By Robin Gomes
The World Council of Churches (WCC) is inviting its member Churches and all people of good will to observe the annual Sunday of Prayer for the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula on 15 August.
The prayer will be held on the 76th anniversary of Liberation Day in both North and South Korea. Its marks the day in 1945 when Korea won independence from Japanese colonial oppression. Ironically, 15 August also marks the day when the peninsula was divided into two countries.
A painful past
Prior to World War I and Japan’s annexation of Korea (1910–1945), all of Korea had been unified as a single entity for centuries. Following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union had provisionally divided the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel. North Korea was administered by the Soviet Union, while South Korea was administered by the US. Efforts towards reunification of the two administrations failed in 1947 following disagreements between the US and the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, with tension building between the two neighbours, the North invaded the South in 1950. The 1950-1953 conflict claimed some 4 million lives and divided 10 million families. The war ended on 27 July 1953, with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Hence the two neighbours are technically still at war.
Churches in South Korea therefore celebrate the 15 August anniversary every year with a special prayer for peace and the reunification of the two Koreas. The World Council of Churches (WCC) has invited its members worldwide to translate the text into their respective languages and share it with their communities.
To heal “the wounds of division”
Prepared by the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) and the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), the prayer is traditionally used on the Sunday before 15 August every year.
“We love the Korean Peninsula where we share our laughter and tears,” reads the prayer this year. It laments, “this land is moaning from the wounds of division.”
The prayer acknowledges that the borders of different ideologies have driven this land into war and violence. “The depths of hate are deep within us, and the forces that promote division are blocking our steps toward peace,” reads the prayer. “We pray that wounds of division will be healed.”
Peace, justice, coexistence
The prayer asks God to help plant the seeds of peace and coexistence. “Help us to overcome the conflicts of ideology by the love of Christ,” reads the prayer. “Defeat the forces of evil that block the path of peace.”
The prayer concludes by describing peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula not as an option, but as a calling that all Koreans must achieve.
“Although the barbed wire of division has torn us apart,” the supplication assures, “we remember that our spirits and hearts are connected in the Lord.” Help us walk together on the pilgrimage of justice and peace as we walk together for the Kingdom of God,” the prayer concludes.
The Korean Church
While the Catholic Church has prospered in South Korea since the Korean War, in the North its presence is little more than a facade. The Holy See does not recognize North Korea’s state-run Korean Catholic Association (KCA) as a legitimate member of the worldwide Catholic Church under the Pope. Catholic Dioceses in the North have remained vacant since Christian persecutions in the late 1940s. The KCA claims there are 3,000 Catholics in the country, while the UN estimates around 800. South Korean Catholics refer to it as the “Church of silence”.
The Archbishop of Seoul, South Korea, is also the Apostolic Administrator of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and the Bishop of Chuncheon, South Korea is the Apostolic Administrator of North Korean Diocese of Hamhung. The bishops’ conference is named after the entire peninsula.
According to the latest CBCK, Catholics in the country number 5,923,300, making up 11.2% of Korea’s nearly 53 million population.
Reconciliation between the two Koreas has been a major thrust of the Catholic Church in Korea, which includes both countries. With this in mind, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea (CBCK) established the Special Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean People in 1997.
In this regard, the CBCK has organized several initiatives over the years, such as Masses, novenas, and the Jubilee of National Reconciliation in Chuncheon in June 2000. The Korean Church provided substantial aid to the North Korean population hit by the famine in the 1990s, and has made efforts to raise awareness among the faithful on the issue of reunification.
The Special Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean People organizes the “Day of Prayer for the Reconciliation and Unity of the Korean People” in every diocese on 25 June each year, with a novena preceding it. Korean bishops have always advocated the cause of reconciliation between the two governments, especially in moments of greatest tension between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Pope Francis has also been an advocate of peace, reconciliation and reunification in the Korean peninsula.. When he visited South Korea in 2014 to celebrate the Asian Youth Day in Daejeon, he dedicated the last Mass of his 14-18 August visit to peace and reunification.
“Jesus asks us to believe that forgiveness is the door which leads to reconciliation,” he said in his homily in Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. “This, then, is the message I leave you as I conclude my visit to Korea. Trust in the power of Christ’s cross! Welcome its reconciling grace into your own hearts and share that grace with others! I ask you to bear convincing witness to Christ’s message of reconciliation in your homes, in your communities and at every level of national life.”
Ahead of the historic meeting between former US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June 2018, the Holy Father prayed that the summit “may contribute to the development of a positive path to assure a future of peace on the Korean peninsula and throughout the world.”
Again, when the two leaders met at Korea’s “demilitarized zone” on 30 June 2019, the Pope prayed that “such a significant gesture might constitute a further step along the path of peace, not only on that [Korean] peninsula but for the whole world”.