Rarely have current politics played such a key role in the Olympic Winter Games as they did in PyeongChang. Maria Lozano spoke with the director of the South Korean office of Aid to the Church in Need in Seoul, Johannes Klausa, about the fragile step the North and South have taken towards one another and the situation of Christians.
The Olympic Winter Games have just drawn to a close. Some have called PyeongChang a historic show of unity. What is your opinion?
In spite of all the tensions and unsolved problems, the Olympic Spirit briefly brought divided Korea one step closer together. Athletes from the south and the north marched under a united flag at the opening ceremony. A unified women’s Korean ice hockey team was even set up on short notice, which may not have exactly shone on the ice, with 28 goals scored against them in five games, but still captured headlines all over the world. The actual achievement lies in the fact that it was even possible to set up a team. Just a few months earlier, no one would have been surprised if Pyongyang had sent missiles over to the Olympics instead of athletes and cheerleaders.
Do you believe that the progress that was made will last?
It remains to be seen whether the step the two Koreas took towards one another on the sidelines of the Games will last beyond the Olympics and Paralympics. After all, during the opening ceremony, a lot of people were not only watching the handshake of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the sister of the North Korean dictator, Kim Yo-jong, but also the just as noteworthy handclasp of the South Korean president with the titular North Korean head of state, Kim Young Nam. All this, of course, unfolded under the sceptical gaze of US Vice President Mike Pence, who did everything in his power to avoid any such reconciliatory gestures. This is also noteworthy and a cause for concern, because it could certainly mean that the “delicate flower of inter-Korean dialogue”, as Korean expert Hartmut Koschyk recently called this careful step towards one another, may be “Trumpled” before a true Korean Spring can even begin.
What do you mean by this? Do you believe that this will be followed by military manoeuvres and missile tests in the near future?
Unfortunately, it is certainly possible that this public intermezzo of inter-Korean Olympic romance could end just as quickly as it began. It is questionable whether a serious dialogue or even direct talks between the US and North Korea are possible in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the arguments of those who support taking a hard line against the North cannot be dismissed that easily. If there is serious interest in a lasting solution and real change to the situation on the Korean peninsula, I believe that there is no way to avoid starting a dialogue, building up mutual trust and signing a peace treaty. This would also finally bring the Korean War officially to an end; to this day, there is only an armistice. A military solution should not even be on the table because of the number of casualties this would bring to both North and South Korea. For this reason alone, it should not be considered a serious option. I also hope that the resurrected inter-Korean channels of communication will at least remain open after the Olympic fire has gone out and that the course may even have already been set for a better future behind the scenes. Then, the Olympic Games will really have provided an urgently needed way out of a formerly gridlocked situation.
In your opinion, how much was the northern Korean population aware of the events that took place in PyeongChang during the past weeks?
It is impossible to say from here if they were aware of anything, and if so, just how much. The same can, in general, be said about any statements that are made about the current situation in North Korea; these can only be considered with caution.
Even though the information we receive is scant, we know that terrible things have happened in the past, not only to those of a different political persuasion, but also to Christians. What can you tell us about the situation of Christians there?
There is sufficient evidence that horrible crimes were committed against Christians by the North Korean regime in the early 1950s, one example being the martyrs of Tokwon. And I think that we all have heard the heartbreaking stories about North Korean refugees as well as the reports and rankings released by prominent NGOs on states that persecute Christians. I do not dare judge what is going on in North Korea right at this moment. However, I very much assume that three generations of prescribed state ideology and propaganda have largely succeeded in driving out and replacing the Christian faith in the country. Moreover, I fear that the Christian doctrine as well as its symbolism have in the meantime become completely foreign to the majority of North Koreans. It may be that, within the very immediate family, a small flicker of faith has been passed down and survived in secret. Pyongyang was once called the Jerusalem of the East. Today, only four official churches are left, whose leaders and parishioners first and foremost have to prove on a daily basis that they are loyal citizens and patriots. It would otherwise be impossible for them to live in the capital city. However, we cannot look into their hearts. After all, who are we to pass judgment on their faith? I believe that several members of Pyongyang’s parishes were already baptised before the division of Korea.
You and various delegations from your organisation Aid to the Church in Need went to the inter-Korean border and the blue barracks of the “Panmunjeom” within the so-called demilitarised zone (DMZ). This is the place where North and South meet for negotiations and where the border line between the two countries is. How did this make you feel?
Every time I go there, it is a very emotional experience for me. I have had the opportunity to visit the same place from both sides. Both sides are operated by friendly Korean men who, although they are wearing different uniforms, are very similar to each other in many essential areas. The young soldiers who stand eye to eye with each other day after day are brothers who no longer know each other and have been trained to hate one another. This becomes painfully obvious to me every time I visit the border region.
The pontifical foundation ACN has officially been working in South Korea since late 2015. How is the work of ACN being received in the country? Which countries are you currently focusing on?
The office of ACN in Korea is still in its infancy, but the shared history of the pastoral charity and Korea can be traced back to the early 1960s. Our founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, visited South Korea several times after the war when the country was still completely in ruins. He also collected donations in Europe for Korea that helped the country and the Church here get back on their feet. I try to remind the Koreans of this. They are still very familiar with poverty, war and persecution from their own history and can therefore easily identify with the suffering Church today. Moreover, they are justifiably proud of how their country has developed and that they have made the leap from aid recipient to benefactor. Last year, I primarily talked about my personal impressions of ACN projects in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Nigeria. These countries, and of course the intolerable situation in Syria as well, are an important topic for us here. However, during this Lenten season, we are also focusing much of our attention on India. The Holy Father told believers in Korea to take care of the needs of their brothers and sisters in faith in Asia and to become a beacon of light for them. ACN Korea can help them achieve this.