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Service brings human side of Korean stalemate to light

Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and partners pray for peace

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Traditional Korean folk music is performed during the service. (Photo by Paula Tinong)

LOUISVILLE ꟷ The trauma and heartbreak of the Korean War continues to linger many decades after the signing of an agreement to end active military fighting on the Korean Peninsula.

Acknowledging the pain was a central part of a recent interfaith service at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which was signed on July 27, 1953, but did not end the separation of families on opposite sides of the border.

“The untold human cost, the tragedy of war, is still too real for many Korean families,” said Sue Rheem, Coordinator of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (PMUN) and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Representative to the U.N.

PMUN helped to lead the service, which included prayers and statements, personal stories, a candle-lighting ceremony and traditional Korean folk music as well as the reading of a statement from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

A Service of Remembrance and Rededication to the Work of Peace was held July 27 at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York. (Photo by Paula Tinong)

“Today, we honour the memory of all those who perished, and we share in the grief of countless families who have been separated for so long,” the statement said in part. “… The United Nations is your steadfast partner as we strive to realize the vision of a Korean Peninsula in which all can enjoy peace, prosperity and human rights.”

The event, formally known as “A Service of Remembrance and Rededication to the Work of Peace,” was coordinated by the NGO Working Group on Korea, a newly formed group of ecumenical organizations with a desire for peace on the peninsula, which is divided into two nations, one to the north and the other to the south.

“God of love, God of peace, we painfully remember the tragic war that still hasn’t ended and keeps the two Koreas divided,” Ryan Smith of the World Council of Churches said as he began a prayer that attendees also joined in to recite. “With our siblings in the Republic of Korea, we pray for peace and an end to war on the Korean Peninsula. With our siblings in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we pray for peace and an end to war on the Korean Peninsula. With our siblings around the globe, we pray for peace and an end to war on the Korean Peninsula.”

Sue Rheem, Coordinator of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, speaks during the service. (Photo by Paula Tinong)

The Korean War was fought between North and South Korea from 1950–1953, with China and the former Soviet Union supporting the North. The United States and allies supported the South.

Although the armistice brought an end to active fighting, the peninsula “continues to be one of the most militarized and tense places in the world,” Rheem said.

In a similar vein, Guterres’ statement noted that with “rising geopolitical tensions, increased nuclear risk, and eroding respect for international norms, the threat of escalation is growing. We need a surge in diplomacy for peace. I urge the parties to resume regular diplomatic contacts and nurture an environment conducive to dialogue.”

As a result of the Korean War, millions of Korean families have lost touch with relatives, many of whom have died.

Rheem shared a heartbreaking story about her now 94-year-old father, the Rev. Dr. In Whan Rheem, who fled North Korea as the war broke out. While traveling on foot with his mother and older sister, his sibling was forced to stop because of swelling in her legs. She encouraged them to go on, saying she would catch up, but was never heard from again. Rheem’s father also lost touch with an older brother, who’d gone to be with his own family near the border with China.

Rev. Dr. In Whan Rheem and Sun Ok Rheem, who are Sue Rheem’s parents, take part in a candle-lighting ceremony. He is a retired pastor with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). (Photo by Paula Tinong)

Rheem’s mother, Sun Ok Rheem, now 88, also suffered tragic losses on her side of the family. After fleeing from her home in the middle of the night upon being awakened by exploding bombs, she lost sight of her mother and younger siblings and never saw them again.

“My parents bear witness to the tragedy of a people divided, of families separated,” she said. “And so, we invite you to join us as we remember those who lost their lives; to lament families still divided; to hope and pray for peace and reconciliation; and to rededicate ourselves to the work of peace.”

The service was attended by representatives and friends from various faiths, including Mennonite, Quaker, Buddhist, Methodist and Episcopal traditions, as well as members of civil society, the local Korean community and the Presbytery of New York City.

Ryan Smith of the World Council of Churches reads a prayer during the service. (Photo by Paula Tinong)

Others included the U.N. secretariat from the Department of Political Affairs as well as representatives from neutral nations, Sweden and Switzerland, and sending nations, such as Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

At the end of the service, the Rev. JyungIn “Jenny” Lee, former Moderator of Presbyterian Women, prayed for reconciliation among the people of the peninsula and for renewed efforts toward peace.

“May the blessings of the Divine be with us all.

May the healing of the Spirit restore our wounds.

May the peace of God transform our communities in conflict into communities where peace dwells and lives flourish in abundance.

May the people on the Korean Peninsula live in peace, reunited and reconciled to one another. Inspire us to rededicate ourselves to the work of peace and reconciliation.

May the Light shine upon us and grant us the strength to go out into the world, to be joined together in the work of cultivating this peace. Amen.”

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. The service was adapted from the June 21 PC(USA) chapel service. Go here to read about how PC(USA) has been working in solidarity with partners in Korea to end the Korean War and learn how to add your name to the Korean Peace Appeal.

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