In Search of a Theology of Reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula

Abstract

Peace and reconciliation are vital theological concepts: God reconciles himself with us through Christ, and likewise, we are called to become reconciled with one another. But how can this theological understanding be applied to peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas? I discuss here some of the theological efforts that have emerged, drawn from (1) Korean experiences of captivity to ideological differences, (2) distrust and despair, and (3) differing identities between North and South. If Christian theology is to address these issues, we must explore further the meaning of the key concepts Jubilee, han, and shared identity.


The conflict between the two Koreas is a dominant concern for its people, and it has affected their lives ever since the division of Korea, which began in 1945, after the end of the Japanese occupation. Although reunification has been a leading agenda item for political leaders, the ways to achieve this goal have differed widely because of the Cold War ideological conflict. In this context, the churches in South Korea have passed through various stages in attempting to deal with the issue, and theological thinking has often made a significant impact on the wider society through Christian-initiated movements for peace and reconciliation. Peace and reconciliation are core theological concepts: God reconciles himself with us through Christ, and we likewise are called to become reconciled with one another. But how can this theological understanding be applied to peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas? As in the case of politics, the South Korean churches are deeply divided into conservative and liberal positions, which has been a constant struggle for Christians as they grapple with the political situation.[1]

In this article I discuss some of the theological efforts that have emerged in support of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, drawn from Korean experiences of pervasive ideological differences, distrust and despair, and differing identities between the North and the South. If Christian theology is to address these issues, we must explore the meaning of several key concepts—in particular, Jubilee, han, and shared identity. These concepts have arisen within three areas of what might best be described as Korean attempts at peace and reconciliation. First, I consider the application of the Jubilee principle in the Declaration of the Korea National Council of Churches toward the Unification and Peace of the Korean People (1995). Second, I explore the concept of han—or deep-seated, shared suffering—and its potential to make space for the cultivation of hope and trust in a reunification setting. Finally, I discuss efforts at forming a common identity for the future through a process of reconciliation between the people in the North and the South.

The Jubilee principle and the call for a restored sharing community

The Jubilee is most clearly presented in Leviticus 25:8–55 (see also Lev. 27:16–25; Num. 36:4), which has a close textual relationship to the declaration of the sabbatical year in Exodus 21 and 23. Although there is no evidence as to whether the Jubilee principle was ever actually practiced in the history of Israel, the idea has been a challenge to the people of Israel and to Christians. This idea of Jubilee and the sabbatical year was picked up by Jesus’s proclamation of the Year of the Lord (Isa. 61:1–2) in Luke 4:21. The Jubilee principle has several dimensions: sabbatical year, restoration of land to the original owners, and liberation of slaves. When the Korean National Council of Churches declared 1995 the Year of Jubilee in its Declaration of the Korea National Council of Churches toward the Unification and Peace of the Korean People,[2] it focused on the third aspect of liberation and also more on the proclamation, rather than the actualization of unification in any particular year. Though many sincerely anticipated that unification could be achieved, the important point was that the Jubilee was proclaimed. It represented the proclamation of the liberation of the Korean people from the bondage of ideological hegemony, and from political systems that hinder the formation of a common community.[3] This theme is also related to the remembering of God’s grace, no matter how the present situation might seem, thus calling Christians to hold on confidently to faith.

Kim Chang-Rak, in his support of the employment of Jubilee law in the unification of the Korean Peninsula, argues that the difference between the Jubilee year and the Year of the Lord is that the sitz im Leben of the Jubilee principle relies on and affirms the present system, whereas the Year of the Lord requires God’s immediate intervention in a situation where there is no hope. The belief in God’s immediate intervention was why the author of the Gospel of Luke recorded that Jesus read the passage and declared that the passage was “fulfilled today” (Luke 4:21).[4] Though there are problems in applying the Jubilee law directly to the situation of the Korean Peninsula, and also in setting the year 1995 as a Jubilee year, the declaration exhibited the insistence of Korean Christians on the continued pursuit of the agenda of reunification of Korea, as they trusted in God’s sovereign power over the problem of division, the slavery of hatred, and the bondage of ideological conflict. Indeed, as it was argued, the Jubilee movement should be carried out in the form of creating a “people community” of justice, restoring a common identity of Koreans sharing a common struggle and pain.[5] The purpose of Jubilee is to bring God’s justice into the Korean context.[6] This is not only a religious notion but is manifested in sociopolitical reality, which requires participating in the justice and peace of God’s kingdom in Korea and together celebrating God’s work of liberation.[7]

