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The Papal Vision for Peace in the Korean Peninsula

On October 29, South Korean President Moon Jae-in traveled to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis for the second time since 2018. During their first meeting, the Pope had expressed his wish to visit Pyongyang, but the plan fell apart after the 2019 Hanoi summit between Kim and Trump ended without a deal. This time, the pope again raised the issue of North Korea with Moon, poignantly asking “aren’t you brothers who speak the same language?” As in their previous encounter, the Pope reaffirmed  his desire to visit Pyongyang “for the sake of peace”.

Moon’s second meeting with the pope comes at a critical time, when talks between the United States and North Korea have come to a near-standstill.  In spite of promising a more practical and calibrated  policy toward the North and insisting that the US “harbors no hostile intent toward the DPRK,” the Biden administration has focused on building coalitions with Asia-Pacific nations that can serve as “force multipliers” in military confrontations with North Korea and China, and has pursued a strictly military approach to North Korea, stoking a dangerous arms race between the two Koreas and conducting provocative military exercises near the DMZ.

In contrast to this single-minded focus on militarism, Pope Francis offers an alternative moral vision to the Cold War ideology that has left two Koreas locked in ideological battle for seventy years. This vision focuses on the need to end the suffering of a divided Korean nation, and the importance of achieving inter-Korean reconciliation.

Bringing the two Koreas together

Unlike the Cold War mindset that shapes Washington’s outlook, the Pope recognizes the historical nature of the decades-long suffering of Koreans living with the aftermath of colonization, war and division, observing in recent comments that Korean “suffering is an inheritance (and) the suffering of the division is great.” Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik, the first South Korean to be appointed Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, recently echoed this sentiment:

The confrontation that exists on the Korean Peninsula is one of the greatest sufferings of humanity today…nearly 10 million Koreans live in forced separation due to the division between the south and the north.

Memories of the war are still vivid in the hearts and minds of the Korean people. In reference to the indiscriminate US bombing of North Korean civilians during the Korean War, Tim Beal notes:

Curtis LeMay (whose mantra was “bomb them back into the Stone Age”) offered this observation. “We burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both.… we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies bound to ensue.” …More than 428,000 bombs were dropped on Pyongyang alone, the number more than that of Pyongyang citizens at that time. At the time, the US had completely reduced the whole territory of Korea into ashes by showering bombs of nearly 600,000 tons, 3.7 times greater than those dropped on Japan during the Pacific War, even using napalm bombs prohibited by international conventions. [In total] the US massacred more than 1,231,540 civilians in the northern part of Korea during the three-year war.

Moreover, the US has cast a decades-long nuclear shadow over the Korean Peninsula since 1957 when it unilaterally abrogated the armistice by introducing nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula, which remained in place until 1991. Following the withdrawal of land-based nukes in 1991, the US has maintained nuclear first-strike capability in the Korean Peninsula via local submarine-based SSBNs and US-based ICBMs, as well as its ubiquitous fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s–weapons of choice for intimidating Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, the so-called forgotten war has effectively been wiped from U.S. collective memory, rendering the contemporary ramifications of the ongoing conflict devoid of context in the minds of most Americans. Thus has America’s military-industrial complex established itself as a permanent fixture in Korean society long after the cessation of hostilities in1953, leaving South Korea under permanent US military occupation as a pawn in its regional rivalry with China, and placing Seoul on the front line of any future conflict.

The US never formalized a peace treaty and continues to oppose one today, guaranteeing the perpetuation of the forever war and the establishment of South Korea as the primary front-line US base against China–a circumstance made possible only by a permanently divided Korea. Analysts lament America’s colonial treatment of Korea and recommend that instead of continuing its stance of stonewalling and casual belligerence, the Biden Administration ought to make good on its pledge of  “relentless diplomacy” with North Korea.

Biden hews close to the established US stance on Korea, continuing the Trump-era policy of near-total economic isolation of the North, intensifying the severe hardships that result for ordinary citizens. His administration has rebuffed recent UN Security Council initiatives for a partial lifting of sanctions, and has also extended the Trump-era travel ban that prohibits Korean-Americans from visiting their families in the North. Daniel Jasper of the American Friends Service Committee notes that:

The Biden administration has really boxed out progressives on North Korea. They would not meet with us for their North Korea review process and wouldn’t meet with the Korea Peace Partnership which was an audience of close to 200 community leaders including professors and academics, state representatives, local council members, faith leaders, students, and humanitarian practitioners…They don’t want to be held accountable for their foreign policy. It’s very disappointing.

The administration has also actively stymied a raft of inter-Korean cooperation projects initiated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, making good on Trump’s assertion that Seoul can do “nothing without our approval.” Boxed in by the demands of a powerful “ally” state firmly garrisoned on its soil and unrelenting in its determination to subsume Korean self-determination to its own geopolitical designs, South Korea, rendered bereft of the ability to act as a sovereign nation over seven decades of US occupation, has acquiesced, ceasing all serious efforts to engage with the North.

While the Biden Administration’s North Korea policy is being criticized for its incoherence, there is strong support in the US for peace on the Korean Peninsula. According to a new survey, the U.S. electorate supports ending the Korean War, engaging with North Korea, and cooperating on humanitarian issues. Commenting on the current Congressional bills calling for the US to take specific action on the Korean peninsula, Ramsey Liem notes that:

The Biden administration has an opportunity to demonstrate a genuinely new era of statesmanship on the world stage by supporting passage of important Congressional Initiatives calling for a binding peace agreement with North Korea, humanitarian assistance to the North, and support of Korean American reunification with family members in the DPRK. Each offers a meaningful step toward resolving a forgotten truce in a forgotten war that has persisted for nearly seven decades.

This growing support for dialog and peace is more in line with the papal vision articulated above than Washingtonś military-first policy. The Vatican regards the goal of unifying a nation of divided families as the most important component of laying the foundations for peace, stressing that there is more at stake than maintaining a permanent U.S. military foodhold on the Korean peninsula. According to the Pope, peace is not merely the absence of war but rather a “work of righteousness” that calls for “building foundations of mutual respect [and] understanding” to transform a society divided by external forces into a state of “radical reconciliation.”

This vision focuses on a shared Korean identity and heritage that precedes the Cold War, and is based on the recognition that the indelible historical, cultural, and familial bonds of the two Koreas are the most powerful catalysts for countering the root causes of the current conflict. Recalling the first martyrs who suffered in the cause of Christianity, the Pope observed that the suffering endured by generations of Koreans has the potential to lay the groundwork for a lasting peace, one with ramifications far beyond the borders of the two Koreas.

Korea’s quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts, for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world…We cannot become discouraged in our pursuit of these goals which are for the good not only of the Korean people but of the entire region and the whole world.