Last Friday, July 25, the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) held an ecumenical roundtable in dedicated to promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. The panel discussion included representatives from the the Presbyterian Church (USA), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, Korean mainline churches, and the World Council of Churches. However, the United Methodist Church deserves a special mention for having three official United Methodist bodies sponsor the event (the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Global Ministries, and United Methodist Women) in addition to the denomination’s Korean-American Assembly. Other sponsors were the United Church of Christ, the D.C. lobby office of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Global Ministries agency of the United Church of Christ. Speakers included two United Methodist bishops, Mary Ann Swenson and Hee Soo Jung. In addition, the panel took place in Foundry United Methodist Church, a liberal congregation in Washington, D.C.
The ecumenical council, and the vigil in front of the White House planned for the following day, was spurred by a “Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula” put out by the World Council of Churches. Among the recommendations of that statement:
- The permanent and peaceful reunification of North and South Korea
- An end to the economic and financial sanctions placed on North Korea
- A formal treaty in place of the ceasefire which ended the Korean War
- The cessation of all military exercises on the Peninsula
- The elimination of all nuclear weapons in North East Asia, as a step towards a “Nuclear-Free World”
In general, throughout the panel the blame for tensions between North and South Korea was laid entirely at the feet of the United States, with the caveat that the Japanese were also to blame. According to the opening presentation from Korean Policy Institute’s Christine Ahn, North Korea and Kim Jung-il was ready to negotiate a lasting peace with the Clinton administration. But hopes for peace were scuttled by the “election debacle between Bush and Gore,” in which “we ended up with George W. Bush, who put North Korea in an Axis of Evil.”
Ahn also seemed convinced that Kim Jung-il’s son and successor Kim Jung-un could lead to a diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and North Korea. She cited the fact that Jung-un was educated in the West, and had dismissed some of the hardliner generals. Saying the generals were “dismissed” is a certainly a rather Orwellian way of saying they “disappeared, and then had their children and grandchildren murdered.”
The harshest criticisms of the U.S. were from Rev. Jung Sun-Noh, vice-chair of the NCCK’s Reconciliation & Reunification Committee. The division of Korea into North and South, the Reverend said, was the product of a “hidden agenda of capitalist control and profit-maximizing sinful greed.” As such, Koreans were legally entitled to “compensation and reparations.” He personally proposed that Koreans should sue the United States in the International Court of Justice. Specifically, he believed that the people of North and South Korea were owed 10 trillion dollars worth of reparations. “United States is [a] rich country,” he noted.
Not once did any of the panelists criticize the actions of the North Korean government. On the contrary, United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson denounced the “demonizing and propaganda [against] North Korea,” and said too many people forget that “there are Christians in North Korea.” There were generic calls for denuclearization, but such calls were aimed at all sides, not just the North Koreans. The closest anyone came to singling out North Korea for criticism was when an audience member (not a participant) brought up the continuing imprisonment of Pastor Kenneth Bae for spreading the Gospel.
One problematic refrain at the event was the constant legitimatization of the Korean Christian Federation, an organization that purports to speak for North Korean Christians. Included in the printed materials handed out was a statement from the 2013 Ecumenical Korea Peace Conference in Atlanta, GA, which resolved to “support the efforts” of the Federation “for reconciliation, peace and reunification.” The aforementioned WCC statement called for Christians to work “in close partnership and transparent relationships” with the Korean Christian Federation. Rev. Sun-Noh pushed Bishop Swenson, a vice-moderator of the World Council of Churches, to push for the WCC’s official acceptance of the Korean Christian Federation, which has long been denied. Bishop Swenson promised that “we’re going to change that.”
Religious liberty advocates and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom believe that the Korean Christian Federation is a front controlled by the North Korean dictatorship, made to trick foreigners into believing there is a Christian presence in North Korea. To quote the U.S. Commission:
In 1988, the North Korean government attempted to blunt international criticism of its abysmal religious freedom record by creating “religious federations” for Buddhists, Chondokyists, Protestants, and Catholics. The federations were intended to demonstrate the rebirth of long-repressed religious communities and direct the construction of churches and temples in the capitol city of Pyongyang. The federations also became the main interlocutors with international religious organizations, including negotiating development assistance from international humanitarian organizations. However, former refugees and defectors continue to testify that the federations are led by political operatives who maintain religious venues as both cultural relics and tourist attractions and seek economic assistance from foreign donors. [Emphasis added]
Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, a writer for Open Doors who has visited the country three times, has this to say in an interview with Rob Moll:
…[T]hey took me to the Korean Christian Federation, which is this so-called Christian church in Pyongyang, but it’s completely set up for the foreigner’s benefit. Later, I sent a friend along who wasn’t a Christian. I said leave the hotel on a Sunday morning, this was Easter Sunday morning, and see if that’s a real functioning church. And he went along on Easter Sunday morning, the place was locked. So there is the Korean Christian Federation, but it’s really just a kind of shell church to bring in religious VIPs so that they can be a kind of go-between, between the North Korean regime and the West, because diplomatic channels are very hard for them to use. [Emphasis added]
The U.S. Commission writes that North Korean Christians are “arrested, tortured, and even executed,” and that “thousands of religious believers remain imprisoned in North Korea’s notorious penal labor camps.” So Bishop Swenson is right to note there are Christians in North Korea. But she forgot to clarify that they’re either in hiding or in death camps.
The following morning, around a hundred people marched from Foundry UMC to the White House to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement. The crowd, mostly composed of Korean-Americans, called on the United States to take positive steps towards a lasting peace with North Korea. Meanwhile, in Pyongyang, the North Korean government also held a remembrance of the signing of the armistice. How did the North Koreans celebrate the cause of peace? By threatening to launch a nuclear missile at the White House.