The World Council of Churches’ commitment to engaging in efforts for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula is deep and long-term. It dates back to the mid-1980s, through the ‘Tozanso Process’ launched in 1984. North and South Korean Christians first met in 1986 in Glion, Switzerland, under the auspices of the WCC. Since then, communications, meetings and visits between WCC (and its South Korean and other member churches and partners around the world) and the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) of the DPRK have continued semi-regularly over the intervening years, up until COVID-19 pandemic.

On the South Korean side, the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) has served as the key counterpart to the KCF in the North. Together, NCCK and KCF have been the twin reference points around which international ecumenical solidarity and support has gathered. This international ecumenical solidarity has taken shape in the form of the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification and Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula (EFK) originally established in 2006. EFK emerged following the church response to the 1990s famine in North Korea, with significant volumes of food aid and other humanitarian supplies having been delivered to the North from and through ecumenical channels. That diaconal engagement with North Korea by churches and church-based organizations has continued, albeit at a much less intensive level, again up until COVID-19 struck.

For the WCC, our involvement in working for peace, reunification and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula combines the fundamental ecumenical objective of seeking visible unity between the churches of the world, with the diaconal mission to respond to those in need, and the Christian calling to be peacemakers, promoting peace and dialogue instead of conflict and violence.

Some of the highlights of this work during the period since I began my service at the WCC in 2014 include:

  • Firstly, the international ecumenical delegation visit to the DPRK which took place on 23-30 October 2015. The delegation was comprised of EFK members and observers, including participants from South Korea. During the delegation visit, a formal meeting of the EFK was convened in Pyongyang on 28 October 2015, the first time an international ecumenical gathering of this nature was able to meet on Korean soil – North or South – with the official participation of both KCF and NCCK.
  • Secondly, the international ecumenical conference on a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula convened by the WCC in Hong Kong on 14-16 November 2016, with 58 participants from churches and related organizations from both North Korea and South Korea and 11 other countries. The conference issued a communique which, inter alia, proposed that future ecumenical initiatives with regard to the Korean peninsula be purposefully and explicitly configured so as to model and exercise leadership towards a process for a peace treaty to replace the Armistice Agreement.
  • Thirdly, the series of extraordinary events in 2018, from the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration in April 2018, another ecumenical delegation visit to the DPRK in May 2018, the June Summit between Chairman Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, and the WCC’s 70th anniversary celebration, also in June, where delegations from both South and North Korea not only took part but joined together in singing and celebration of their togetherness, as well as jointly greeting Pope Francis on the occasion of his visit to the WCC.

But of course, following those highs, we have since suffered some devastating lows – due to the collapse of the political rapprochement between the US and the DPRK, and the global COVID-19 pandemic, which have resulted in the cessation of essentially all visits and regular communications with counterparts in the DPRK. Among other things, since one of the core principles of EFK is that we can only convene when both the South and North Korean partners are present, we have been unable officially to convene this important forum during the entire pandemic period, though we have held some informal meetings of EFK members for the purpose of information exchange. The last time we met with our KCF friends was in December 2019, when we convened an EFK meeting in Shenyang, China. Very soon, that will be fully 2 years ago…

Nevertheless, even under these exceptionally difficult conditions, we have found ways of continuing to work together in the essential continuing search for a sustainable peace in the region and for reunification of the divided Korean people. During 2020, we organized a number of initiatives to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. A Global Prayer Campaign for peace on the Korean Peninsula ran from 1 March to 15 August 2020. In this context, WCC produced a publication entitled The Light of Peace: Churches in Solidarity with the Korean Peninsula, a collection of resources to assist churches in reflecting on 70 years of unresolved conflict on the Peninsula. For the actual anniversary of the start of the Korean War, we developed a joint ecumenical statement subscribed by churches and ecumenical councils from 12 nations that participated in the Korean War, and endorsed by many other ecumenical supporters, calling for an immediate formal declaration of the end of the Korean War and swift steps towards the adoption of a peace treaty.

I have seen recent reports indicating that the governments of South Korea and the USA are in final stage talks concerning exactly such a declaration. I hope it’s true. It would be the vindication of years of effort by the NCCK and the churches of Korea, and by your international ecumenical partners. As we said in the joint ecumenical statement last year, “Seven decades after this war began, it is time to acknowledge that it ended long ago. New challenges to peace and stability in the region have arisen in the meantime, but we do not believe that the resolution of those challenges will be facilitated by keeping that 70-year-old conflict open. On the contrary, we believe that the conditions for pragmatic dialogue and negotiation on current realities on the Peninsula could be greatly enhanced by recognizing the end of the war. We expect that this long overdue recognition of historical reality, and a peace treaty to document it, would be a pivotal contribution to reducing tensions and hostility in the region, and to restoring a conducive environment for resumption of the stalled process of the Panmunjom and Singapore summit outcomes.”

Of even greater importance in this regard is the question of sanctions. I have two main arguments against the sanctions imposed on the DPRK. Firstly, they have quite self-evidently failed in achieving their stated purpose – which was to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. That horse has bolted, and under no conceivable circumstances is it going to go back into its stable. Secondly, though having failed to prevent nuclear proliferation, the sanctions have been very effective indeed in obstructing humanitarian access and assistance to the people of North Korea. Despite the availability of humanitarian exemptions, in practice these have been very difficult and cumbersome to obtain, and must be secured on a case-by-case basis. But the humanitarian ‘exception’ should in fact be the rule. As Dr Kee Park has observed, you shouldn’t have to get approval to respond to people in need. Moreover, the ripple effect of the sanctions has impeded humanitarian assistance in other indirect but very serious ways, especially with banks and financial institutions unwilling to take the risk of facilitating financial transfers even when OFAC licences have been granted. As a result, the North Korean people have suffered greatly from the international community’s sanctions that have already failed. So why maintain them, especially at their ‘maximum pressure’ settings?

On top of this we must add the counter-productive impact of the ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions in the geo-political context. It is apparent that the break in the latest political dialogue process came as a result of the US’s unwillingness to contemplate even incremental relaxation of the sanctions, and to pursue a step-by-step process towards peace and denuclearization. Consequently, a rare and promising opportunity for achieving a sustainable peace in the region and of removing a major risk of potentially catastrophic conflict has been squandered.

Of course, both the humanitarian and political contexts have been considerably worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts. Border closures to prevent COVID transmission have cut off essential supplies to North Korea, especially from China, with economic and humanitarian consequences that must be assumed to be severe. They have also precluded the visits and exchanges upon which our people-to-people process of dialogue, encounter and cooperation between North and South Koreans has been based. Consequently, we have lost a lot of momentum, while we anxiously wait for the conditions globally to improve.

But peace cannot wait, while tensions and conflict risks escalate. And hope and trust is in the nature of our faith, even in the midst of such discouraging circumstances. Therefore we must renew and strengthen our commitment and the efforts we make together for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, despite the obstacles.

Perhaps the path towards the WCC’s 11th Assembly to be held on 31 August-8 September 2022 in Karlsruhe, Germany, may offer a perspective and a framework for such efforts. As you may know, the theme for the Assembly is “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”. Though of universal relevance, I can hardly think of a context to which this theme speaks more powerfully than that of the Korean Peninsula. I am hoping that, after such a long separation, it will be possible for the KCF to accept an invitation to send a delegation to the Assembly in Karlsruhe. In that case the Assembly may provide a useful occasion for re-launching the relationship between KCF and NCCK, and international ecumenical cooperation and solidarity for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula in particular through the EFK.

In the meantime, we must continue to confront and overcome the impediments to dialogue, and ultimately to peace and reunification of the divided Korean people, so that when the next opportunity comes, the seeds of peace will fall on fertile and prepared ground.

Of course, we are committed to the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons, and cannot condone the proliferation of nuclear weapons anywhere. But the suggestion that such weapons are safe in the hands of some but not of others is false. They are not safe in anyone’s hands. And for the first time we have a treaty – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – that is on the way to delegitimizing the development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, use or threat to use nuclear weapons. This new normative standard should apply equally to the P5 states as to North Korea and other more recent members of the ‘nuclear weapons club’. The only state that has any real credibility in this matter is South Africa, as the only state to have acquired nuclear weapons and then to have voluntarily relinquished them. But the world must indeed be made free of these weapons, the most indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction ever developed by man.

In conclusion, everything that increases rather than reduces tensions – including provocative military exercises and ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions – or that prevents people-to-people encounter, is a conflict risk and an obstacle to peace. And everything that prevents a compassionate humanitarian response to the suffering of others is contrary to Christian principles of love and care for one’s neighbour in need. I pray that we will, through our fellowship and collaboration and with God’s help, find the wisdom and strength to overcome all such obstacles to a better future for all the people of the Korean Peninsula, and of the world.