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Tensions heighten on the Korean Peninsula

National Council of Churches in Korea issues statement of concern

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The National Council of Churches in Korea convened a special meeting of the Reconciliation and Reunification Committee to address the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. (Photo by Dr. Son Seung Ho)

LOUISVILLE — Just this week, North Korea announced it had suspended but not canceled military action against South Korea. That action would have sent armed North Korean soldiers back to the demilitarized zone (DMZ). At the Pyongyang Summit in 2018 South Korea and North Korea agreed to remove armed guards along the border to decrease hostilities.

Tensions began to escalate in mid-June when North Korea demolished an office building it shared with South Korea in the border city of Gaeseong, just north of the DMZ.

The building — paid for by South Korea but located on North Korean soil — had been used to facilitate talks between the two governments. The destruction of the building was said to be in retaliation to the South’s “failure” to stop anti-North leaflets sent by North Korean defectors across the border.

North Korea claimed the leaflets violated the deal Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in struck in 2018 at their first summit, when both leaders agreed to cease “all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets” along their shared border. It is illegal for average North Koreans to receive information that is not approved by the country’s government.

North Korea reinstalled a dozen propaganda loudspeakers along the DMZ, which had been removed following the 2018 Panmunjeom Declaration made between the leaders of the two countries. For many years, the two nations have blared propaganda from huge banks of speakers as a form of psychological warfare. The South aired a blend of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the northern regime, while the North blasted the South and praised its own socialist system. The speakers have once again been removed in order to de-escalate tensions.

Kurt Esslinger and his wife, Hyeyoung Lee, have served as Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers in South Korea since 2013. Esslinger serves with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK), the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK). They live with the tensions daily.

“I see that some in Korea are happy to see President Moon’s policy of rapprochement fail as they want continual war,” he said. “Another section of Korea seems annoyed and resigned to simply continue what has now been 70 years of a perpetual state of war. Our partners in the NCCK, however, feel frustrated, sad, and sometimes angry as they desperately hope to find a way past U.S. policies that block inter-Korean attempts at reconciliation.”

The NCCK issued the following statement.

Our Position on the Current Inter-Korean Situation

The Reconciliation and Reunification committee of the National Council of Churches in Korea held an emergency meeting in the face of the current confrontation and crisis that was ignited by the spreading of anti-North Korean leaflets and the demolition of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s joint liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea. We are deeply concerned that the relationship of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation, which began with so much hard work in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, will be transformed into a relationship of extreme antagonism accompanied by physical violence. Based on the April 27 Panmunjum Declaration principle of “no armed provocation”, urging both governments to refrain hard-line response and resolve the crisis by peaceful means, we express our opinion as follows:

  • In the interests of inter-Korean reconciliation and coexistence along with peace and co-prosperity, we face up to the responsibility for not carrying out the inter-Korean agreements in the wake of the “no deal” at the Hanoi Summit which led to the present situation, yet we still hope that the two Koreas will seek an epochal transformation in creating an independent peace and cooperation system. We hope that the DPRK will stop any further acts of force that will take inter-Korean relations back to the time before the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration or the June 15 Joint Declaration, and we ask them to return to our place of non-violent dialogue and peace diplomacy.
  • We urge the Republic of Korea (ROK) National Assembly to immediately lift the ineffective May 24th measures and promptly initiate a National Assembly ratification process in order to faithfully implement the contents of the April 27th Panmunjom Declaration, the September 19 Pyongyang Declaration, and the Comprehensive Military Agreement. We hope the ROK will dismantle the ROK-U.S. Working Group, which has been a stumbling block to the independent implementation of the agreements by the leaders of the two Koreas, will reform the reunification-diplomatic – national security lines, and will strengthen the foundation for the democratic participation of religious and civil society communities in the peace process.
  • We recognize the core of the September 19th Pyongyang Declaration and the Comprehensive Military Agreement was to stop all hostile acts that cause tension and conflict. Respecting this agreement, we urge an immediate stop the R.O.K.-U.S. joint military exercises and the U.S. plan to deploy weapons of mass destruction on the Korean Peninsula, and we urge them to transform the nature of the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance into a peace alliance for the establishment of a peace regime, rather than a hegemonic military and security alliance. In addition, the government should come up with a strong legal mechanism to fundamentally ban the distribution of anti-North Korean leaflets, a relic of the Cold War.
  • We recognize that in the April 27th Panmunjom Declaration, the ROK and the DPRK agreed to achieve the development and transformation of inter-Korean relations based on the principle of national independence. The R.O.K. government should urge the countries around the Korean Peninsula to actively improve inter-Korean relations in accordance with the principle of reciprocity so that independent peace cooperation between the two Koreas can be achieved in all areas of inter-Korean relations including politics, diplomacy, military, economy, exchanges, and cooperation.
  • We declare that only peaceful means such as dialogue and communication, exchange and cooperation, can ensure the peace and prosperity of the people. As international efforts are being made to lift sanctions against the DPRK to help them overcome the COVID-19 crisis, we urge the R.O.K. government to implement mutual cooperation with the DPRK for human security, including health care, and immediately resume the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours, a symbol of inter-Korean exchanges and reconciliation.
  • In order to solidify the foundation for independent peace and cooperation between the two Koreas, to overcome the current confrontation, and to restore trust between the ROK and the DPRK, we urge everyone to mobilize all peaceful diplomatic means, including the dispatch of special envoys and the third-party mediation of world religious leaders. We pray that all these efforts will lead to an inter-Korean reconciliation summit at an early date. We will do our best to overcome the current situation, along with the Korean Church, civil society, and the Global Church.

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