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Korean Methodists continue work for reunification (UM News)

July 10, 2023

The Roundtable for Peace on the Korean Peninsula will be held in Seoul on Aug. 28-30 after being postponed for two years due to COVID-19. Immediately afterward, the Korean Methodist Church and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries will have the second mission consultation in Seoul Aug. 31-Sept. 2, to enhance the partnership and relationship between the two denominations. 

In April 2021, when the world was groaning under the weight of COVID-19, the Rev. Thomas Kim, director of Korean and Asian News at United Methodist Communications, interviewed Bishop Chungsuk Kim, senior pastor of Kwanglim Church of the Korean Methodist Church, one of the largest Methodist churches in the world, and former president of the Board of Global Ministries of the Korean Methodist Church. Bishop Kim discussed preparations at the time for the fourth Roundtable for Peace on the Korean Peninsula in 2021 and his thoughts on the Korean church and the worldwide Methodist connection in general. 

Although Bishop Kim is no longer president of the Board of Global Ministries of the Korean Methodist Church, he is still one of the prominent leaders for the roundtable and the mission consultation and has been instrumental in making it happen this year. With the roundtable now on the calendar, UM News offers this previously unpublished interview. 

First of all, what are your and the mission’s plans for the fourth edition of the Roundtable for Peace on the Korean Peninsula?

For me, the most significant challenge and ecclesiastical mission for the Korean church is reunification. We continue to try to overcome the wounds of the division between North and South Korea, but we have not accomplished the work of unity. The work of the Gospel is the work of oneness and the reconciliation of the cross. 

It was the Monday prayer meetings of St. Nikolas Church in Leipzig that sparked the reunification of Germany. Just as this prayer movement was the catalyst for the fall of the Berlin Wall, I believe that when we, the members of the Korean church, pray for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula and join together in a peace movement to draw the attention of the world to the peace and reunification of Koreas, the last divided nation, God’s work of bringing down the wall that separated East and West Germany will also be done for us. 

To this end, I was preparing the roundtable with Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, and I am saddened that this convention, which was scheduled to take place last year, was postponed. Although peace is a progressive concept and is considered progressives’ alone, the truth is that the peace movement is not monopolized by any single group alone. Like King Darius’ decree, peace is something that we must pray for God to bring about at some point.

I would like to use the roundtable as an opportunity to capture Methodists’ thoughts on the Korean Peninsula and to establish a peace consciousness. While it is essential to gather ecumenical voices, I would like to focus on what we Methodists can think about and act on, not what the National Council of Churches of Korea or other denominations are doing. 

What other outcomes do you hope to see from this fourth roundtable?

We haven’t been able to come together and capture the diversity of voices. We’ve been considering bringing together people with different theories and practices about peace on the Korean Peninsula from different Methodist communities, including the World Methodist Council, The United Methodist Church and the Christian Church of Korea.

Methodism has a tradition of diversity and unity, of being diverse yet united. I hope that if Methodists from around the world with this Methodist heritage come together to share their views, the diverse voices of Methodists will be brought together. So, another goal for the conference is to open up a space for diverse ideas about peace on the Korean Peninsula within the stream of the Methodist faith.

The reunification movement and the peace movement also need to be put into context. 

Sociological approaches and directions for peace movements should be presented, along with theological work on what the church can do for peace on the Korean Peninsula, so that peace and reunification movements do not become the monopoly or exclusive domain of a biased group.

Work must be done on theological interpretations within the Methodist tradition to capture the pain of the Korean Peninsula shared by all Methodists, and to include North Korean human rights, an end-of-war declaration and humanitarian cooperation measures. Details will be worked out in breakout discussions.

We understand North Korea refused to join the Easter Common Prayer on April 4, 2021. In this situation, which is worse than past non-responses, are there ways that the North and South churches can engage? (Editor’s note: In April 2021, 2022 and 2023, the North’s non-response resulted in the Easter joint North-South prayer being a half-prayer.)      

As a pastor, I don’t think peace can be achieved until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons. Before the end of the Cold War, we thought the nuclear race would be resolved with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but contrary to our expectations, the nuclear issue is increasingly terrorizing the global community. 

Countries are experiencing leadership problems, the world order is becoming increasingly chaotic, ethnic conflicts and wars have been raging since the 20th century, and economic imbalances between countries are growing. Add to this the North Korean nuclear issue, which has been advancing and retreating for a long time and is now in the process of escalating again.

Nevertheless, we must believe in God’s absolute sovereignty, trust that peace will come to the Korean Peninsula in God’s work, and seek where God’s will is. 

However, we must not abandon the humanitarian exchanges we have provided North Korea. Acts, such as rehabilitating North Korea’s severely damaged forests, sending medicine and children’s vaccines, including pneumonia medicines, and sending fertilizer play an essential role in uniting the hearts of the people of South and North Korea and easing tensions. At a time when there seems to be no political way to open the door, isn’t that what the church should be doing? 

