US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim (left) and South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young meet at the Unification Ministry on June 22 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: AFP)
Before the 1950-53 Korean War, Changchung district of Pyongyang was a deeply religious city known as the “Korean Jerusalem.”
Since the division of Korea and rule by three generations of the Kim family, the world’s only communist dynasty, Changchung Cathedral does not house an ordained priest. Christians in North Korea are targeted as imperialist collaborators.
Living on both sides of the heavily armed military fence that divides the two Koreas, some 75 million people are considering the prospect of a united Korea in which the agrarian, uneducated North Koreans would be expected to cohabitate in the helter-skelter environment of South Korea, which has the highest rates of cosmetic surgery and teenage suicide in the world.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik, the first Korean appointed to a senior position in the Holy See, have stressed the need to unify the two Koreas.
On Aug. 31, Cardinal Parolin presented a paper, "The Role of the Churches in Establishing Peace on the Korean Peninsula," at a virtual Korea Global Forum for Peace, an annual event hosted by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.
“Peace is more than the absence of war or a balance of power between opposing forces. There cannot be peace unless people’s welfare is safeguarded,” the 66-year-old cardinal said.
Just like virtually every other South Korean, I would very much like to see our nations reunited as one country
South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young urged North Korea to come out for talks on inter-Korean cooperation in humanitarian areas.
“The table for dialogue and negotiations never lies far away, nor does the path toward building fundamental trust that can remove long hostility through dialogue,” Lee said.
Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik, the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, also affirmed the Church’s wish for a unified Korea.
“Just like virtually every other South Korean, I would very much like to see our nations reunited as one country,” said the archbishop at a June 12 press conference in the South Korean Diocese of Daejeon, which he headed prior to his Vatican assignment.
Reconciliation of the two Koreas has been a major focus of the Church. A Special Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean People was set up in 1997 under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea. Besides liturgical events, the commission organized a Jubilee of National Reconciliation in June 2000.
When Pope Francis visited South Korea in 2014 to celebrate Asian Youth Day in Daejeon, he said: “Jesus asks us to believe that forgiveness is the door which leads to reconciliation.”
During the meeting between former US president Donald Trump and North Korea’s paramount leader Kim Jong-un in the demilitarized zone, the pope prayed that it brings peace “not only on the peninsula but for the whole world.”
The reunification conversation gathered steam with the Trump-Kim summit in 2019.
Nuclear ambitions, repeated human rights violations and dynastic rule have made North Korea a pariah state. It is no match for the free market economy of the South, the fourth largest in Asia and ranked 14th in the world.
Designed after the erstwhile Soviet Union’s centrally planned economy, North Korea under three generations of totalitarian rulers — Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un — remains one of the most isolated nations in the world.
Its prioritizing of self-reliance and militarism above all else and the recalcitrant leader’s relentless pursuit of a nuclear program has brought the country of over 25 million into conflict with the US and European Union, resulting in severe economic sanctions in 2013 that caused food shortages and unemployment.
China, the neighboring communist power, came to its rescue and is today North Korea’s largest trading partner.
Kim has pledged to dismantle the country's nuclear testing site on condition that US troops leave South Korea
Despite years of escalating missile and nuclear tests, Kim Jong-un met South Korean President Moon Jae-in and signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace on April 27, 2018.
The security architecture is now delicately balanced on the Korean Peninsula, with South Korea and Japan as the key US allies and North Korea backed by China.
The US maintains some 40,000 troops in Japan and 28,500 in South Korea due to the threat from Pyongyang. South Korea ranks 10th in defense spending and is the fourth-largest buyer of US weaponry.
Kim has pledged to dismantle the country's nuclear testing site on condition that US troops leave South Korea. The North is betting on its nuclear weapon programs in future negotiations with the US and has made it central to the country’s military and political goals.
The 37-year-old Kim has the fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi before him. The African nation’s leader was killed on the streets after he dismantled the country’s nuclear weapon program to earn kudos from the world.
Kim may want to safeguard his dynastic regime and does not want it to be swallowed by the democratic South.
The world has much to gain from a united Korea whose economy could surpass that of Germany or Japan in the next 30-40 years, as predicted by US investment bank Goldman Sachs.
The Koreans want to put the Cold War era behind them. But much depends on Washington and its wish for the Korean Peninsula.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.