean officials require cash in return for the chance to say Mass in a church.
“I won’t do it,” he said. “It’s unethical to charge for the sacraments, so I say Mass in the hotel room.”
Holy See’s Eyes and Ears
Msgr. Marco Sprizzi, the first counselor and deputy head of mission of the Holy See’s apostolic nunciature in Seoul, delivered opening remarks at the peace-sharing forum.
As the Vatican’s sole diplomat in South Korea — the nuncio retired in September — Msgr. Sprizzi has a lot on his shoulders.
He observed how often our desire to achieve peace, “God’s dream,” collides with the reality of armed conflict as well as “opposition from men and the evil one.”
He said the Holy See appreciates how the Korean Catholic Church acts as a “true peacemaker community,” prodding political authorities and the public toward dialogue, mutual respect and reconciliation with the North.
Quoting his boss, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who recently told journalists in Russia, “Any solution based only on military strength may settle things for a while, but it lets the fire smolder under the ashes,” the diplomat indirectly challenged the U.S. approach, heavily reliant on using military might to intimidate North Korea.
For the Holy See, there’s no alternative to negotiated, political solutions, which require “passion, patience, experience and tenacity” in Pope Francis’ words.
On the one hand, according to the Holy Father, those “who engage in war, who make wars, are cursed. They are criminals.”
Msgr. Sprizzi reminded the audience of Pope Pius XII’s 1939 radio appeal in which the Holy Father warned, “Nothing is lost with peace. Everything may be lost with war,” although, tragically, the world failed to heed the Holy Father’s proclamation in the lead-up to World War II.
Pope Francis has not commented recently on the unnerving Korean standoff.
Cardinal Yeom, however, knows the Holy Father is with the Korean flock. “We are sure of his awareness and closeness.”
The cardinal continued: “The problem of the Korean Peninsula is a problem of the world. It has been globalized. We decided to learn from other Church experience because, we see, the Church never gives up on the work of peace, even if others are ready to instrumentalize or politicize” our efforts.
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine,
the Washington Examiner.