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Kevin ClarkeFebruary 06, 2018

President Trump used his State of the Union address on Jan. 30 to continue a war of words and tweets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” the president said.

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland…. We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening,” he told Congress, arguing that “complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.”

“I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position,” the president said, adding, “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”

Strong words for an audience at home that many analysts suggest was meant to prepare the nation for a resumption of conflict with North Korea—one that many military strategists believe would prove catastrophic. Also listening with keen interest to the president’s speech were the people of South Korea, who surely have reason to fear a restoration of hostilities with the North. Even if that hypothetical conflict were to remain limited to conventional weapons, as many as 300,000 South Koreans could become casualties within days of renewed fighting. 

Bishop Peter Kang U-il, a former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, leads the diocese of Cheju. “Mr. Trump’s comments are not less aggressive than North Korea’s,” Bishop Kang said in an interview conducted via email. “It is true that the North Korean regime oppresses its own citizens with absolute dictatorship, as the president says, and we cannot accept their threatening gestures with missiles and nuclear tests.

Bishop Kang believes the upcoming Winter Olympics in Korea and the surprise decision of officials in the North to allow North Korean athletes to participate offers a small opening for progress.

“But that does not mean,” he said, “that other countries have the right to launch a preventive strike that would incur without doubt a total war and unprecedented destruction, not only in the Korean Peninsula but also in other countries. We think this kind of aggressive attitude by the president only motivates wrath and hatred against each other.”

The State of the Union comments were not the first time the president has made thinly veiled to outright threats against the Kim regime in North Korea. Some of Mr. Trump’s comments on Twitter, where he has taken to referring to the North Korean leader as “Rocket Man,” seem to be deliberately provocative. The tone has been noted in South Korea, according to Bishop Kang.

“The North Korean regime and its people recognize that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world,” he said. “However, they have a very strong sense of pride for their contemporary socialist heritage and their country.”

Though North Korea has long been supported by neighboring China, a point of intense national pride has been a sense of its own autonomy in the face of extreme adversity, Bishop Kang said. He called this national pride “their last fortress and their most precious property,” albeit one used to delude and distract the North Korean people. “They would not lay down this pride even if they starve,” he said.

“I feel that it would not be ideal or helpful at all to hurt this pride and their self-esteem,” he said. “I’d appreciate if President Trump would choose more refined language respecting their honor and pride even though their leaders express themselves with very aggressive and violent language at times.”

He urges that the United States reconsider not only its rhetoric but its strategy in dealing with the Kim regime. “We believe,” he said, “that the continuing military pressure and economic sanctions will not make the North abandon their nuclear bombs and the missiles which, they believe, are the only practical insurance not to be attacked by the United States or South Korea.

“In the North they say that they have survived a much more disastrous period of great floods [in 1995], when millions of people died because of starvation. They say North Korean people have the perseverance to contend with any further economic pressure.”

The president’s aggressive stance toward the North may have surfaced at a particularly inopportune moment. Bishop Kang believes the upcoming Winter Olympics in Korea and the surprise decision of officials in the North to allow North Korean athletes to participate offers a small opening for progress.

“We believe that the continuing military pressure and economic sanctions will not make the North abandon their nuclear bombs and the missiles.“

“Because of the Pyeongchang Olympics, most Korean people feel there has been a certain improvement in terms of relations between the South and the North Korea,” he said. “We believe that at least during this period of the Winter Olympics, the North Korean regime wants to maintain an atmosphere of détente on the Korean Peninsula.

“Here in the South people hope sincerely that atmosphere of détente will be prolonged after the Olympics.” But there is cause to fear the warming could end quickly, Bishop Kang added, since the South Korean and U.S. armies “would probably resume their annual exercises soon after the Olympics,” something he believes “would cause violent reactions from the North.”

In fact, U.S. and South Korean military officials agreed in January to delay their 2018 joint exercises, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted on Jan. 5 that the postponement reflected a practical necessity to accommodate the Olympics and was not intended as a political gesture. He said the exercise, which involves thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops, would be conducted sometime after the Winter Paralympics, scheduled for March 8-18, following the Feb. 9-25 Olympic Games.

In Washington policy makers have turned to discussion of the moral challenges and relative merits of a first-strike option by the United States against North Korea. Could U.S. forces succeed in obliterating North Korea’s nuclear capacity? How many U.S. and South Korean casualties would result from a North Korean counteraction, especially given the proximity of South Korean capital Seoul to the demilitarized zone and the North’s vast artillery forces crowded at the border?

