Seoul, South Korea — Sitting on the 28th floor of the Lotte Hotel World in downtown Seoul having breakfast with a long-time ecumenical friend from Korea, I asked him what the churches in his country were thinking about the present crisis. He immediately responded, “We’re asking, 'What are the churches in America thinking?'”
We were looking out at the skyline of Seoul, a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people, situated just 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone that cuts the Korean Peninsula in half. South Koreans today are worried, more so than at other times since an armistice ended the fighting — but not the war — six decades ago. Two impulsive, emotionally reactive leaders with direct power over their nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, harbor deep animosity toward each other. In the event of military action between North Korea and the United States, the South Koreans would be the primary victims, and they have almost no ability to prevent this. North Korea’s artillery is aimed at the modern, bustling city of Seoul, and casualties could be in the millions.
In some ways, South Koreans are at the mercy of Donald Trump — hardly an enviable place to be. Any carelessness, miscalculation, or needless provocation on his part could unleash horrific consequences. And no one excuses Kim Jong-un’s reckless acceleration of his nation’s nuclear program, though his motivating goal is clear: to develop a nuclear capability that will protect the survival of his despotic regime. Anyone who has read works like The Orphan Master’s Son or Escape from Camp 14 understands the brutality of his regime.
What’s at stake here is the possibility of a nuclear conflagration which seems more threatening than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of quiet, earnest diplomacy exploring every option to prevent this, we've heard cataclysmic threats and taunts from President Trump, delivered from the podium of the United Nations. Of course, Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric is also predictably and continuously bombastic — but past U.S. presidents have recognized that peace isn’t advanced by escalating taunts and insults.
The prevailing narrative in our current administration is that diplomacy has been exhausted. But those I've spoken with in South Korea tell a different story. Some of them have talked with North Koreans through informal channels, established through ecumenical efforts over the years. Earlier this month, press reports revealed an unofficial dialogue in Norway last May, where North Korea offered to have a dialogue if conditions were right. Other informal talks were happening in August. Some I talked to this week in Seoul described the North’s ongoing tests as “a most dangerous plea for further dialogue.”
A step-by-step “deal” can be imagined, with sanction reductions, halts in testing, establishing of trade offices, moves toward a “freeze” in nuclear capability, negotiations for a peace treaty, etc. But presently official rhetoric threatens to destroy those possibilities.
Two realities here in South Korea seem unknown or underappreciated in the U.S. First is the fact that the Korean War has not ended. There’s no treaty, and no permanently recognized peace — only an agreement 60 years ago to cease actual hostilities. Traveling through layers of security to Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed, and where North Korean and U. N. forces (mostly South Korean) still wordlessly face one another, brings home this truth. Formally, there is no peace.
Second, for some Koreans, reunification is an earnest hope. In the U.S. we simply assume there are two countries — North Korea and South Korea, end of story. But countless times here I’ve heard prayers and hopes for reunification, some time, in some way. And those prayers come from Christian communities across South Korea. It’s hard to answer how reunification would be peaceably achieved, but that doesn’t diminish hope. Being here, I’m reminded that Korea has been one culture, with one people, and one land for most of its history. The DMZ is an artificial demarcation, similar to the former divisions of Germany and of Vietnam.
Frank Chikane, from South Africa, is also at the conference I’ve been attending here. Frank was a leader in the anti-Apartheid movement and later a high official in the new government. He’s also a Pentecostal pastor, and today serves as a leader in his denomination, the Apostolic Faith Mission. More than anyone, Chikane identified the spiritual issues at stake. One’s enemies become the people whom God loves even more, he said at the conference. We continue to worship a “tribal God,” imagining that this God only loves our group. But when we understand the “other” as those who are children of God, we can’t just bomb them.
In my view, we allow the divisions made arbitrarily by politics and war to separate in our hearts what is indivisible in God’s love. Our witness must begin by resisting the false logic of such divisions with a unifying vision, hope, and prayer. Then we must plea with those in U. S. political power to pursue, relentlessly, “the things which make for peace,” knowing that in God’s realm, they are never exhausted.
Our worship on the day we journeyed to Panmunjom concluded with this prayer:
Pray not for North or South,
but pray rather for ourselves,
that we might not
divide them in our prayers
but keep them both together
in our hearts.