The Jubilee principle is also useful for Koreans in encouraging the search for a restored sharing community, employing the concepts of koinōnia (community, sharing) and oikoumenē (household of God). The separation of the people in the North and the South for over sixty years into two very different socioeconomic and political systems means that there are many fewer shared identity parameters between the two societies than in the past. What could be the contribution of theology to this context? The restoration of the concept of koinōnia between the South and North is most urgent, especially because of the severe economic hardship and food shortages continuing in the North. Sharing of resources is a theological imperative that the church should be actively engaged in. It is a central affirmation of the Christian faith that the people of God is catholic (i.e., universal). It is in this sense that oikoumenē has been taken up by the ecumenical movement to express its mission of unity of the church and humanity. Since God is one, the household of God must be one, and this principle is not limited just to Christians but includes all—not least the people of North and South Korea.

In his “theology of reconciliation,” David Kwang-sun Suh sees restoration of community as creating a sharing community. He writes metaphorically of the cross of division and the resurrection of hope and expresses his resentment that, in spite of Korea being the victim of imperial aggression, the nation had to be divided again by the imperialistic policy of the superpowers, and in that sense Koreans are bearing the cross of division. He then argues that, under this cross, Christians in the North and the South yearn for the resurrection, which was demonstrated through Christ and promised to his disciples, and which will be manifested through sharing at table together.[8] The keys to seeking restored shared identity are understanding and accepting and sharing of life together, which includes radical changes in past perceptions of each other.

Overcoming “han” and building trust and hope

Han is a Korean term for deep anguish and agony, like that of a mother who has lost her child.[9] It has been used to describe the sentiment arising from the constant cycle of hope and despair over the last half century, which has failed to bring any enduring sign of improvement in the relationship between the two states. Koreans understand and identify in a national way with the story of Israel in Old Testament times, and likewise with the meaning of the cross. The separation is understood as the cross that Koreans have to bear, and it is through these experiences of bitter conflict and division that Koreans understand the reality of human nature and yet seek hope in the midst of despair. This concept of han was well articulated by minjung theologians, who struggled to find meaningful theological engagement in the context of the unjust society of the 1970s.[10] Among the most well-known of minjung theologians, Suh Nam-Dong presented his thesis in 1975 that Jesus identified with the poor, sick, and oppressed and that the Gospel of Jesus is the Gospel of salvation and liberation. For Suh, han is manifested in the struggle with those evil powers, and liberation is not individual or spiritual but rather communal and political. Suh systematized his minjung theology in the following years, seeing the minjung, or common people, as subjects of history and the dealing with han as the key theme for theology in the Korean context.[11] The minjung theologians have further asserted that the minjung are the Koreans, both rich and poor, both North and South, who are struggling to be reunited, and that han is felt by every Korean in the yearning for reunification.[12]

However, although the identification of the cross of division as the han of Koreans is vital in understanding the agony and despair, the hope of resurrection must be found, which seems to require a further development of the sociopolitical efforts for unification. In other words, the emphasis on political reunification without a concrete process of reconciliation between the two peoples may lead to further alienation of the one from the other. On the issue of the process of reunification, there has been ample discussion from political, economic, social, and anthropological perspectives, but the entrenched problem of the relationship between the two Koreas lies in the deep sense of suspicion and distrust of the other, resulting from decades of conflict and the breakdown of dialogue. How can two parties establish mutual trust after having experienced so many incidents of hurt and hatred? Moreover, how can the deeply divided opinions among the people in South Korea on the issue of unification be reconciled? Moon Ik-Hwan, the Protestant minister who made a controversial visit to North Korea in 1989 and was imprisoned by the South Korean government several times, has expressed his dream and hope for the future in the following poem:

Living in history means . . .
Changing night into day and day into night,
Changing sky into earth and earth into sky,
Scattering rocks with bare feet
and being buried under them,
Surviving as soul only,
waving the flag of freedom high.

Living in history in this land means . . .
Walking through a wall as a door,
Refusing the separation with whole body,
Shouting that there is no border line,
Insisting on a railway ticket for Pyongyang
from the stations in Seoul, Pusan or Kwangju.

This person is crazy!

Yes, I am crazy, truly crazy.
You can’t live in the history without being crazy.
You with a clear mind,
If you can’t sell a ticket for Pyongyang,
let it be.

