Editor’s Note: The article below was part of the keynote presentations at the 7th National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCCUSA) – National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) Consultation, which was held online on June 24th, 2021 (June 25th in Korea). Its theme was “Reclaiming Hope Towards Reconciliation and Unity” to commemorate the Korean War, which broke out on Sunday, June 25, 1950. Rev. Paul S. Tché, president of the Disciples CUIM, who is a Korean-American, spoke on behalf of the NCCCUSA with Mr. Jim Winkler, general secretary and president of the NCC, at the consultation.
As a Korean-born American in the modern day and a church executive of a denomination that calls upon its members to be a just, peacemaking church, I have felt obliged to do something about the situation in the Korean Peninsula. And I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that it is not only Koreans or Korean Americans who feel the same way. Many Christians in the United States would agree that the US government should ensure peace in the northeastern region and particularly in the Korean Peninsula. What is encouraging to me is that it is more than just progressive wings of Christian Americans who believe so. A recent poll conducted by the Korea Economic Institute of America, a Washington-based think tank, and republished in the Korean Herald on May 25, 2021, shows that most Americans, no matter their political affiliation, believe that it is crucial to have a deal with North Korea on dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons. At the same time, interestingly, the same poll indicates that 57 percent of the respondents regard North Korea as an adversary. What other countries are identified as adversaries in the survey? They were Russia (52 percent), China (48 percent), and Iran (48 percent). To my surprise, on the list, I could not find Vietnam, with which the United States had a horrendous military conflict in recent history. Why do half of the Americans believe North Korea is a direct security threat to the United States even though there have not been explicit military conflicts between the two nations since the Korean War? I think it is not because Americans are concerned with the well-being of South Koreans, which has close ties with the United States. It is because many Americans think that North Korea has nuclear warheads that could reach not only the US territories close to the peninsular but also portions of the US mainland.
So it is fair to say that more than half of Americans believe that North Koreans have dangerous missiles and intend to use them against the United States. I have found it very interesting that many who regard North Korea as one of the biggest threats to the United States have never tried to see any reason behind such a claim by the US government and other hard-liners. Then, what does a deal with North Korea imply among those Americans who believe North Korea is a security threat?
Most Americans do not see, in this geopolitical landscape, the palpable asymmetry in relationships between the United States and North Korea and even between the United States and its allies in the region, including South Korea. It is very unfortunate that I see the similarity in the conflicts with North Korea as a nation and in racial conflicts within the United States. Many white Americans do not see inequality and inequity among different racial and ethnic groups in the United States. This is because racial inequality does not affect them. So they merely dismiss injustice toward the minor ethnic groups that is systematically done by the visible and invisible white agenda. Further, they deny the very fact that there is a white agenda that permanently controls the mainstream of society. Likewise, most Americans do not see that there has been a US agenda toward North Korea that perpetuates asymmetry in the relationship with North Korea and its allies in the region. Most Americans believe that all that North Korea needs to do is come to the table and talk.
It seems that the United States, South Korea, and North Korea are playing a weird seesaw game. The United States is sitting on one side, intent on never losing its position close to the ground. On the other side, there is North Korea is up in the air, trying to move down to the ground. Of course, South Korea is just sitting in the middle, not attempting to disperse its weight to balance this situation. It actually moves toward the United States, helping it weigh more. The challenge is that most Americans have seen this game from above. What they are seeing is that the United States, South Korea, and North Korea are sitting at a distance from one another. But they need to see this bizarre scene from the ground. Unless the United States lets North Korea be grounded in a more secure political and economic situation, any attempt to have a conversation makes the North Korean government more anxious. To secure peace in the region, this asymmetrical relationship between the United States and North Korea should be corrected first.
In his book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson writes about his intention of the book: “It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.” (Stevenson, p.14) Because I am concerned about securing peace in the northeastern Asia region, once again, I am surprised at how similarly we Americans treat the vulnerable in this country and the northeast part of the world. We quickly condemn people and create injustice by allowing ourselves to be shaped by fear and distance. We easily label others with despicable words.
I pray that Americans can see how we, Americans, have shaped the geopolitical landscape of northeastern Asia with baseless fear and anger, which has created a maximum-security ideological prison of the cold war for ourselves. That cold war ideology is gone, yet we have no intention of escaping from the ideological prison.
Many Americans believe that the sanctions toward North Korea, the traveling ban, and the huge military drills of the US and South Korean military can be justified because North Korea is unreasonable and unreliable. Where on earth did we get the idea that North Korea is deserved to be treated this way?
Rev. Paul S. Tché
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada