International Seminar on the Ecumenical Diaconal Ministry of North/South Korea, 4-5 March 2019, Seoul

Peter Prove, Director, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, World Council of Churches


The role of healing and reconciliation among the churches of the world – that they may all be one (John 17:21) – is the very essence and nature of the ecumenical movement. The fragmentation of the one Church of Christ is very often a reflection of the general fragmentation in human political and social affairs. And so the ecumenical task is inextricably intertwined with the pursuit of justice and peace, not only on the Korean Peninsula but in many contexts of division, tension, conflict, occupation and discrimination around the world. And so it is that engagement in political and international affairs has been an archetypal role of the World Council of Churches since its very beginning.

If I am called on to speak on the role of the ecumenical community for healing and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, it is appropriate that I start with an admission: The WCC carries a certain burden of guilt, insofar as it initially supported the US-led UN intervention in Korea which we now acknowledge – although perhaps with the wisdom of hindsight – led to an incalculable toll in lives lost and human suffering. Indeed, the UN intervention and the war in which it took part is a proximate cause of the unresolved conflict in this region and the still prevailing division of the Korean people, for the healing and reconciliation of which we are all working and praying. For the WCC, this historical responsibility adds a sharper edge to the Christian and ecumenical calling to be peacemakers in the current context of the Korean Peninsula.

Over the last almost 5 years I have spoken so much about ecumenical action for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, and so often recalled the history of the Tozanso process, that I have begun to bore even myself. So I do not intend to test your patience today with an extensive repetition of that story, as precious and as worth recalling as it is, and still not widely enough known. Nevertheless, certain key aspects of that unique history are important bases for our discussions today, and for our current and future action for diakonia, peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula.

Among other things, as affirmed by Erich Weingartner, Christians and government officials in both parts of Korea recognize Tozanso as the first opening on a non-governmental – but officially acknowledged – level between North and South. It led to the first direct encounter between North and South Korean Christians since the war, in September 1986 in Glion, Switzerland. It bore fruit here in South Korea, in the form of the courageous “Declaration of the Churches of Korea on National Reunification and Peace” issued by the NCCK in February 1988. Moreover, it provided the impulse for visits by delegations from the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCCUSA) to both Koreas in 1986 and 1987, and for a visit by a delegation from the Korean Christians Federation (KCF) of the DPRK to the USA in 1989, hosted by the NCCCUSA – the first time since the war that any North Korean group was granted visas to visit the US. And in 1993, the KCF Chairperson met with President Bill Clinton and other senior US Administration officials in the US. In all of these ‘firsts’, the ecumenical movement’s role in promoting healing and reconciliation through encounter and dialogue was absolutely pivotal.

As I have said elsewhere, these things are worth recalling, not so much to revel in past glories, but to illustrate just how much momentum has been lost in the intervening period of political confrontation, and how much ground we still have to catch up in the search for peace.

The extraordinary flowering of contacts, visits and dialogue with North Koreans through the KCF that the Tozanso process had inspired was brought to a sudden pause by the chilling of the international political climate for such encounters, in particular following President George W. Bush’s infamous invention of the ‘Axis of Evil’. However, even during this ‘winter’ season, the ‘ecumenical channel’ remained open and vital, allowing for communication and encounter with the KCF. Indeed, we have been told that at a certain point the ‘ecumenical channel’ had become almost the last remaining regular institutionalized channel of communication and encounter between North Koreans and the outside world. It is important for us to recognize that, in the context of the North Korean system, the fact that KCF was able to continue as a partner with NCCK and WCC throughout this period means that the DPRK government was invested in this line of communication and exchange with the wider world through the KCF and its international ecumenical partners.

Of course, the WCC’s 10th Assembly, in Busan, was a providential opportunity to renew the awareness of WCC member churches around the world of the continued conflict, division and suffering of the Korean people. It served to re-galvanize ecumenical engagement in the search for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, against a rising tide of tensions and confrontation. And certainly the level and intensity of initiatives by the WCC in partnership with NCCK, KCF and other ecumenical friends of Korea has significantly increased in the intervening years.

But now I want to focus more on the current moment, in which the prospect of a formal end of the war, and a sustainable peace on this peninsula, is dangled tantalizingly before our eyes, and yet continues to elude us even as we reach out to grasp it. The momentous events of last year – Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, the PyeongChang Winter Olympic moment, the Panmunjom Summit and subsequent inter-Korean summits, and the DPRK-US Singapore Summit – gave us and the whole world fresh reason to believe in miracles, and in the possibility of peace, and even of reunification.

However, the premature conclusion of the recent Hanoi Summit without agreement has provided a – perhaps necessary – reality check on the exuberant hope of an imminent resolution of this longstanding conflict and division. It must certainly have impressed upon both leaders that achieving the grand aspirations so boldly proclaimed last year will take much more effort, patience and compromise. In particular, it will require an incremental process of mutual trust-building, which after a history of such bloody conflict and such long and bitter confrontation clearly cannot be achieved overnight or through a few high-level summits.

So, what role for the ecumenical community in this new context of fresh hope, as yet unfulfilled, and confronted with political headwinds?

