NOTE: A timeline - UMNS #091 - a map and head-and-shoulders photographs of the people quoted in this story are available.
A UMNS Report By Kathy L. Gilbert*
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
As tensions between the United States and North Korea grow daily, Korean-American United Methodists are feeling the pain and frustration of seeing their dreams for peace and the reunification of North and South Korea slip further away.
The Rev. Youngsook Kang, an executive with the denomination's Board of Global Ministries, visited North Korea in July.
"I am from South Korea," she says. "When I was in North Korea, I just felt immediately we are all one people. Koreans both from North and South are one race, one nation, one people, one language. For me, it is very tragic that one nation with one people is divided. When I was there, I heard time and again the desire for peaceful reunification. The desire is from North and South Korea."
Listening to news reports, peace seems far away. Most recently, North Korea has threatened to abandon the 1953 armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War.
Over the years, North Korea and the United States have had meetings, agreements and disputes over nuclear weapons and economic sanctions. Tensions heated up again in January, when North Korea made U.N. inspectors leave the country.
North Korea says the United States violated the 1994 Geneva Framed Agreement by cutting oil supplies to Pyongyang. President George W. Bush says North Korea violated the agreement when it restarted its nuclear program. Both sides have demands. North Korea wants to sit down at the table with the United States and get assurances of peace. President Bush has said North Korea must first disarm.
"The U.S. constantly threatens North Korea," says the Rev. KilSang Yoon, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. As a Korean-American United Methodist, Yoon has made it his mission to do everything possible to bring about the peaceful reunification of North and South Korea. He has made more than 20 trips to North Korea in the last 13 years for that purpose.
"The North Korean people have been asking to end the Korean war by turning the cease-fire agreement into a permanent peace agreement, but the U.S. government is not listening," Yoon says. "We (U.S. government) push them, choke them. It is very tragic."
In the 1994 Geneva Framed Agreement, North Korea pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and seal the spent fuel rods in exchange for international aid to build two power-producing nuclear reactors.
"The U.S. was suppose to compensate for the loss of electricity with 500,000 tons of crude oil annually. The U.S. promised to build two light water reactors by 2003, but only the foundation has been laid; the promises have not been fulfilled," Yoon says. He also points out that in the 1999 William Perry report, the United States agreed that the best way to deal with North Korea was through engagement.
The White House turned back the clock in 2001, Yoon says, when President Bush referred to North Korea as part of an "axis of evil."
"Every president since Eisenhower has had to deal with some crisis on the Korean Peninsula," says the Rev. James Laney, a United Methodist pastor and educator who served as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 1993 to 1997. "All of them have elected to find some peaceful way to resolve it."
Laney says there has been no final solution, but none of the U.S. leaders has thought the situation was worth the kind of sacrifice that war would entail.
"I think the situation is worsening because the attention of the U.S. is almost exclusively focused on Iraq," he says.
"As a result, we are not taking the leadership and showing the initiative to try to resolve this situation on the Korean Peninsula as we should. The urgency of the situation in North Korea requires immediate attention because once they start reprocessing spent fuel rods - which they had 8,000 of them before 1994 - it will be very difficult to know what the situation is or to get it back into the box," he says.
No longer a threat
Kang says North Korea wants assurance of peace and economic aid.
"Their economic situation is so dire that they are using the weapons program as their bargaining chip," she says.
The U.S. government needs to be more flexible instead of just demanding North Korea disarm before coming to the negotiation table, Kang says.
"They are very desperate in seeking aid. Compared to a few years ago, they are doing better, but their situation is very bad. I think that they are open and willing to come to the negotiation table as long as the U.S. comes to the table. I am not blaming it all on the U.S., but the U.S. government needs to be a little more flexible. Once you get to the table, then you can talk about it. I really want the U.S. government to give a negotiation opportunity to North Korea," she says.
Yoon says South Koreans, especially young people, have concluded that North Korea is no longer a threat.
"The last six months, there has been a rising anti-American mood in South Korea, openly, very aggressively from the young people," he says.