For his part, Bishop Kang would prefer to see less geopolitical emphasis on the likelihood of renewed conflict and more on restored negotiations. “It is my belief that real peace cannot be attained in the end by arms and military operations,” he said, “but only through patient dialogue and collaboration based upon mutual respect.”

The bishop observes that South Korean and U.S. conventional forces are certainly far more powerful and sophisticated than the conventional capacity of the North, though military analysts believe the North has managed to build 30 to 60 nuclear weapons. He wonders where that vast, mutual investment in military hardware and expertise leads.

“When we accumulate weapons,” Bishop Kang said, “it will only provoke a more tense confrontation and possibly war. Contemporary history shows that even U.S. troops with enormous and high-tech weapons systems have hardly won the war in foreign countries, though they are sacrificing so many young lives.

“No war,” he said, “can bring along any positive result for anybody, and it will only mean many more civilian victims than soldiers.”

According to Bishop Kang, the most important practical move that allies South Korea and the United States could make toward ending the tension with North Korea, and perhaps beginning tentative steps toward a lasting peace, would be to find a way “to let the North trust that the United States and South Korea do not have any intention to attack or to overthrow their regime by military force.” And the best way to earn their trust, he said, “is to diminish the allied military exercises, which are for them a real tremendous threat.”

“It is my belief that real peace cannot be attained in the end by arms and military operations,” Bishop Kang said, “but only through patient dialogue and collaboration based upon mutual respect.”

Despite the current increase in tension, Bishop Kang maintains a hope that “in a not-too-distant future” the Koreas will become reunified.

“The North Korean people are forced to live in an absolutely abnormal situation, which is made barely possible only by severe police surveillance,” he said. “They let people watch each other to find out any kind of resistance or revolt against the Kim dynasty. And they have isolated people from any influence of foreign culture, ideology or religion.

“But this kind of oppression and surveillance cannot last,” Bishop Kang said. “We have seen in other socialist countries that such tense situations can unexpectedly collapse. Already many North Korean people realize that they have been long deceived by lies and manipulated by propaganda.”

Bishop Kang believes the churches of the United States and South Korea can play a positive role toward the goal of peace and reunification. Though they may only have a “very limited” role to play diplomatically, they can continue to focus on whatever humanitarian response they are allowed to provide toward improving conditions in the North.

Since what may turn out to be one of history’s worst famines began in the north in 1995, he said, the Catholic Church in South Korea “has made its best effort to make contacts with the North, supplying financial aid for food as well as medical assistance.”

Since then, “we have tried to maintain our contacts with people of North Korean Catholic Association,” the Catholic entity authorized by the regime in the North. “Through this liaison channel,” Bishop Kang said, “some clergy as well as laity have visited the North several times for the purpose of monitoring the impact of our assistance.”

That assistance has not escaped criticism in South Korea, where some worry that church aid disbursements are being diverted to sustain the Kim regime. “Nevertheless,” said Bishop Kang, “we sustained this channel to get in touch with North Korean society.”

The Catholic Church in South Korea also maintains a Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean People at the conference and diocesan levels. “Through this organization,” the bishop said, “we offer various services to those who defected from the North, so that they can easily get accustomed to life in the South. We think that these defectors from the North will be able to play an important role of mediation for other North Korean people if a reunification happens unexpectedly.”

Mediation and moderation are recurring themes in Bishop Kang’s commentary on the prospects of peace with North Korea. He thinks average South Koreans are very concerned about the rising rhetoric, describing their optimism about a peaceful resolution to the standoff with the North is real but waning. “Our expectations for peace and reunification have been betrayed for so many years,” he said, holding out hope that peace may yet “come unexpectedly.”

“I believe that what hinders most the peace in the world,” he said, “is our attitude of judgment and condemnation. I as a bishop always try to appeal that we should not curse the other as the devil nor denounce the other as an enemy who ought to be deleted in this world.

“In the Korean Peninsula since we have confronted each other for 70 years, ready constantly to restart the war, our souls have always been filled with hostility and enmity against our brothers and sisters across the border,” Bishop Kang said.

“This attitude will not resolve anything. This enmity will never promote peace in the world, but it will rather promote struggle and conflict against each other. We should recognize the other side, whether they are communists or capitalists, as the same, human beings, created as the same children of God the Father.”

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