Martin Luther King gave me a dream for Korea

IssueJune - Aug 2003
Feature by Syngman Rhee

I was born and raised in Pyong Yang, now the capital city of North Korea. At that time, the early 1930s, the Korean people were under Japanese rule, which brought us great suffering and pain. It created a deep sense of hostility and enmity towards the Japanese. The cooperation between Korea and Japan, as co-hosts of the soccer World Cup, shows that there is always hope of reconciliation between former enemies.

Soon after our liberation from Japanese occupation at the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided by the Allied Forces, for the purpose of disarming Japanese troops. In the North, the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea (DPRK) was inaugurated with the Communist Party at its centre. Those who had resisted oppression under Japanese rule began to challenge Communist control in North Korea.

Foundations and footsteps

The political authorities in North Korea recognised the churches as a major opposition force. My father was a Christian minister. By the time of the Korean War in1950, he had been imprisoned along with other Christian leaders. When he was 49and I was 19, he was killed in prison.

As I stood before my father's body at his funeral, I cried out to God in grief and anger: “If God is truly a God of love and justice, why do the innocent suffer and the evil seem to prosper?” In those moments of anguish, I heard a still small voice asking, “Shouldn't you follow your father's footsteps in ministry in order to continue what he was unable to finish because of his untimely death?” I have not forgotten that voice. The motive for my life lies in that call of God.

After my father's death, my mother decided to send my younger brother and me to the South, to ensure our safety and survival. The decision was not an easy one for her, or for us. We fled on a snowy Sunday morning, 3 December 1950.Because of the cold and danger, only young and strong men dared to venture on the long walk towards the South. So my mother and four little sisters, aged 14,10, 8 and four months, stayed behind.

At the gate of our house, my mother said to us, “We do not know what may happen to us once we are apart from each other. But pray to God wherever you go and we will see each other through our prayers.” We never saw her again. Her words have been the sure foundation for our lives all these years.

Soon after coming to South Korea, we joined the South Korean Marine Corps and served for five years during the Korean War. In 1956, with the help of many friends, I came to the United States to study. I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1960. I often thought of how happy my mother would have been.

Freeing the oppressors

The early part of the 1960s marked a time of intense struggle for African-Americans. At that time I was a university pastor and professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. I joined with black and white church leaders and with African American students in the civil rights movement.

The African American students of the university wanted to organise a Black Students' Union on campus. They asked me if I would be their faculty advisor, as required by university regulations. “You know I am not black,” I said. “Yes,” they replied. “But we saw you in the streets demonstrating with us for our civil rights.” It was my honour and pleasure to accept their invitation.

I remember vividly Dr Martin Luther King's frequent visits to Louisville. His conviction that the key to creating a new history lies in the hands of the oppressed, not the oppressor, was a new and inspiring insight for me.

In a relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, the oppressed has a choice--either to carry out revenge, or to forgive and create a new beginning. Dr King called this “vicarious suffering”. He insisted that the civil rights movement was not only a movement to free the oppressed, but also a movement to free the oppressors.

Through my involvement with the civil rights movement, I learned that justice and peace must go hand in hand. At one point, a white man challenged me,”Why are you, an Asian, a yellow person, involved in the black and white issue?”My answer was then, and is now, that the issues of human rights and racial justice and reconciliation are not black and white issues alone. When the basic rights of any people are trampled upon, it is an issue for all of us.

One day during a demonstration, the police arrested us. We spent a night in the city jail. When I returned to my office at the university, someone had placed a dish of jelly-beans on my desk. There were some white jelly-beans and some black jelly-beans--and one yellow jelly-bean, a symbol of our unity for justice and peace.

On the other side

These experiences led me to look at the Korean situation in a new way. When I left home as a refugee, I was full of hostility and enmity. I saw myself as one of the oppressed. Martin Luther King's ideas on the key to history made me begin to see anew role for myself.

In the spring of 1978, I had the chance to make my long-dreamed-of visit back home to North Korea. The opportunity arose through a contact in the North Korean Embassy in Cairo, while I was visiting Egypt. I had to decide on the spot, without previous planning and without consulting my family in the United States. My visit might cause problems for my younger brother who was in South Korea.

I was filled with both excitement anda nxiety as I boarded a plane from Cairo to North Korea via East Germany and Moscow. When I arrived, two of my sisters were at the airport to meet me. It was28 years since we had seen each other. I cannot begin to describe the emotions of tearful joy we shared. I learnt that my mother had passed away eight years before. She had waited in vain for 20 years, longing to hear something about her two sons.

The hours I spent with my sisters on that visit were a dream fulfilled for me-- a dream which has been denied to countless others. Today there are some 10 million people still separated by the division between North and South Korea. These people live each day knowing nothing bout their loved ones on the other side.

Ministry of reconciliation

This concern for reuniting separated families is the first thought which emerges when I think about the ministry of reconciliation in Korea. Korean political realities have made it almost impossible for families to seek information about those they are separated from. This intense longing is a tangible bond between Koreans on both sides of the demilitarised zone. The agony of not knowing, year after year, what has happened to those we love, is one of the supreme human tragedies of our time.

There are only 150 miles between the capital city of North Korea, Pyong Yang, and the capital city of South Korea, Seoul. In a world where we can pick up a telephone and call any place at any time, it is almost unthinkable that such a tragic situation still exists.

Secondly, I have long wondered how we can reduce tensions, avoid war, and find a peaceful resolution to the hostilities between North and South Korea. Having gone through the Korean War and seen its tragedy, I am convinced that there must never be another war in Korea.

Deeply broken relations on the Korean peninsula have caused alienation and estrangement, which has been costly for all Koreans. At the same time, there have been earnest efforts to build bridges of reconciliation and peace. The power of the desire to be reunited as one people should not be underestimated.

Seeking peaceful engagement

Since my unexpected visit to North Korea in 1978, I have made 23 visits to North and South Korea. Many people have contributed to opening up contacts in North Korea, through visits and through relief donations, as the people there have faced desperate food shortages caused by floods and drought.

The ministry of reconciliation is often costly, difficult and risky. And yet, through our efforts, new relations be come possible. We have come a long way from those days of intense hostility and enmity, and yet we still have a long way to go. Two years ago, in June 2000, we were jubilant to witness the summit meeting of President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Commander Kim Jung II of North Korea, and their resolve to re-establish relationships between North and South Korea.

There is also an urgent need to normalise diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea. The previous US administration made strong efforts to open up new channels of communication with North Korea and had begun to build a new relationship of cooperation between the two nations.

The current administration has not continued on this path. President Bush's remark on “the axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech was truly unfortunate. His negative rhetoric and open hostility set back the improved relationship between the United States and North Korea. It is critically important that the United States return to a policy of peaceful engagement, rather than seeking a military solution in dealing with North Korea.

The importance of dreams

The Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church (USA) stated, “The Church,in its own life, is called to practise the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics, the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at a risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding.”

This vision presents us with two important tasks:

  • Our continuing commitment and struggle for racial justice and reconciliation.
  • Our continuing commitment and struggle for peace and reconciliation in divided, war-torn regions and countries, like Korea.

I have a dream that some day a delegation from North Korea and a delegation from South Korea will gather together in a spirit of true reconciliation and peace.