"The fact is North Korea is an extremely poor nation. As we all know, its people are hardly being fed," Laney says. "The only thing they have is this (nuclear) capability, which they claim is defensive - and probably is, because they don't have the capacity to launch an aggressive attack. They don't have the economics."
It is a matter of one side having to give up, he says. He believes help will need to come from the surrounding powers - China, Japan and Russia - to take the pressure off the United States going alone.
"The issue now stands on a matter of face, of pride. Neither side will go first," Laney says. "This is the classic definition of a zero-sum situation, where war can only be seen as the final result."
"I feel the North Korean government is always using threat tactics, bluffing. I think that is what they are doing now," says Bishop Hae-Jong Kim, who leads the church's Pittsburgh Area. "I hope this will settle down as negotiations move forward. I don't know what we can do as a church but pray."
"I think the church's role is to insist on the exhaustive attempt to find a peaceful solution," Laney says. "To try every possible means to resolve the situation so it truly upholds the stability of the entire peninsula - that is the security of the South as well as the North."
He warns that if the Bush administration's unspoken agenda is regime change in North Korea, a peaceful solution will not be possible.
A Methodist presence
Kang says the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has played a vital role in the past 20 years in North Korea through its work with the Korean Christian Federation.
"We have a relationship of care, support and solidarity," she says. "The work of the church in North Korea needs to start with the Christians in North Korea."
Over the years, the board has established an important partnership with the Korean Christian Federation, she says.
The United Methodist Church needs to be actively involved in advocating for better U.S.-North Korean relations, she says.
She notes that Bush's new budget does not include funds for delivering oil to North Korea. "How do we raise our voice and tell the government or the people in the church that this (cutting the funds from the budget) is not going to help?"
The United Methodist Committee on Relief, which is part of the Board of Global Ministries, has been giving humanitarian assistance and support to North Korea. Kang says the board is also working in partnership with the Korean-American United Methodist churches to support noodle factories in North Korea.
"Humanitarian support is very important, especially in light of their very dire economic situation," she says.
Over the years, the United Methodist Church has supported reunification of the two Koreas and a peaceful end to conflict.
Methodism is strong in South Korea, where the autonomous Korean Methodist Church has more than 1.5 million members, and U.S. Korean congregations represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the United Methodist Church.
This year marks the centennial celebration of the Korean-American United Methodist Church. Since its beginning in 1903, the Korean-American United Methodist church community has grown to more than 420 congregations with 100,000 members. More than 540 Korean-American clergy - including more than 100 women - serve in Korean-speaking and cross-racial appointments, as well as the church's boards and agencies.
In 1999, the Council of Bishops passed a resolution urging the U.S. government to "make a forthright commitment to five policy directions in support of Korean efforts for peace and reunification." Those included making the peaceful reunification of Korea a formal U.S. policy goal and having the nations involved sign a peace treaty to "eliminate the threat of war, establish an enduring peace and minimize tension in the Korean Peninsula." The bishops also encouraged cultural and educational exchanges and family visits between North and South Korea.
The 2000 General Conference passed a resolution stating, in part, that "... it is quite clear that a U.S. policy of isolation, sanctions and military buildup directed against the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) will stimulate North Korea to rely more on its military, even at the expense of the lives of its population, and may lead to another catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula. Continued engagement, steadfast negotiations, and careful cultivation of cooperative relationships with the appropriate DPRK organizations provide the only real opportunity for a positive resolution of the Korean stalemate."
Yoon points to America's history of supporting freedom for its citizens.
"When we are bullying others, that is really ethically and morally wrong," he says. "I don't like to see my country, my adopted country U.S.A., to be perceived by the nations of the world as a bullying country.
"As Christians, we need to let North Korean people have free trade. By lifting the economic embargo, they can be a new country and they can have slow change toward an open market system. That is the best way. If North Korea is isolated and collapses, then all the Korean Peninsula will be drowned together."
The United States needs to play the role of a good humanitarian, Christian country, he says.
"That is the best way to achieve peace. That is why I, as a Christian, must raise my voice."
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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.