Update on North Korea

May 17th, 2013

Disappointed Hopes

When Kim Jong-un took power in North Korea over a year ago after his father’s death, plenty of Korea-watchers had tentative optimism that there might be a thaw in the diplomatic ice between the United States and North Korea. I wrote a FAITHLINK issue in February of 2012 describing the transition, which included the opening of a new associated Press office in the capital of Pyongyang. Unfortunately, North Korea has continued to pursue arming itself with a nuclear weapon, and in recent months relations have become even more tense. 

In October, the United States and South Korea revealed a new missile deal; and North Korea responded by claiming to have a missile that could hit the mainland United States. In December, North Korea demonstrated its ability to do so by putting a satellite into orbit. In February, North Korea tested what it claimed was a new, smaller, and lighter nuclear weapon with “great explosive power” that could be placed on a missile with significant range. In March, responding to new United Nations sanctions, North Korea threatened to turn Washington and Seoul into a “sea of fire.” For many Americans, this kind of hyperbolic language seems absurd. At best it would be beyond their military and technological capability, and at worst it would be suicidal.

Assessing the Danger

In my conversations with South Koreans about their northern neighbors, there was seldom much joking. Many of the older generation remember living in refugee camps during the Korean War and seeing cities destroyed and the surrounding countryside denuded of vegetation. The uneasy cease-fire between North and South has held for 60 years, while South Korea has rebuilt itself into a 21st-century technological powerhouse.

Sometimes US soldiers may smile wryly at the Orwellian antics of the North. On our tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone), they pointed out Kijongdong, nicknamed “Propaganda Village,” a fake city with a population of zero. Its buildings are nothing more than facades with painted-on windows, but it boasts one of the tallest flagpoles in the world at 52 stories high. Loudspeakers sometimes blare across the border messages like, “This is paradise. Come over so you can have a good meal of rice.” This is in spite of the fact that much of North Korea’s population lacks decent nutrition, health care, and even modern conveniences like electricity. They blame this poverty on foreign “imperialist powers.”

In spite of the absurdity of the propaganda, American soldiers make it clear that they live in constant danger. They speak with tourists who come to see the squat blue buildings that make up Panmunjom, the “truce village,” which is the only place North Korea and South Korea connect. One soldier said to us, “If the North chooses to attack, my life expectancy is less than one minute.” North Korea, in spite of its isolation and poverty, has one of the largest military forces in the world. Thousands upon thousands of artillery tubes are pointed toward the city of Seoul and its population of ten million people, representing nearly a quarter of South Korea’s entire population.

What’s at Stake

Christians who follow Jesus may recall his words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children” (Matthew 5:9). But peace is not merely the absence of conflict. Historically, Christians have recognized that peace and justice must go together. For example, there is no peace if one group of people uses political oppression to silence another. Likewise, the threat of annihilation by nuclear weapons is not peace.

One task of peacemakers is to figure out what is at stake for the various stakeholders in a situation. The Korean stalemate has a complicated history and an equally complicated present with multiple stakeholders. the elite of North Korea is one group of stakeholders. This is the small cadre of loyalists and military leaders who live in grand style, driving luxury cars and shopping for Western products in Pyongyang, the capital city. Their power—and Kim Jong-un’s—depends upon isolating their population from the outside world, completely controlling their access to information, and brutally suppressing dissent.

Another stakeholder is South Korea. Many South Koreans long for reunification of their fragmented peninsula, although there is disagreement about how to achieve it. South Korea elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, in February. She has distanced herself from her predecessor’s more hard-line stance against North Korea.

Japan, the United States, and China are other stakeholders in the region. For China, the specter of a failed North Korean state is ominous. It could lead to a flood of starving refugees surging over their border. It might bring the security threat of a South Korean and American presence on their doorstep. From this perspective, then, it may be understandable that China would lend aid to North Korea, though recently China has been indicating it would take stronger action in light of UN sanctions.

The North Korean people themselves, of course, are the biggest stakeholders, although their voice is noticeably absent from public discourse.

Although North and South Korea are not currently engaged in outright hostilities, there has never been a peace treaty, and neither country recognizes the other as a sovereign nation. Former US president Jimmy Carter recently appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and said that what North Korea really wants is a peace treaty with the United States, which would give it a measure of security and legitimacy. But opponents of such measures point out that a treaty would carry its own diplomatic and political costs. They claim there is no guarantee that a peace treaty would produce peace, and they take North Korea’s propaganda at face value: that it believes it can conquer and “reunify” the Korean Peninsula under its own rule.

Yet at the time of this essay’s writing, already some Korea-watchers expect North Korea to stand down on some of its war-like rhetoric, having achieved whatever internal propaganda measures its leaders feel necessary. The North’s National Defense Commission even made a statement of conditions for continuing talks, although South Korea’s Foreign Ministry considered their demands to be “incomprehensible.”

The Power of Prayer

Prayer Mountain is less than an hour’s drive from Seoul, near the North Korean border. It is operated by Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world. When I visited Prayer Mountain in the summer of 2010, our host explained to us part of the rationale for the location: “If our countries can aim missiles into North Korea, why can’t Christians aim prayer into North Korea?” The site has become a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world. Fasting is such an important part of the prayer life there that the cafeteria has special menu items (like pumpkin soup) to help people gently end their fast.

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has called on United Methodists to pray for North and South Korea. In a world that believes in the concrete reality of steel and explosive weapons, prayer can seem insubstantial. But the words and spirit of prayer have a way of turning reality upside down. Jesus claimed that prayer could move mountains, but his followers have often been slow to claim the same power he did for prayer. In the face of reality-distorting propaganda, of saber-rattling from other nations or our own, and of difficult political situations that seem eternal and unfixable, our leader Jesus calls us to prayer.

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