Today marks Korean-American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae’s 500th day in a North Korean prison. Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tourist group. State-run media reported that he was convicted of attempting to lead a religious anti-North Korean religious coup. He has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Bae is a reminder to all of us that Korea remains divided. Brothers and sisters are separated and friends are divided between the 38th parallel.
I was born in Seoul, South Korea. My mother and father were children during the Korean War, and my mother told me a few stories of how they had to flee during the war. She was a young child, one of eight. My grandmother would gather the children and walk for miles and miles making their way down into southern Korea. As they were fleeing one day, a bullet went through my grandmother’s thigh and created permanent damage to her leg. As a young child, I thought it was a wonderful war story of heroism and courage. I didn’t realize then the agony, fear, and suffering that my parents or my grandparents went through to keep safe and keep alive.
As the Korean War lingered on, it ended with the division of Korea at the 38th parallel. That division is a stark reminder of how a beautiful, lovely country can be filled with pain, sorrow, animosity, and suffering. The 38th parallel has kept family members and loved ones apart for almost 60 years. Many divided families are unable to reunite or unable to know if their relatives are still living and doing well. The heartbreak of living apart in their own country has brought lots of anger, tension, loss, and suffering.
In Korea, people have a term for such suffering: han. Han is a difficult word to translate into the English language. The best way to do so may be through ‘unjust suffering’ or ‘piercing of the heart.’
Korea has experienced tremendous han over the last several centuries. If the pain and unjust suffering is not addressed, it continues on the cycle that perpetuates pain and unjust suffering. It is important to break this cycle.
Within theological discourse, many Asian-American theologians resort to using the Korean term han to help their own understanding of pain, injustice, and suffering in the world. For too long, we have focused on the vertical relationship between God and us. We sin and God forgives us. The term han reminds us that we need to also focus on the horizontal relationship between our brothers and sisters, neighbors and strangers. When we cause han on others, we are sinning against others.
Kenneth Bae reminds us that we need to work diligently towards reconciliation and break the cycle of fear, anger and han. As we work towards peace in a world that continues to threaten perpetual han with threats of war, we need to work towards liberty, justice, and reconciliation.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim received her M.Div. from Knox College (University of Toronto) and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She is a Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University.
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