Europe and the Middle East—An online conference asked if the worldwide community of faith can help to unite the divided Korean Peninsula.
The Interreligious Association of Peace and Development (IAPD), one of the UPF associations, held a webinar on April 29, 2021, as part of the International Leadership Conference organized online by the Europe and Middle East branch of UPF.
“The Forgotten Pain of a Divided People – New Prospects for Peace and Reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula” was the title of the webinar.
For over 70 years the Korean people have been divided by a cruel, artificial border along the 38th parallel. This deep scar in the world is one of the last remains of the Cold War. The peace-loving Korean people have lived through a long history of tribulations brought by powerful neighbors.
In a speech given in 1984, the founder of the Universal Peace Federation, himself a native of what is now North Korea, stated: “Many people question what religions can do in this secular age. I answer that the world’s religions need to provide a stable, universal foundation of values upon which governments can build true peace and harmony.”
The IAPD, with the support of the interfaith community, wishes to draw worldwide attention to this pressing issue and encourage a movement for change that will lead to the peaceful reunification of North and South Korea.
Rev. Dr. William A. McComish, dean emeritus of Geneva’s St. Peter’s Cathedral, Switzerland;
Batool Subeiti from the United Kingdom, a women’s activist and young Islamic faith leader;
Hon. Ján Figeľ from Slovakia, a former EU commissioner and EU special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief outside the European Union;
Emina Frljak from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a peace activist and coordinator of Youth for Peace;
Professor Brian Reynolds Myers, author and professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.
The moderator of the webinar, Rabbi Kevin De-Carli from Switzerland, president of the GIIA (Geneva Interfaith Intercultural Alliance) Interfaith Youth Council, called on the speakers to make their initial statements. Each presented initial perspectives for around seven minutes.
Rev. Dr. William A. McComish compared the division of the Korean people with the biggest crimes of the 20th century, comparable to the genocides of the Armenians and in Rwanda, a crime that humanity forgot. As a family-oriented culture, Koreans suffered greatly because of the families that were divided after the Korean War in 1950. Humanity forgot this crime because Korea is much less known than Japan or China. Many people inside and outside Korea want to preserve the status quo because of self-interest, Reverend McComish said. Unification will bring several challenges—economic, political, military—and many people are reluctant to face those challenges, he said.
Batool Subeiti emphasized that the problem should be tackled at the root. The political root of the Korean problem is the intervention of the great powers, and to bring about the unification of both Koreas, there should be an intervention of the same actors that created the division. The United States can contribute greatly to that process by ending the sanctions on North Korea and giving more financial freedom to South Korea, Ms. Subeiti said. For NGOs to contribute to the peace process, it is necessary to have more political freedom and easy access to the North. One idea could be the creation of Twin Villages on both sides, encouraging marriages from both sides. Also, the possibility for divided families to meet again could contribute enormously to the release of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, she said.
Hon. Ján Figeľ emphasized the role of Europe as an inspirational model for many countries in the world, pointing out one ancient proverb that says words are calling but the examples are pulling. European unity started as the dream of a few people, became the desire of many people, and is now a necessity. For the unity of Korea, it is important to have the presence of leaders who give an inspirational example, and not necessarily political leaders. The three steps of “dream, desire, necessity” could be applied on the Korean Peninsula too. Following the example of the relationship between France and Germany, which became the main engine for European unification, everything started on the base of partnership, win-win philosophy, sharing a common vision for the future based on universally shared values. Also, we should not forget that the European community was supported economically by the Marshall Plan at the end of the 1940s.
Emina Frljak’s perspective was of a young person from the still divided nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with a still frozen conflict despite the declared peace. In her viewpoint, the reconciliation in Korea should never be imposed and the interests of the Korean people always should be prioritized. Faith and spirituality can be a healing point, she said. We have to consider the potential of the young people and accept them as equal partners in the process of reconciliation. We should never forget that peace in one place influences the reality in another place because the world is interconnected, she said.
Finally, Professor Brian Reynolds Myers gave a profound analysis of important issues such as North Korea’s Juche ideology, which the Western world perceived as quasi-religious. However, he explained, there is no common ground with religion, although it sounds like that. It was wrongly interpreted and proposed as a tool that serves the vision and the approach of some players in the region. Also it was fundamentally a propaganda tool toward the outside world.