I shall walk.
I shall swim the Imjin River.[13]
If I am shot, let it be,
I shall go with my soul like cloud and wind.[14]

Bringing about the process of reconciliation by forming shared identity

Reflecting on the South African situation, John de Gruchy, in his discussion on the art of reconciliation in his book on the subject, makes the point that “creating space is critical, irrespective of the nature of the reconciliation we seek,” and that “reconciliation cannot be pursued without the alienated parties facing each other.”[15] This idea of creating space is also affirmed in this present volume through the practical suggestions of other authors. Gerhard Sauter, discussing the German situation, insists that “common identity demands mutual respect and a sharp sense of reality, especially if this identity is having to be built upon very different historical presuppositions.” He regretted that German reunification was largely based on common German prewar history and did not create a “cultural common memory” based on a new context of a unified Germany with a reconciled identity. So he urges his Korean counterparts to “contribute through their participation in God’s atonement and thus become reconciled with each other. This would include not only being compassionate but merciful with each other in the light of their very different and complicated recent stories and so able to hear and confirm the apostolic message: ‘In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself . . . (2 Cor 5:19–20).’”[16]

The “cultural common memory” that Sauter has mentioned is also echoed by Robert Schreiter, who has been working on the issue of reconciliation for many years. He sees that building shared identities is an important part of the process of reconciliation, and also that healing memory and sharing narrative are essential parts of forming shared identities. For him, the shaping of the “communities of memory” is important, to achieve which he suggests several steps. First, acknowledge loss, which does not mean abandoning the past, but rather building a new relationship to it. Second, make connections, creating a situation where our relation to the past is no longer immediate but dialectical, where new connections can begin to be made. Third, take action to bring a new dimension to the situation.[17]

This process of forming shared identity for achieving reconciliation is further developed in Cecelia Clegg’s work entitled “Embracing a Threatening Other,” which arose from her research on the situation in Northern Ireland. Clegg sees that if we look at the nature of group identities in conflict, identity is often distorted into “negative identity,” which is an identity formed over against the other in such a way that the other becomes a “threatening other.” She therefore suggests that there needs to be a “renegotiation” of identity, for which she identifies three steps: empathy for the other, recognizing that others have also suffered, and admitting that one’s own community has wronged the other. She concludes that reconciliation “requires all parties to change; and in perceiving that call from God to change, to metanoia, we suddenly become aware that, in some paradoxical way, the other whom we perceive as threatening and whom we are invited to embrace is not only my Protestant or Catholic neighbour, it is Godself.”[18]

The hope of reconciliation is also well expressed by the Taiwanese theologian C. S. Song, who sees the reconciliation God has brought to this world through the image of the womb. He draws powerful pictures from poems from various Asian contexts to show the agony of the people, and yet he believes there is great hope for the future in the “seed hidden within the mysterious womb of humanity” as a “new life is in the making to succeed the life that has just passed out of the community of the living.” Song bases his argument on the story of Sarah, Abraham’s wife in the Hebrew Bible. He argues that though Sarah had already passed the age of having a child, the promise from God was delivered, that “the seed of life that was to be conceived and to grow there through divine intervention was to bear the meaning of salvation.” And so “Sarah’s womb became an important point at which God’s salvation took on a historical manifestation.”[19] In his analogy, the despair of han of the Koreans, in turn, could be the seed in the womb that brings forth reconciliation. The process and practical implications of creating “cultural common memory,” shaping “communities of memory” and the “renegotiation” of identity is the ongoing task of Koreans seeking lasting reconciliation.

Conclusion

This article has mentioned three theological themes of particular relevance to the inter-Korean unification problem: applying the Jubilee principle and calling for a restored sharing community, overcoming han through building up trust and hope, and bringing about the process of reconciliation by forming shared identity. By way of conclusion, I would like to mention a true story. One of the most telling aspects of despair and hope in the Korean situation is the experience of divided families and relatives. The story of Kim Haksoo, a prominent artist and an elder of a Methodist Church in Seoul, is not unusual. He was married with four children and lived in Pyongyang just before the war broke out. After the short occupation of Pyongyang by the United Nations, when the UN troops had to withdraw from the city, he was advised to escape to the South with them, leaving the whole family behind. This suggestion was based on fear of Communist retaliation and the fear that, as a Korean man, he would be forced to join the Communist army, and also his understanding that the UN troops would soon return to recapture the city. Just before the time to leave, his wife went out to borrow money for his journey to the South. Because he could not hold the last vehicle any longer, he had to say good-bye to his children only, before his wife returned from her errand. When the war ended, he could not go back and could not get any news about the family. For nearly forty years he lived with guilt feelings over not having said good-bye to his wife, and though many who fled from the North remarried in the South, he remained single. In 1989 he unexpectedly received news from a close friend who had visited North Korea that his wife and family were still alive and that his wife had also remained single. He had very mixed emotions. On the one hand, he rejoiced that they were still alive and well, but on the other, he knew well that they could not yet be united. He continued to hold han deep inside his heart, but he was able to deal with it through his faith in Christ and by his dedication to painting until his death in 2009. Perhaps, as C. S. Song suggests, Elder Kim longed that the han he held deep in his heart might be a seed in the womb for reconciliation, and that he would one day be united with his family.

