For North Americans, the Korean War is a forgotten war. But on the Korean Peninsula, the three-year catastrophe is unforgettable, with trauma and distrust that continue today.
It doesn’t have to be that way. But fear of a dehumanized communist enemy allows current U.S. policies of isolation to continue despite a minimal track record of success.
Fear of compromise is connected to polarization that makes the C-word political suicide. Fear of a nuclear-armed enemy is connected to a relationship based on a 1950s war that resulted only in 70 years of saber rattling. Fear of the economic burden of someday implementing real unification — a view on the future held especially among younger South Koreans — is connected to faith in financial security rather than an even higher power.
“Perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18).
Diplomacy fails on the Korean Peninsula because the only methods being used are sanctions that punish — and the systems in place can withstand them.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) outlasted the Soviet Union. North Korea’s close relationship with China means economic sanctions imposed by other nations make life for many uncomfortable, but not impossible.
Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office director Chris Rice shared June 9 during a Christian reconciliation forum in South Korea that exchanges between people are the best way forward, because recognizing others’ shared humanity brings change.
“There’s no nation we’ve encountered yet willing to take the lead in constructive diplomacy,” Rice said. “There’s pressure. Coercion. But there’s no persuasion, and that’s a very dangerous thing, because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. There’s no trust, no communication.
“The United States has diplomatic relations with all kinds of nations we don’t like. With China there’s interaction. Same goes for Vietnam. But there are no channels like that with North Korea, and that’s very dangerous.”
Through his roles with MCC as an area representative based in South Korea and later working at advocacy at the U.N., Rice has visited North Korea several times.
“We travel together, we eat together. We learn about each other’s families,” he said. “We have many disagreements, but these relationships give us an empathy for the people. That’s different than the government.”
If isolation hasn’t worked, the opposite might. Openness proved to be the downfall of East Germany, where hunger for freedom and prosperity proved too much for a wall thought to be impenetrable. A system didn’t tear down that wall in 1989. People did. And the first thing that passed through it was an embrace.
Openness doesn’t mean approval of certain North Korean positions or support for policies that run counter to the professed ideals of Canada or the U.S. It simply allows a door to be opened for relationships that could lead to peacebuilding opportunities.
Openness is a command in 1 John 4:21: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” If Christians in the U.S., Canada, South Korea and other sanctioning nations desire to love their North Korean brother and sister, the first step should be openness to starting a relationship.