When even a hospital specializing in heart disease to treat children in North Korea cannot be built because of UN sanctions, the church must be the Good Samaritan, offering care and help and engaging in humanitarian and peaceful exchanges through love, sacrifice, service and sharing.

It’s been regrettable that the Korean Methodist Church hasn’t been able to play the role that it deserves both domestically and internationally, but it seems that the church has recently been reorganized and is expanding its role in Asia. Was there a particular trigger or motivation for the change? 

As you know, there have been unnecessary fights, rivalries and injustices within us. 

In addition, the church is suffering from external causes as the population is declining: from over a million newborns in 1970, there are now only 250,000. 

With the youth community nearly wiped out, we Methodists came to the denomination with a sense of crisis, saying, “We need a new missional paradigm or we are doomed,” “This is not the time for a power struggle,” and “The way things are resonating is the way they should be,” and insisting that we put aside our differences, come together as one and move toward a new future.

Fortunately, with that consensus, the denomination was organized, the church’s social influence and history were remembered, and the Korean Methodist Church is now restoring its mission-oriented focus on mission, the gospel of the kingdom of God, and social service and social roles.

Having once again confirmed the church’s ability to self-regulate, I intend to gather my missionary capacity, participate more actively in the Asian Bishops’ Conference, fulfill my roles and responsibilities, and cooperate with them in their work.

What else can the Korean Methodist Church contribute to the worldwide Methodist church? 

I am proud of the 138-year history of the Korean church. When Buddhism and Confucianism failed to provide any direction after Japanese imperialism took over Korea by force in 1910, Christianity instilled the ideas of God’s kingdom, freedom and equality in the people of Korea who were in darkness. For those who were living under the tyranny of Japan, Christians in Korea prayed for the salvation and suffering of the nation, resulting in the March 1 Movement. In addition, Christianity played a vital role during the period of suffering to achieve industrialization and democratization.  

Like the role of Christianity in accompanying these peoples, it is now the task of the Christian Church Korea, with the wisdom gained through its history of mission, education and church revival, to serve as a centrist counterweight between European Methodists, African churches and the socially biased and secular American United Methodists. 

The Korean church, which cried out for help in the 1960s and ’70s, now sends more than 1,200 missionaries worldwide. The church has grown to the point where it can play a role in the global Methodist community for God’s kingdom, but it has also grown in its responsibility for ministry.

I’ve heard that your ministry philosophy is called LIGHT. Can you elaborate on that?

L.I.G.H.T is our commitment to be a light to the world. 

L for loving, to be a community that loves God and neighbor through active faith and shines God’s love; I for involving in a community that prepares for a creative future through spiritual enrichment; G for growing to be a community that matures in faith through faithful living; H for healing to be a community that experiences the work of healing through the practice of love; and for transforming, which confesses that we live the life of a true disciple of Christ fulfilling the mission of the world through a community that transforms the world in unified obedience. We aim to be a church that practices social sanctification and proclaims the gospel and peace to the world. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Some people say that the Korean church has become overly conservative, but this is just a reaction to the reunification and peace theme being monopolized by certain groups. I believe that the so-called Taegeuk group, known as ultra-conservative, is also a country-loving movement in its own right. I believe they should be able to come together in the peace movement to exchange opinions and explore methodologies, so we shouldn’t be too concerned or disparaging of their actions.

According to the Spiritual Map within (Kwanglim) church, we have many members who have specialized areas of expertise. In addition, there are many members who, through their own characteristics, are excellent leaders in their respective fields. However, the church should not be a witness to individual theories. The church is where the gospel is preached, and the ideas of the kingdom of God are witnessed — not where ideas of peace and unity are imposed, nor should they be universalized. 

The authority of the church comes from the proclamation of the Word, and the pulpit from which the Word is proclaimed carries weight and authority because it is the Word (Logos), so we should be praying for ways that churches with evangelical and fundamentalist theologies can synergize their energies for the kingdom of God. 

That said, I am grateful that The United Methodist Church is interested in the Korean Peninsula and is opening space for us to pray together and share theological and sociological life movements. 

But the reunification and peace of the Korean Peninsula is not just for Koreans. When there is peace on the Korean Peninsula, there will be peace in the global community, and we will be called to bear witness to the gospel on this earth as our final missionary task.

My personal hope is to rewrite and redefine the history of The United Methodist Church and the Christian Church in Korea. For example, I would like to see the creation of the Appenzeller and Scranton museums or the collection and organization of the history of the American Methodist missionaries who worked at Ewha Womans University, Dongdaemun Church, Gongju Yangmyeong Academy and Dongdaemun Women’s Hospital, so that the legacy of missionaries can be passed on to future generations.

Lastly, I would like to say something to The United Methodist Church: I can’t help but feel that the church is becoming too academic and institutional in its church-building and that there needs to be a more dynamic movement. I feel that the passion is dying and the organization is becoming less and less. 

I believe that the Methodist movement is a lay movement, so I’m looking forward to seeing a more active lay movement within The United Methodist Church, and I’m trying to make sure that this Roundtable for Peace on the Korean Peninsula is a place where lay people are really engaged.