Koreans like Elder Kim, from both sides of the border, still sing a song, “Even in our dreams, our desire is unification. . . . Oh, come, unification.” Is reconciliation possible in the Korean Peninsula? The answer has to be affirmative, yet the road to peace and reconciliation is as fragile as walking on a half-frozen lake; we tread with great care as we hope to reach the far shore together.

Endnotes

  1. See the Institute of Theological Studies, Research on the Sociopolitical Consciousness of Korean Protestant Christians (in Korean) (Seoul: Hanul Academy, 2004), 40–52.
  2. Man-yeol Yi, “Korean Christianity and the Unification Movement,” in Korean Christianity and the Unification Movement (in Korean) (Seoul: Institute of Korean Church History, 2001), 371–74.
  3. See Jong Hwa Park, “Theological and Political Task for Jubilee in the Church and People in Korea” (in Korean), in Fiftieth Anniversary of Liberation and Jubilee (in Korean), ed. Korean Association for Christian Studies (Seoul: Kamshin, 1995), 25–44.
  4. Chang Rak Kim, “Jubilee in the Bible and Jubilee in the Korean Peninsula,” in People’s Unification and Peace (in Korean) (Seoul: Institute of Theological Studies, 1995), 157–215.
  5. Yong-Jin Min, Peace, Unification, and Jubilee (in Korean) (Seoul: Christian Literature Society of Korea, 1995), 295–305.
  6. Sa-Moon Kang, “The Problem of Application of Jubilee Law to the Fiftieth Anniversary of Liberation” (in Korean), in Fiftieth Anniversary of Liberation and Jubilee, ed. Korean Association for Christian Studies, 47–82.
  7. Yong-Bock Kim, “Preface” (in Korean), in Fiftieth Anniversary of Liberation and Jubilee, ed. Korean Association for Christian Studies, 5–14. See also Park Soon-Kyeung, The Future of Unification Theology (in Korean) (Seoul: Sakaejul, 1997), 106–17.
  8. David Kwang-sun Suh, The Korean Minjung in Christ (in Korean) (Hong Kong: Christian Conference of Asia, 1991), 183.
  9. Andrew Sung Park, From Hurt to Healing: A Theology of the Wounded (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004); Sebastian C. H. Kim, “The Word and the Spirit: Overcoming Poverty, Injustice, and Division in Korea,” in Christian Theology in Asia, ed. Sebastian C. H. Kim (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), 129–53.
  10. Minjung is a Sino-Korean term for “people” or “common people,” who are often oppressed by those who hold power. Minjung theology was developed in South Korea during the 1970s to address the problems of inequality in society, injustice in politics, and the tensions between North and South Korea.
  11. Nam-Dong Suh, “Toward a Theology of Han,” in Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History, ed. Kim Yong Bock (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), 51–65.
  12. Suh, The Korean Minjung in Christ, 181.
  13. This tributary of the Han River flows from North Korea into South Korea.
  14. Ik-Hwan Moon, I Shall Go Even on Foot (in Korean) (Seoul: Silchun Monhwasa, 1990), 18–19.
  15. J. de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (London: SCM Press, 2002), 148.
  16. G. Sauter, “What Does Common Identity Cost—Not Only Economically and Politically, but also Spiritually and Mentally? Some German Experiences and Provoking Questions,” in Peace and Reconciliation: In Search of Shared Identity, ed. S. Kim, P. Kollontai, and G. Hoyland (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008), 21–33.
  17. R. Schreiter, “Establishing a Shared Identity: The Role of the Healing of Memories and of Narrative,” in Peace and Reconciliation, ed. Kim, Kollontai, and Hoyland, 7–20.
  18. C. Clegg, “Embracing a Threatening Other: Identity and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland,” in Peace and Reconciliation, ed. Kim, Kollontai, and Hoyland, 81–93.
  19. C. S. Song, Third-Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings (London: Lutterworth, 1980), 146–47.

This is the author-accepted manuscript. The fully-published article can be found here.

Sebastian C. H. Kim, In Search of a Theology of Reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula. International Bulletin of Mission Research,  42 (2), pp. 125-132. Copyright © 2018 by the Author(s). Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.
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Sebastian Kim, a South Korean, is professor of theology and public life and the executive director of the Korean Studies Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. He taught at Union Biblical Seminary in India during 1993–97.