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U.S. and Korean Peacemakers Meet

A Letter from Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee, serving in Korea

April 2019

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“I didn’t hear these kinds of stories when I came to Korea last time,” remarked Carl E. Horton, director of the Presbyterian Peacemaking program, while our guide, Gayoon Baek, led our travel study seminar group toward a large hole in the ground on Jeju Island in South Korea. The hole was actually an entrance to Seonheul Doteul Cave, where Jeju villagers went to hide from the South Korean military after they began massacring villages that refused to support the U.S. and the new South Korean government, which began in 1948. Gayoon studied human rights while at university in England, and eventually came back to Korea to work on human rights at home. She now runs Jeju Dark Tours, which uses a tourist fad of visiting macabre history sites to bring attention to the need for justice and reconciliation for the islanders affected by U.S. and South Korean policies. To learn more about the Jeju Massacres, please read our personal blog post that provides an overview.

This visit with Gayoon was a central part of our Peacemaking Travel Study Seminar to Korea that brought a group of U.S. participants to Korea November 5-17, 2018 to see God working alongside Koreans striving for peace and human rights, and especially to focus on the U.S.’s role in the conflict, division, and current state of war. Then the participants were asked to consider what God might be calling them to do in this context. The seminar participants spent twelve days traveling throughout South Korea from the southern tip of Jeju Island to the northern edge at the De-militarized Zone (DMZ) border with North Korea. Our seminar group met young activists like Gayoon Baek as well as women who have been leaders within partner churches, like Rev. Moon Sook Lee who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and also currently serving as the executive secretary of the Asian Church Women’s Conference. Rev. Lee shared the story of the Korean ecumenical and Christian women’s movement opposing the U.S.-supported South Korean dictatorship and developing relationships with our North Korean partners, the Korean Christian Federation, that promote reconciliation and peaceful resolution of the Korean War.

Rev. Lee had also joined our group for a drive to the DMZ to visit the Border Peace School inside the civilian control zone, a militarized buffer of about 5 km bordering the DMZ, where we met Rev. Jiseok Jung, who founded a school on the vision of planting schools on both side of the border with North Korea to teach that conflict should be overcome with mutually respectful dialogue instead of military threats. Rev. Jung shared with us his frustration that progressives in the U.S. seem unwilling to support the efforts of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to bring Chairman Kim of North Korea and U.S. President Trump together for dialogue to end the Korean War. At that time, the U.S. military under the name of the UN Command had recently blocked the joint railway project to which Moon and Kim had agreed at their Pyongyang Summit in early fall. He urged us to encourage our fellow Americans to support respectful dialogue with North Korea and to stop the dehumanization that perpetuates distrust of North Korea and their willingness to make denuclearization agreements. Rev. Jung is helping to organize a DMZ Human Peace Chain for April 27 this year. Koreans will hold hands across the 500-km line from the west to the east coast to show the world that numerous South Koreans support the dialogue and summits with North Korea.

We also traveled to the peace park near the bridge at No Gun Ri where Dr. Koo-Do Chung told the story of his father seeking to uncover the truth of the massacre that occurred when Dr. Chung’s mother and older sister and brother hid under a bridge with their village while U.S. soldiers fired upon them for three nights and four days. Dr. Chung shared with us his vision of bringing together survivors who had hidden under the bridge and U.S. soldiers who were present so that both might be given a chance for a worship service of reconciliation and healing. Dr. Chung reminded us that past acts of unjust violence not only lead to suffering for the surviving victims, but also to suffering for those who pulled the trigger, and acknowledging the truth of one’s actions can open space for healing. The National Council of Christian Churches in the USA (NCCCUSA) is planning for such a worship service with Dr. Chung, No Gun Ri survivors, and those U.S. soldiers at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in June 2020. Please read our June 2017 Mission Connections letter to learn more about the No Gun Ri Incident and reconciliation efforts.

Our group split into two to worship with a congregation from both of our Presbyterian denominational partners, the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK). The group I (Kurt) joined marked the anniversary of the death of Tae-il Chun, a young laborer whose protest of self-immolation in 1970 helped inspire many groups, including Korean Christians, to oppose South Korean military dictatorship and to demand that the government uphold human rights and labor laws.

We also visited Kurt’s offices at the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) in Seoul to converse with Rev. Hye-min Roh, who works with the Reconciliation and Reunification Department and the Human Rights Center (HRC) of the NCCK. Rev. Roh told the story of NCCK’s creation of the HRC during the military dictatorship of the 1970’s to focus on human rights violations in South Korea. One participant asked why the NCCK HRC did not work on condemning North Korea for human rights violations. Rev. Roh explained that when the HRC was created, South Korea’s military dictatorship was torturing and assassinating political rivals. The dictator at that time, Chung-hee Park, still created a Human Rights Commission that focused only on North Korean human rights, but only as a strategy to delegitimize North Korea in order to conquer them and achieve reunification by force. Rev. Roh suggested that trying to condemn our enemies for their violations while also threatening them with destruction and ignoring our own violations is not likely to convince them stop or instill the kind of trust that might help bring an end to a current state of war.

Our partners in Korea asked Carl and the participants of the seminar to share their stories when they return to the U.S. Hyeyoung and I also believe that is our job as mission co-workers! It is your support through prayer and financial donations that allow us to continue this work of learning from, striving alongside, and sharing the stories of God’s mission in Korea with our communities in the US. We thank you for your support, and we ask you to keep marching toward peace along with our partners in Korea.

Kurt and Hyeyoung

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