First and foremost, I think that the ecumenical movement’s most precious resource is now, as before, the relationship with North Korean Christians through the KCF. Both in terms of the ecumenical impulse for Christian unity through inter-church relations, cooperation, worship and prayer, and in terms of our calling to be peacemakers in the midst of the world’s conflicts, the protection and promotion of this relationship is fundamental.

It is of vital importance that we share this relationship more widely in our churches and communities. I am still, after all these years, surprised and dismayed by how frequently I encounter an absence of knowledge and/or mild incredulity within WCC’s own constituency about the existence of North Korean Christians, the WCC’s relationship with the KCF, and its significance. Hopefully the KCF’s prominent participation in the WCC’s 70th anniversary events and Central Committee meeting last year may have gone some way to addressing this.

Similarly, in US political circles especially, I find that the default presumption in the international community is that any and all religious expression is by definition persecuted in North Korea. Especially in the current US political context, I assume that this presumption must surely colour policy regarding North Korea in a more negative tone. I recently had a rather lengthy conversation with US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, Senator Sam Brownback, in which I tried to present a more nuanced perspective on the existence and nature of religious communities in the DPRK, and in particular the KCF. I don’t think that I persuaded him. But it is important that the ecumenical experience of a more nuanced reality in the DPRK is more widely disseminated in the international community, among those who make policy regarding the approach to North Korea and for whom freedom of religion is a key concern.

Likewise with regard to human rights in general. As a foundational promoter of international human rights law, I think that the WCC and the ecumenical movement have a special role and responsibility to counsel against setting legitimate human rights concerns in opposition to making peace. Inspired by Prof. Park Kyung-seo, I think it is really a question of what is likely to be the more viable and effective path towards full respect for all human rights in North Korea. The approach of confrontation and isolation, especially in this context, threatens a return to elevated risks of armed conflict, the potentially catastrophic consequences of which would likely affect all human rights for a vast population in the whole region. The better approach to improving the human rights situation in the DPRK is likely to be through dialogue and engagement in the context of a secure peace in which human rights are not instrumentalized in a political confrontation with the North Korean regime. This thesis was in part borne out by the successful visit to the DPRK by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, in May 2017 – the first ever visit to North Korea by a UN human rights expert.

On the issue of the sanctions against the DPRK, which has risen to special prominence as the issue on which the Hanoi Summit foundered, I think the ecumenical movement also has a special and distinctive role to play. Over many years, the WCC has repeatedly revised its perspective on the ethics and utility of sanctions. While sanctions are, indeed, the chief non-violent means at the disposal of the international community for exerting pressure for positive change, the WCC has come to adopt a general presumption against the imposition of sanctions, on the basis that they almost always inflict the greatest suffering on the most vulnerable people.

This is presumably especially true of the sanctions regime currently in place against the DPRK, which has evolved beyond highly targeted limited sanctions, to become the most stringent and wide-ranging sanctions regime ever established, covering whole sectors of the North Korean economy. I think the argument for incremental sanctions relief is both ethically and politically sound. The continued exertion of ‘maximum pressure’ through the current sanctions regime is also greatly impeding humanitarian access to DPRK, as many WCC specialized ministries active in the DPRK – as well as many UN and other humanitarian agencies – can attest. I hope that the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula (EFK) can play a stronger role in advocacy and action for sanctions relief, especially in the humanitarian sector.

Having said that, I believe that the most important diaconal role for the ecumenical community now is in the field of advocacy and the promotion of peace, rather than in the delivery of humanitarian goods and services per se. Many experienced observers of North Korea in our own circles have concluded that, but for the impact of the most stringent sanctions imposed since 2017, the DPRK has now developed sufficiently to provide for its own needs, other than in cases of natural disaster or other emergencies. What the current political moment calls for, in addition to relief from the most severe sanctions, is advocacy and support for a secure and sustainable peace (in particular through the conclusion of a peace treaty to replace the Armistice Agreement), for peaceful coexistence on the Korean Peninsula, and for the reunification of the too long divided Korean people.

My final point relates to the need for ecumenical engagement in helping to build a constituency for peace, in the USA. Even the most authoritarian leaders are ultimately susceptible to correction if they ignore the needs and fears of their own people for too long, or get out too far ahead of the opinions of their power base. In the US context (since I cannot speak with any authority of the perspectives of ordinary North Koreans) I have the distinct impression that support for President Trump’s overtures to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is at best weak, even – or maybe especially – in his own base.

Together with the United Methodist Church and the World Methodist Council we made a small effort late last year to begin helping to build such a constituency for peace in the US churches. We tried hard to get the necessary approvals from the US government for a KCF delegation to visit the US in order to take part in a Roundtable for Peace on the Korean Peninsula, hosted by the UMC and WMC in Atlanta GA in November. Such approvals were not forthcoming. Turning that disappointment into an opportunity, we secured the support of 40 prominent US church leaders for a letter to President Trump asking for his personal intervention to make such encounters between North Koreans and Americans possible, specifically through the churches in the US. That letter was delivered in early December. We still await a response.

In any event, we all need to do more to advance this process and to grasp this historic opportunity for peace, especially through the “more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels” envisaged by the Panmunjom Declaration, particularly between North and South Koreans, but also in the wider international community.

When asked by an American Evangelical church leader what message he could take back to his community, Rev. Kang Myong-chol, KCF Chairperson, said “Tell them we are all children of God.” That is a message for us all to share, and to inspire our persistent efforts for peace.