In the second part of the conference, the speakers gave 90-second answers to the following three questions.
The Korean people have a long tradition of spirituality, faith and religion. To what extent should this element be taken into consideration in an attempt to foster peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula?
Is the role of religion for reconciliation only valid for people in one part of the peninsula? Or is there a way in which it can be relevant for all Koreans?
For 70 years the Korean people have been divided artificially because of ideological factors. What can the worldwide community of faith do to contribute to a sustainable solution for this standoff?
There was quite a consensus among the five panelists despite the very different perspectives.
Religions and spirituality could be important tools for the peaceful rapprochement of the two parties on the Korean Peninsula. The deep-rooted Korean religious fervor could be a unifying element among the people of the North and South. There was skepticism about the effectiveness of interreligious efforts in the South as well as in the North. The North, according to some speakers, didn’t seem to have much of a religious foundation at this time due to the systematic repression of mainly Christian faith as a product of the “impure” West. Juche ideology cannot provide a faith-based perspective, and according to Professor Myers, there is no religious sentiment in it. There isn’t any “deification” of the Kim dynasty; rather it is to be considered as a cult of the person, the Great Leader, as we saw in the Soviet Union and other former communist nations. The strong division between different Christian denominations in the South could be an obstacle when reconciliation will demand concerted efforts.
Hon. Ján Figeľ added that faith, spirituality, and conviction are the source of ethics and values. Unity is based on values: for example, human dignity for all, freedom, justice, solidarity, equality, etc. The desire for dignity is in everyone’s heart.
About the final question, there were suggestions for the worldwide community of faith to use strong interreligious and worldwide prayer efforts but, beyond that, to draw the attention of the international community, mainly all leadership involved, to this pressing issue. Political will generated by a genuine concern around the globe for the Korean people could produce momentum that could show a tangible, win-win outcome for both sides, and definitely the worldwide community and religions can influence through lobbying, advocacy, speaking loudly for the cause of the Korean people.
This discussion was followed by questions from the audience. Particularly important was the question about the eventual necessity of a kind of Marshall Plan on the Korean Peninsula, as in the late 1940s the billions of dollars in foreign aid provided by the United States through the Marshall Plan helped Western Europe rebuild after World War II.
Hon. Ján Figeľ responded that dealing with the reunification of Korea definitely has to include or consider different instruments for practical solidarity. It is not enough just to have nice values, to talk, or to dream; something practical is needed for people who are willing to live together. The European Union is among the biggest donors for international projects on securing human rights and international cooperation, and he said he believes that the EU will strongly support Korean reunification. In time of globalization and interdependence, either we import problems such as atrocities or forced immigration, or we promote a real model of integration, applying the experience of Europe in the integration of many countries. If we, as Europeans, received help through the Marshall Plan, now we can help and share with Koreans.
Heiner Handschin, the coordinator of IAPD for Europe and the Middle East, offered some brief closing remarks, in which he appreciated all the panelists. He emphasized the need for IAPD to bring about a broad, interdisciplinary and intergenerational conversation on the Korean issue.
Mr. Handschin mentioned that the UPF founders had called for an interreligious council at the United Nations as a means to include the spiritual component in all world affairs. This could be very effective in solving difficult situations, following the example of South Africa.
Also there is a need for the UN to be more strongly involved in East Asia, Mr. Handschin said. Even though 60 percent of the world’s population live in this region, there is no real UN representation in that part of the world, and there is a lack of UN focus on East Asian issues. Mr. Handschin called for the United Nations to open a fifth office on the Korean Peninsula, especially at the Demilitarized Zone. This could arouse broader interest in the world for the realization of sustainable peace among both Koreas and encourage an ongoing preparatory effort for the goal of Korean reunification.
One particular remark of Hon. Ján Figeľ is of extreme importance regarding the potential impact of the current series of UPF webinars on peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. Answering one of the questions, he reminded us that when we go back long before the actual fall of the Iron Curtain, already in the 1970s there were a series of efforts made in different fields, such as economy, security, and human rights, known as the Helsinki Process. This process led to real cooperation in the later process of integration of Eastern Europe. He suggested that something similar would be helpful in the case of North and South Korea. In a broader sense, if we interpret his words, we can compare this initiative of IAPD to the Helsinki Process.