“The momentum for peace must now be continued.” “A resumption of military confrontation risks a catastrophic conflict in the region.” Thus the new reconciliation and peace process “should be respected and supported by the international community.” The appeal to act with responsibility in this delicate phase of the negotiations was conveyed to SIR by Peter Prove, Director of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, who spoke about the visit of an international ecumenical delegation to the Democratic Republic of Korea, May 3 to 7, on the invitation of the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), held shortly after the historic inter-Korean meeting in Panmunjon (April 27) and ahead of the equally historic summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North-Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The ecumenical delegation comprised of representatives of the WCC and of the World Communion of the Reformed Churches (WCRC).
Which situation (in terms of population, economy, human rights) have you found in North Korea?
During a four-day visit and in the political context of the DPRK, we were not in a position to undertake anything like empirical research on the overall situation in the country. Nor was that the purpose of this visit. However, we were told that the population of the DPRK is 28 million, and that now that the project of developing a ‘state nuclear force’ has been completed, the exclusive focus of the country’s leadership is on economic development. In Pyongyang, we saw many signs of recent construction and economic activity, indicating significant investment and economic development. However, the situation in Pyongyang is clearly not representative of the situation throughout the country. On this visit, we did not travel outside Pyongyang. With regard to the human rights situation in the country, we are acutely aware of the many credible reports by reputable organizations of human rights violations in the DPRK, but were not in a position to verify them.
After the inter-Korean summit, how is the atmosphere? In the meetings, did you notice a true desire to move towards a new phase of Korean history? What are the most important steps?
In all of the encounters we had with counterparts in the DPRK, we heard and felt a great degree of enthusiasm and commitment to the implementation of the Panmunjeom Joint Declaration, and a palpably more positive perspective on the prospects for peaceful co-existence on the Korean peninsula than we have observed on previous visits. The momentum for peace must now be continued, through further tension reduction and trust building initiatives, in particular fulfilling the commitments expressed in the Panmunjeom Declaration. We welcome the fact that the propaganda loudspeakers have been removed on both sides of the DMZ, that the DPRK has released three American prisoners, and that further high-level meetings are being held and planned – including especially the US-DPRK Summit on 12 June in Singapore. As foreseen in the Panmunjeom Declaration, inter-Korean cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels – including through the religious sector – should be encouraged and expanded. The establishment of a joint liaison office with resident representatives from both North and South Korea in the Gaesong region will help in facilitating communication and consultation. Measures to reduce military tension and to promote economic cooperation will help cultivate an environment conducive to peaceful co-existence. We particularly celebrate the commitment in the Panmunjeom Declaration to jointly pursue negotiations with the USA and China with a view to replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a Peace Treaty to bring a formal end to the suspended state of war on the Korean Peninsula. This process should start as soon as possible with an Inter-Korean Declaration of the end of the war. In general, all efforts must now be made to encourage continued dialogue and engagement, rather than a resumption of military confrontation risking catastrophic conflict in the region.
You reaffirmed and highlighted the importance of “the role of Church leaders and faith communities in past and future efforts for peace and reunification of the Korean people”. Can you tell us some concrete examples of what the Churches have done in the recent past for North Korea and what the Churches can do for the future?
For more than 30 years the World Council of Churches has facilitated and supported communication and exchange between North and South Korean Christians, and between North Korean Christians and the global church family, in the interests both of inter-church relations and of promoting people-to-people encounter as a means of countering the isolationist and confrontational rhetoric that has otherwise characterized relations with North Korea. We have consistently appealed for dialogue instead of confrontation as a means of resolving tensions in the region, proposed the establishment of a Peace Treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement, supported joint North and South Korean-led initiatives for peace, and called for denuclearization of the region in the context of our advocacy for denuclearization of the entire world. We thank God that all of these things are now recognized and affirmed by the leaders of both North and South Korea in the Panmunjeom Joint Declaration.
Churches around the world also made very substantial humanitarian contributions in response to the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s, and many churches and related organizations continue to provide diaconal service and support to the people of North Korea. The WCC regularly convenes an Ecumenical Forum for Korea, as a meeting point for those churches and related organizations that have an interest or engagement in support of peace, reunification and development cooperation on the Korean Peninsula.
Both South Korean Minister for Unification Mr Cho Myoung-Gyon and North Korean President of the Supreme People’s Assembly Mr Kim Yong Nam affirmed, in meetings with our delegation, that they were aware and highly appreciative of the ecumenical efforts for peace, reunification and development cooperation over these many years. Minister Cho said that the churches’ work for peace had greatly inspired the South Korean government’s latest efforts in the political arena. Both Minister Cho and President Kim asked for the WCC and churches around the world to continue their work in solidarity with the Korean people and in support of the implementation of the Panmunjeom Declaration – especially in the field of inter-Korean cooperation, exchange, visits and contacts through the religious sector.
As known, in North Korea there is no free Church. There is no religious freedom. How come they accepted your visit? What did they ask you? What can be done?
In North Korea there are in fact several officially recognized and supported religious bodies, including the Korean Buddhists Federation, the Korean Chondoists Association, the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), the Korean Catholics Association, and a committee for Orthodox Christians in the DPRK. The KCF has been our church partner in the DPRK for more than 30 years. We have worshipped in their two churches in Pyongyang (the Bongsu Church and the Chilgol Church – where Kim Il Sung’s mother was a member) as well as with house church groups of the KCF. We have also met on several occasions, including during our most recent visit, with the leadership of the Korean Catholics Association in the Jangchung Church in Pyongyang. The Korean Catholics Association is a lay community, without any ordained leadership.
The political leadership of the DPRK accepts our visits – and allows representatives of the KCF to meet with us in other parts of the world – because of this long history of engagement, our promotion of dialogue rather than confrontation for the resolution of disputes, and our record of humanitarian assistance.
In our meeting with President Kim Yong Nam during our most recent visit to the DPRK, we were asked to continue doing what we have been doing, to deepen our relationships and cooperation with the KCF, to advocate for respect for and implementation of the inter-Korean initiative of the Panmunjeom Declaration, and to visit the DPRK more frequently.
The peace process in the Korean peninsula is experiencing a phase full of hope. Could something jeopardize this favourable moment? Do you wish to appeal to the international community not to disrupt the momentum?
We believe that the Inter-Korean Summit and the Panmunjeom Declaration have created a miraculous new momentum for peace after so many months and years of escalating tension and confrontation, and that the Declaration reflects many of the key principles for which the WCC and its member churches have been advocating for decades. We believe that it should be respected and supported by the international community as a clear expression of inter-Korean leadership for peace, with the potential to break the long historical cycle in which the people of Korea have been the victims of conflicts and competition among the great powers of the world and the region. We call upon all members of the international community to put Korea first, to support the momentum for peace, and to refrain from a counterproductive return to the confrontational policies of the past, risking so much for so many. And we invite all churches and Christians around the world to reflect and act on their Christian calling to be peacemakers in this context, as in all the world’s conflicts and tensions.