Can the Catholic Church Help Two Korean States Reconcile?

The 234-year-long history of Catholicism in Korea provides remarkable examples and paths to dialogue.

Kim Jong-un walks with President Moon Jae-in in the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea on April 27, 2018
Kim Jong-un walks with President Moon Jae-in in the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea on April 27, 2018 (photo: Ministry of Unification, Republic of Korea, Korean Open Government License 1)

On April 27, 2018, history was made. Borders and walls separating the Korean nation were torn down. Kim Jong-un stepped over the concrete block marking the border to become North Korea’s first leader to set foot in the South. He invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to cross the border and walk in North Korea, which in fact is the land of his ancestors — Moon Jae-in’s parents were among the 14,000 refugees who left North Korea from the port at Hungnam, the site of a major evacuation of United Nations military, South Korean military and North Korean civilians during the Korean War between Dec. 15-24, 1950. The evacuation went down in history as a “Christmas Miracle.” The April 2018 meeting was more than picture-perfect: the Korean leaders agreed to pursue a peace treaty and complete denuclearization of the peninsula. The swift action of denuclearization left the world in awe, believing that miracles can indeed happen — and, speaking of miracles, is this another “Easter Miracle?”     

While witnessing history-in-the-making in Korea, I could not help but think of a documentary film I saw almost a year ago entitled Under the Sun. The documentary follows a year in the life of a three-member family in capital Pyongyang, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea. I would recommend this documentary to anyone with a keen desire to read between the lines and understand the real North Korea, often described as the “Hermit Kingdom,” camouflaged under the idyllic perfectness and well-being only a Communist regime could provide to its citizens. The main character, Zin-Mi, the 8-year-old Korean girl, knows a great deal about her homeland. North Korea, she says, is “the land of the rising sun” and “the most beautiful country” on earth, although North Korea was the only place an 8-year-old had ever seen, and probably the only place she would be able to see, given Communist travel restrictions and isolation policies. The documentary, which was filmed under strict government surveillance, chronicles Zin-Mi's preparations to become a member of the Children's Union, an organization in the tradition of the Pioneers of the USSR and other Socialist-bloc countries. The observant viewer can witness how people living under Communism were starving, and how the country was mired in poverty, isolation and economic destruction. 

Moreover, the DPRK presented in the documentary is a nation-state that seems to exist in a constant state of paranoia about domestic, South Korean and global enemies, including the United States, which was considered the bastion of “evil imperialism.” Domestic enemies were purged for treason, espionage and counterrevolutionary activities, and labor camps for political prisoners were mushrooming in the DPRK. 

North Korea effectively isolated itself from the outside world after Kim Il-sung took control, after World War II. The state became seen as largely a Soviet satellite, blessed by Stalin; while in the Cold War era Pyongyang and Moscow appeared close, a longer lasting and in many ways more influential relationship has existed and continued to develop between Pyongyang and Beijing. Currently, the North Korean economy is the only unreformed Stalinist-style command economy left in existence, while most others have crumbled or have started ambitious reforms.

The first border-passing between the two Korean states really happened on April 27, 2018. Can the Catholic Church in Korea contribute to reconciling the two Koreas, and can the Catholic Church in South Korea help spread the Gospel to North Korea?

The answer is yes. The 234-year-long history of Catholicism in Korea provides remarkable examples and paths to dialogue. Catholicism reached the Korean Peninsula in 1784 via lay people, not via foreign missionaries. This has left the Catholic Church in Korea a permanent mark of pastoral vitality, which over the centuries has strengthened the relations between clergy and laity. During the 35-year Japanese rule in Korea (1910-1945), the influence of the Catholic Church in Korea was significantly diminished. However, after the Japanese colonial rule ended, the Catholic Church’s influence among the Korean people increased. According to the most recent statistics Catholics make up 7.9% of the population of South Korea. Although a small minority in comparison to Protestantism 19.7%Buddhism 15.5% and people of no religious affiliation 56.9%, the Catholic Church constitutes an influential minority: a constant, firm voice and witness to the social Gospel. The Church’s message has been in the service of the people and justice, and in opposition to any form of dictatorship and oppression.

Dialogue and policy reconciliation between the North and South Korean states started in 1989, the year that marked the fall of the Berlin Wall. But dialogue is a process and cannot happen overnight.

During the time of President Roh Tae Woo (1988-1993), South Korea developed Nordpolitic — a foreign policy aimed at developing diplomatic relations with the liberated Socialist-bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Part of the policy was also developing contacts and relations with the DPRK. This political approach resulted in the Korean states joining the United Nations, and in December 1991 both Koreas signed an agreement on reconciliation. This was followed by Korean religious leaders’ delegations meeting for the first time in Nepal in 1991 during the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace. In 1992 North Korea revised its constitution to guarantee religious freedom and the right to construct religious buildings in North Korea. This favorable situation of dialogue and reconciliation was short-lived. Korea’s first nuclear crisis in 1992 resulted in a standstill in the progress of relations between the North and South Korea. Despite the slowdown, relations changed focus, and South Korea focused on providing aid in food and medicine to DPRK. The period following the 2007 Inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, between President Roh Moo-hyun of the Republic of Korea and Kim Jong-il of the DPRK, witnessed increased relations between the North and South, resulting in South Korean religious leaders visiting DPRK. It was during this time that the Catholic Church in South Korea, through its institutions including Caritas and the Catholic Committee for Korean Reconciliation, developed several aid projects for the North. 

The South Korean Catholic position has been cautious over the years, seeking to avoid any provocations toward the North. In December 2011, the Catholic Church in South Korea did not support a project promoted by Protestant churches to erect a Christmas tree along the border with North Korea. The policy of non-confrontation and non-provocation followed by the Catholic Church in the South goes hand in hand with what Archbishop of Seoul, Yeom Soo-Jung, declared in May 2012: that the first step toward improving the situation between the two Korean states is to “restore mutual trust,” which, in turn, will develop mutual dialogue and peace. 

Reconciliation and peace building between the two Korean states is a long process but past relations, as explained above, give hope for deeper dialogue and reconciliation to come. In August 2014 during his Apostolic Journey in the Republic of Korea, Pope Francis reflected on the same topic of dialogue and peace building, saying, “Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities for dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever-greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people. They speak the same language.”

Indeed, the two Korean states are members of the same Korean family, and they share the same mother language, traditions and culture, and the same national martyrs. In April 2013, the Korean Catholic Episcopal Conference launched a process for the beatification of Korean Catholics who died in North Korea, including the Bishop Hong Yongho of Pyongyang, who was killed in 1949. It is proven: martyrs unite and reconcile. In sum, Koreans have the human resources for dialogue and peace building now that the barriers were shattered and promises of denuclearization made. They have the potential to become peace builders in North-Eastern Asia and continue the Easter Miracle.

This post originally appeared at the Register on May 11, 2018.