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The developing ‘mushroom cloud’ over the Korean Peninsula

The threat of a war involving nuclear-armed nations is there for everyone to see, and it means omnicide
People sit at a railway station in Seoul as a television screen shows a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, on Feb. 2. North Korea fired multiple cruise missiles on that day, Seoul's military said, continuing a fresh streak of weapons testing as Kim Jong-un's regime ramps up what it calls 'war preparations.

People sit at a railway station in Seoul as a television screen shows a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, on Feb. 2. North Korea fired multiple cruise missiles on that day, Seoul's military said, continuing a fresh streak of weapons testing as Kim Jong-un's regime ramps up what it calls 'war preparations.' (Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

Published: February 27, 2024 11:40 AM GMT
Updated: February 28, 2024 04:09 AM GMT

Koreans lived together peacefully on the peninsula for centuries until they became separated after World War II. The subsequent war led to further divisions and have caused immense loss of life for more than seven decades.

And yet Koreans continued to see light at the end of the tunnel with the Church and other global bodies championing peace. But the years of arduous efforts to unify 71 million people have been almost undone by the recent actions of an unpredictable leadership in both countries.

Barely five days after Seoul archdiocese marked its 1,400th Eucharist for the unification of the Koreas on Jan. 9, North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the highest organ of state power, rewrote the country’s constitution to label South Korea as its “principal adversary.”

The damage was done.

The archdiocese had been at the forefront of unification efforts since 1995 when it was led by Cardinal Stephen Kim. At the Mass, Auxiliary Bishop Job Yobi Koo of Seoul asked people to pray so that “we may become an instrument for reconciliation” so that the people on the peninsula “may unite with love.”

Along with other denominations, the Korean Catholic Church has been organizing ecumenical prayer gatherings, meetings and seminars, and global initiatives to promote demilitarization and nuclear disarmament.

Pope Francis has held Korean unification “close to his heart.”

While addressing the South Korean Church when it celebrated a Mass for Peace on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice on July 27, 2023, Francis sent a message and wanted the Korean Church to “become a prophet of peace.”

The Church’s longstanding pursuit of the peaceful reunification of the two Koreas suffered a setback when 40-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said there was no point in following a unification policy in his year-end speech.

After the speech was delivered, Kim’s communist administration wasted no time in removing public symbols promoting peaceful reunification. Top party honchos made sure that three inter-Korean cooperation outfits — the Korean People’s Cooperation Administration, Kumgangsan International Tourism Administration, and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland — became history.

The North Korean leadership asked the military to beef up missile tests, including nuclear arms, believing that Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria arguably suffered consequences for not possessing nuclear arms to deter US attacks against them.

Given the stark choice of another war with the US, the North preferred the most lethal weapon, though the nation’s leadership was universally condemned as bizarre and irrational.

Officially abandoning the longstanding policy of unification has internal implications for the North. Its authoritarian leadership is no longer required to speed up the democratization process linked to the reunification process.

Since conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, the North has always accused the South of using reunification as a ploy to topple its communist government under the guise of democracy.

South Korea under Yoon Suk Yeol, who became president in May 2022, has smashed every vestige of enhanced inter-Korean ties achieved during his Catholic predecessor Moon Jae-in’s term.

Yoon has already made South Korea a subordinate ally of the hyper-militarized Indo-Pacific Strategy of the Biden administration. It conducted at least 42 joint military exercises with the US in 2023 alone. It has also beefed up military engagements with Australia and Japan.

Yoon has already undertaken a flurry of visits and meetings around the world to position South Korea as a “global pivotal state” and has made his presence felt at the virtual Indo-Pacific Economic Framework summit and the NATO summit in Madrid.

He also figured prominently in high-level meetings involving Japan and the US to firm up his evolving hardline North Korea policy.

The South downsized the Ministry of Unification (MoU), set up in 1969, in mid-2023 and has re-designated the North as “our enemy” in its defense white paper.

Under Moon, who visited Pope Francis to appraise him of the progress of the Korean peace process in 2018 and 2021, the white paper had dropped the reference to North Korea as an enemy.

In September 2018, Moon along with Kim addressed a crowd of 150,000 North Koreans in the North’s capital, a first of its kind.

When Moon met the pope on Oct 29, 2021, Francis reaffirmed his desire to visit Pyongyang “for the sake of peace.”

Seoul and Washington are still at war with Pyongyang since the 1953 armistice ended combat operations in the Korean War but was not followed up by a peace treaty. The US has around 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea.

North Korea has been seeking concessions on the sweeping brutal sanctions imposed by the US against Pyongyang.  But no Standard Operation Procedures were forthcoming from Washington.

Last year saw an act of overt intimidation by the US as it conducted seven exercises with nuclear-capable bombers over the Korean peninsula.

The Korean War (1950-53) was a war that Americans conveniently forgot with the invention of a “good” South Korea and a “bad” North. But North Koreans are taught to remember the war and the carpet-bombing and the widespread use of napalm, an incendiary liquid that can clear forested areas and cause devastating burns to human skin, forever.

The war killed over 4 million people and the U.S. dropped 32,357 tons of napalm with gusto. First used in World War II, napalm was widely used in the Korean War, and later assumed notoriety in the Vietnam War later. Military historians believe that but for napalm the US would have suffered a humiliating defeat in the Korean war.

With nuclear threat diplomacy by three unpredictable leaders — US, South Korea and North Korea — on the rise recently, the peninsula has become a prime candidate for a nuclear catastrophe.

Every peace organization worth its name in the world should push their national governments and their churches to get involved to work for unification and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The threat of a mushroom cloud and a nuclear menace on the peninsula is real and unmistakable. It is there for everyone to see.

And a war involving nuclear-armed nations means omnicide.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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