The first time I heard the word “Korea,” I was a small child learning that my father had served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. My dad was stationed in Okinawa during the conflict and fortunately did not get sent into combat.
However, I had learned early that this Asian nation was a significant place, not just for my family, but for millions of other families.
In college, I tutored Korean students in conversational English, and I now know a number of people with ties to Korea, including my brother, Matthew, who has lived there for more than two decades teaching English. He runs ‘The Basement in Pusan,’ a popular nightclub with foreigners and Koreans alike, and has married a lovely Korean woman who has blessed my family with two girls over the past few years.
Because of these threads tying me to this nation, every time I hear about a possible new war in Korea, I’m just a little bit more nervous than I would be when I hear rumors of war in other nations. Must we accept that war is inevitable and the only way we can eradicate the divisions between the North and South in Korea? Or is there a way out of this morass?
Principles of Peace
First off, let’s remember Jesus Christ always offers the world a way out of its seemingly intractable conflicts. For starters, he asked his followers to love their enemies and do good to those who harm them. He also warned us that if we live by the sword, we will die by it.
To its credit, the Church has made strides in obeying Jesus’ command when it comes to North Korea. Despite the fact that North Korea has persecuted Christians, the Catholic Church has nonetheless helped that nation’s people. For example, the U.S. Bishops’ relief and development agency, Catholic Relief Services, in conjunction with Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s international network of relief and development groups, provided assistance to stem famine in North Korea in the 1990s, and has since supported health programming there.
“In 2015, as part of the CRS network, CRS provided 258 tons of direct food aid (wheat flour) to nurseries and kindergartens and raw material to produce nutritionally fortified food powder distributed to nurseries in Whang-ju,” the agency states on its website.
Secondly, Catholics in America should know more than ten percent of Koreans are Catholics, and that percentage includes the Republic’s first and third democratically elected presidents, Kim Dae jung and Moon Jae-in. American and Korean Catholics share a common belief in a loving God that could enable them to play a key role in promoting peace. That role, I think, can find inspiration in the example set by the late Pope John Paul II.
When East and West were waging the Cold War, the pragmatic yet idealistic Polish pope offered a new way to end it, one that didn’t involve nuclear war and endless proxy conflicts. Through prayer, protest and proclamation, the pope and his allies in Eastern Europe steadily increased opposition to Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe until the communist empire collapsed in 1989. Of course other factors, including the ongoing military and economic contests between West and East, played important roles in bringing down the Berlin Wall. But the Church’s nonviolent efforts not only helped give heart to the anti-Soviet opposition, it also gave Eastern Europeans a way of fighting their oppressors without destroying them.
And that, in a nutshell, is what I believe Catholics in America and in Korea should contemplate doing – seek ways to peacefully engage North Korea without threatening to destroy it. In fact, an example of how the church has done this already exists in the history of South Korea.
When Kim Dae jung, then an opposition leader, was sentenced to death by a South Korean military tribunal in 1980, Pope John Paul II appealed for clemency to the South Korean government. The opposition leader’s sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment, and he eventually was able to leave for the United States. He returned to his homeland after a few years, and was restored his full rights by 1987. Slightly more than a decade later, he became South Korea’s first democratically elected president, and took various steps that helped ease tension between North and South.
What if Pope John Paul II had thrown up his hands when his fellow Catholic had been sentenced to death? What if he had decided to not love his enemies but write off the South Korean rulers at that time as beyond an appeal? Fortunately, we’ll never know the answer to these questions because, just as he did when he supported Solidarity in Poland, the pope realized if you believe in God’s grace, it can create new ways to bring peace where none had existed before.
Today, Pope Francis as well bishops in both South Korea as well as in the United States are calling for mediation between all sides in the Korean conflict. On August 10, for example, Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Peace and Justice, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging our nation to step away from the brink.
“While the escalating threat of violence from the North Korean regime cannot be underestimated or ignored, the high certainty of catastrophic death and destruction from any military action must prompt the United States to work with others in the international community for a diplomatic and political solution based on dialogue,” the bishop wrote.
Here’s praying that “high certainty” stays in the realm of speculation and never moves into the realm of fact.
Rob Cullivan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Catholic News Service and other religious and secular publications.