Today's post is written by Dr. K. Kale Yu. Dr. Yu is Instructor in Religion at High Point University, a United Methodist-affiliated institution. A chapter of his upcoming book Understanding Korean Christianity: A Terracultural Perspective examines Christianity in North Korea.
As a Korean American, I have tempered optimism about Trump’s decision to meet North Korea's supreme leader, an unprecedented event for a sitting U.S. president in the post-Korean War era.
Prior to the Korean War, my grandfather took his children (including my father) and fled Haeju, his hometown in northern Korea to flee invading communists that were persecuting and executing Christians. My grandfather in the north had seven brothers but only he and his family fled because he became a Christian, specifically a Methodist (since that region was marked by Methodist missionaries). Little did he realize at the time that his conversion to Christianity literally saved his and family's life. Although he fled to the south penniless, he credited God for his deliverance and, as a way of giving thanks, became a Methodist pastor in the south and later superintendent of Sunday Schools.
The rise of communists in the north forced many, especially Christians, to flee to the south. Pyongyang was dubbed "Jerusalem of the East" after the Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907 that made Pyongyang the vibrant center of Korean Christianity but, just like the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. that pushed Christians outside Palestine, the communist invasion pushed northern Koreans to the south where they started some of the most well-known Korean churches, such as Young Nak Presbyterian Church, started by Han Kyung-Chik who received the 1992 Templeton Prize.
For most refugees who fled to the south, they thought their situation was temporary. The assumption that they would be able to return to their homes in the north was shattered when the conclusion of the Korean War created a permanent line of division between families in the North and South.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the last remaining communist nations, such as Vietnam and Cuba, showed signs of engagement with the West except North Korea. Trump’s pivot from threats of raining “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea to agreeing with meet Kim Jong Un whom Trump called the “little rocket man” marks a pace of rapprochement that no one anticipated.
However, there are potential pitfalls that could result from the meeting. In the worst case scenario, U.S.-North Korea relations deteriorate to the brink of war that destabilizes the region. The best case scenario would de-nuclearize North Korea and lay the groundwork for North Korea’s opening to the world. A formal peace treaty would be signed (a cease-fire armistice, not a peace treaty, concluded the Korean War in 1953), ending sixty-five years of estrangement and antagonism. Furthermore, a successful summit could reshape the international geopolitical map far beyond the Korean peninsula.
Trump’s spontaneous agreement to a summit meeting with Kim comes less than two weeks of China’s Xi Jinping amending the Chinese Constitution to remove term limits, an act that effectively permits him to remain in power indefinitely, allowing Xi to cast China’s global vision for decades to come. How would a successful rapprochement with North Korea reshape the geopolitics in East Asia with Japan, South Korea, and China? How would peace on the Korean peninsula redefine America’s relations with China? From a Christian perspective, how would warmer relations with South Korea affect China and North Korea's receptivity to Christianity?
While as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I was fortunate to know Professor Samuel H. Moffett who was born in Pyongyang to missionary parents in 1916. He considered Pyongyang his hometown and he told me how saddened he became as a young man when his ship carrying him to his college in the U.S. left the Korean port and he could no longer see Pyongyang in the distance. At the age of 81, he and other former missionaries returned to Pyongyang in 1997. Moffett told me he was determined to find his old home in Pyongyang as it was forever etched in his memory but the passage of time under modern Pyongyang made it impossible. Like Moffett, my grandfather longed to return to his hometown in the north but never did.
Would warmer relations with North Korea once again open its doors to friends and families? Would it enable missionaries to return there to re-kindle the light of Christ that burned brightly over a hundred years ago?