First, let’s be clear about the two national leaders at the summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, last week. President Donald Trump is a pathological liar, an extreme narcissist, an autocrat by political temperament, a cynical manipulator of entrenched racism, a misogynist, a bully, and a cheat. His attacks on the institutions of democracy, including the freedom of the press and the separation of powers, pose exceptional threats. Chairman Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator. He persecutes and kills potential adversaries at a whim. He is the inheritor of a family dynasty that has ruled North Korea with a stranglehold while a majority of people there face deprivation.
These are two of the world’s worst and most dangerous leaders. However, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe that good can emerge and overcome the power of evil in any circumstance. So, I was genuinely filled with hope as the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim approached. Promising, reconciling steps seemed possible.
Now we are in the wake of the summit’s diplomatic failure. As usual, there are differing accounts as to why. U.S. national security experts say that no agreement is better than a bad agreement. Certainly, a U.N.-supported consensus to restrain North Korea’s nuclear capabilities must be pursued. Whether the one-on-one personal diplomacy between President Trump and Chairman Kim is the best way to do so remains in question. But the stakes had been elevated, and much has been lost in this diplomatic failure.
Ten days before the summit, I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, my seventh visit to this country. Attention around the Hanoi meeting was intense. Historically, the focus on the U.S.—North Korean relationship has tended to diplomatically marginalize the role of South Korea. But South Korean President Moon Jae-in had done much to support and propel this process forward.
I worshipped at Seoul’s Myungsung Presbyterian Church, the largest Presbyterian church in the world with a membership close to 100,000, and preached at its English-speaking service. At the main Korean worship service I attended (one of five services that they offer each Sunday), I heard prayers for the reunification of Korea at least three or four times, which is a repeated intercession. Moreover, Myungsung is known for its daily prayer services. One of these gatherings that takes place every Monday is focused on praying for re-unification. It has been doing so for 10 years, normally drawing about 3,000 people.
Americans, I think, have little sense of the historical agony created by the division of Korea. This arbitrary line severed one nation, one people, one culture, and separated families. The yearning for reunification runs deep, especially in the older generation, and across the lines of South Korea’s political divisions. At lunch with three of Mysungsung’s pastors—in their 30’s and 40’s—I asked if they expected to see reunification in their lifetimes. All responded with certainty that they would see reunification.
How this might happen is not clear. Chairman Kim Jung-on provides little grounds for trust based on his past actions. Yet, trust works both ways. It’s worth noting the irony that President Trump, who has abrogated an agreement negotiated in good faith to restrain Iran’s nuclear capabilities, is expected to be trusted to keep an agreement to curtail North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
International economic sanctions are taking their toll on North Korea, and the 35-year-old Chairman knows his country’s need for economic relief and development. Further, South Korea’s President Moon was convinced that the Summit would yield at least partial agreements on economic sanction relief and nuclear development restraint. He was ready to announce important inter-Korean initiatives, including a connecting railroad line and fresh economic cooperation. President Moon has based his political fortunes on steps toward North-South détente, and now all of this is in question. But I think he will continue, behind the scenes, to press for any way forward.*
Most Americans don’t understand that the Korean War has never ended. Hostilities were stopped by an armistice, and there’s never been a peace treaty to bring the war to a negotiated conclusion. Expectations prior to the summit were that a such a treaty might become possible, in addition to the establishment of liaison offices in Washington, D.C., and Pyongyang. While I understand the practice of diplomatic give and take, these initiatives, in my view, should be pursued irrespective of any larger “deal” on sanctions and de-nuclearization.
Where does this leave us, at least for now? Primarily, we must continue to rely on Christian hope. This setback will not be permanent. The ground for new possibilities must be prepared. American Christians can begin by joining their Korean brothers and sisters in earnest prayers for the reunification of the Korean peninsula and its people. Ecumenical efforts, which have opened some avenues of unofficial dialogue between the North and the South, should be given fresh support. And with the model of Vietnam in mind, U.S. Christians should press the case for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, and for the establishment of liaison offices in both countries.
Despite my differences with President Trump, had Hanoi produced even a partial agreement, I would have stood in line to praise this effort. We can speculate on what motivates President Trump’s iconoclastic and inconsistent foreign policy, apart from the desire to undo whatever President Obama did. But let’s be honest. If it were a Democratic president, and not Donald Trump, trying to reach an agreement with Kim Jong-un, most of Trump’s present critics would be in full-throated support. And the Republicans would be crying betrayal.
Providence has a way of redeeming bad motives with unintended consequences. So, when it comes to Korea, President Donald Trump, Chairman Kim Jung-on, and President Moon Jae-in, let’s not retreat into a cynical blame-game and name-calling. Rather, as Christians, let’s do what we are equipped to do best by our story, and keep hope alive.
*Editor's Note: On March 4th, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed three-way talks with the United States and North Korea in an effort to prevent nuclear negotiations from derailing.