Kim Young-Ae carries a vision of peace and reconciliation that reaches far beyond the razor-wire fence hugging her island’s coast.
Gyodong Island is one of South Korea’s most northwestern points, separated by only about a mile of water from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea.
A bridge built in 2014 connects the island to the mainland, via a military checkpoint with gun-toting soldiers.
The security measures are reminders that the Korean War technically continues, though fighting ended with an armistice 70 years ago this month. No treaty was signed to end the war, imparting a legacy of militarization and divided families that continues to this day.
The war’s active period, from 1950 to 1953, claimed some 5 million lives and displaced an estimated 5 million others. Confusion and panic reigned as the U.S. military dropped more bombs and napalm than in the entire Pacific theater during World War II. As many as 10 million people were separated from family members.
“When the refugees arrived, they just stayed on the beach because they thought they would go back after seven or 10 days,” said Kim on June 1 during a Mennonite Central Committee learning tour focused on the war’s lingering effects. Weeks turned into months, and months into years. “They weren’t trying to escape the communists or reach the Americans, they were just trying to avoid the bombings. . . . They keep a longing to return, but they have almost all died.”
Kim’s parents were Catholic refugees, trapped on the island after foreign powers agreed to a line that hasn’t been crossed since.
“They ended up here because they fled the war, and a line happened to get drawn on a map,” said Stacy Nam, MCC’s DPRK program director. “Many of them stayed here in the area in the hopes they can someday go back.”
The refugees encountered locals whose ancestors had lived on the island for more than 1,000 years, but still they worked together. Rice paddies were developed to build up food sources. Residents toiled together to move earth and reclaim land from the ocean. That cooperation is why Kim now considers Gyodong a peace island.
She left the community to pursue other opportunities but couldn’t escape a persistent tug back home. Kim found her way to Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. She attended SPI annually from 2009 to 2011 before attending EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding for a year and a half. Then she returned home.
“For the last nine years I’ve learned from the people who live here about their stories. I need to keep their stories and keep them alive,” she said. “Because the island is in a neutral water zone, maybe it could become a peace island that is a place for the governments to meet. This is only the beginning. It’s not a mainstream idea shared by politicians.”
She traveled with a group to Switzerland and Austria for 10 days in June to discuss with scholars and activists what it means to be neutral.
“The Bible teaches to love your enemy, and that’s still something we need to [achieve],” she said. “Somehow the government and religious people and civil society need to work together to heal the trauma, but many people are still stuck in their divisive ways.”
The divisions run deep, exacerbated by the brutality of war and trauma that now spans three generations. At Gyodong, wartime scarcity, suspicion of communists and rapidly shifting front lines led to finger-pointing. People alerted security and intelligence units to “rats” among the population who were apprehended and often killed.
Scars are evident across the mainland. Paro Lake, a reservoir for a strategically vital hydroelectric power plant near the 38th parallel that divides North and South, appears serene but holds the corpses of at least 30,000 Chinese troops whose bodies were bulldozed into the water during the war.
The farming village of Yanggu, just to the east, saw similar bloodshed. Situated in a basin surrounded by a circular ridge of steep hills, the area was northern territory before the war and the scene of fierce fighting. Whole units were trapped by the terrain, becoming easy targets for machine gun fire or aerial bombings. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in the “punchbowl” basin.
Crops now blanket the floor. Military observation posts sit on high, with eyes trained northward. Slopes once reduced to dust by bombs are covered in forest because land mines make the area unfit to farm. More than 1 million mines were scattered across the peninsula during the war. Warning signs encourage hikers to stay on the trail.
Guide Kichan Lee said the last mine exploded in 2018, shattering the ankle of a Polish immigrant farmhand. He tries to counter the societal emphasis on military glory with a tourism company he founded that focuses on peace.
“When you visit the DMZ area, there are lots of museums and observatories, but they all have a very anticommunist narrative,” Lee said. “Many South Korean museums are only focused on war but not the trauma on individual lives. A war museum should focus on the pain of death and displaced lives. 200,000 people were killed just to move a line an inch on a map.”
He is taking doctoral courses on peace together with Sun Ju Moon, director of the Korean Anabaptist Center and one of five Mennonite pastors in South Korea. She echoed his sentiments on the lingering wounds.
“They just drew an arbitrary line and did not care about the people and their pain,” she said. “It is human lives. You can’t divide them like cutting a cake.”
For nearly 30 years, MCC has worked to overcome divisions and respond to suffering. Since its first response to famine in North Korea in 1995, it has given $25 million in humanitarian aid.
MCC U.S. executive director Ann Graber Hershberger, who participated in the learning tour, said humanitarian assistance sends a tangible message to people in North Korea that people outside the country do care about them.
“As a ministry of Anabaptist churches, we participate in God’s reconciling work in the world. When MCC sends supplies to reduce suffering, when we build relationships with people in DPRK and when we encourage people to grow in their practice of peacebuilding, we are working toward reconciliation,” she said. “As I looked across the dividing line between North and South Korea, I was struck anew with the church’s unique and crucial call to share God’s love with all people.”
MCC seeks to be a reconciling presence with the people of two Koreas, resisting hostility and isolation. Based in Chuncheon, South Korea, it has a history of supporting orphanages and pediatric hospitals with canned meat and other resources, Nam said.
A six-year agricultural conservation project led to study tours with scientists visiting North America, sharing practices and meals. The COVID pandemic put a stop to exchanges with North Americans in 2020, and North Korea has been slow to reopen its borders.
“Our aim is always to increase the people-to-people exchanges, perhaps widening opportunities for engagement,” Nam said.
Kim shares those goals on her island out west. Where others see a rusting metal building abandoned as a military observation outpost on the northern tip of the island, she sees the blueprint of a kids’ camp that could gather youth from both sides of the water.
“When we go to Switzerland, we will ask the United Nations Human Rights Commission to recognize the human right to visit family members across the border,” she said. “The birds can fly back and forth to nourish their babies, but we cannot. We are worth less than birds. We are all victims of the Korean War.”