The Pilgrimage for Peace to Korea gave participants the opportunity to engage with Christians of South Korea while learning about the culture, history and division of two Koreas. Several participants wrote about their experiences while reflecting on this season of Advent: the season of active waiting. In eager expectation and action, we join the Spirit of Jesus, Prince of Peace, to bring about healing, reconciliation and peace. This week’s reflection is written by Claudia Roberts, the Peace with Justice Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Advent is a season of anticipation, when we are waiting and wondering what is coming and how will it impact our lives. Anticipation carries an implication that we are expecting something good.

I had months of anticipation before I traveled to Korea. Who would be my companions? What would I learn? What would I see? As it came to pass, I was with a wonderful group of United Methodists on a Peace Pilgrimage sponsored by the Wisconsin Conference. We visited many parts of the country and met many Korean Methodists and enjoyed amazing hospitality from the churches and pastors of Korea.

There are so many stories I could share but will focus on the theme of our tour, “Seeking Peace for Korea”. The Korean War is still a focal point for all Koreans. Their destiny was forever changed by the armistice that stopped most of the hostilities on the peninsula and created the impenetrable divide between North Korea and South Korea 65 years ago. Everywhere we went we heard stories of what it was like before and after the war. We saw photos of massive destruction and saw how they have rebuilt their economy and their cities.

We visited three locations where we could see North Korea. The Gangwha Observatory and the Goseong Unification Observatory gave us haunting views of a country that is locked away from the rest of the world. We were able to see beautiful hills vibrant in their fall colors and villages. Sung-Min Gwak, Korean military chaplain at the Unification Observatory, told us that every day he sees birds flying freely in the sky from South to North and North to South. And every day he sees people walking on the beach on both the North and South sides of the border and wonders why the people cannot be as free as the birds.

The third location was the Border Peace School founded by Rev. Dr. Ji-Seok Jung, a Presbyterian pastor. From here we were within 50 yards of the border fence. The school teaches non-violent actions to promote peace in this northern area that feels threatened daily by possible military action from North Korea. They work with people in the villages to help them feel more empowered and confident. They also offer classes to train Peace Activists from around Korea and elsewhere.

The school holds a daily candlelight vigil on the top of Mt Soi where their light can be seen in North Korea.

In Gangwon province, we visited the site of a bombed out remains of an old stone Methodist church that still stand as a memorial. We met the pastor who is also the District Superintendent. He told us the church was bombed by U.S. military because it was thought to be a hideout for Korean communists aiding the invading military. There are still members of their church who remember the bombing. This is just one story of how the war continues to be part of the daily lives of the Korean people.

It was a very sobering time when we visit the National Korean War Memorial in Seoul. We had a tour given by a Korean War veteran. The tour brought home the reality that the Korean conflict was stopped by an armistice that ceased military action but has never resolved with a treaty that would declare an end to the war. They have now had three generations come to adulthood with the apprehension that war could resume at any time. One of the big stumbling blocks to signing a treaty is that the United Nations has required that the United States be the signer for South Korea on any treaty. The Koreans we met would like the UN requirement to be abated so they could negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea themselves.

I was very moved by the seminar held at Wonju First Methodist Church. We had a panel of five Koreans of different ages who were asked to share with us how having a divided Korea has impacted and is still impacting their lives. The first man who spoke was in his 80’s and a retired high school principal. He told us he was 12 years old when he and his father fled to the south at the start of the war. His father wanted to protect his son from being inducted into the communist army. At the end of the conflict, the border was closed and they were never able to return to their home. His mother and other siblings remained in what was then North Korea and they had no contact with them. He has had only one opportunity to see his family briefly in North Korea in 2004 and has not heard from them since.

Two younger men spoke about their experiences of being in the Korean military. They talked about being uncomfortable about being indoctrinated to think of North Koreans as the enemy. The North Koreans are portrayed as being less than human, puppets of the communist government. One man said he came to think about them as animated characters in a war video game. The other young man indicated that during his service, he felt very divided by the military indoctrination and his Christian values that teach that all people are children of God.

I came home with a sense that, like most world issues, the goal of peace on the Korean peninsula is very complicated. Most of the people we met with do not expect that there will ever be a full reunification under one government, but they are hoping for a social and economic reconciliation so that all Koreans can live in peace and prosper together.

Everywhere we went, we had a time of prayer for peace in Korea. A peace that finally puts an end to the hostilities that began more than 65 years ago and a peace that reconciles people on both sides of the heavily-militarized border.

The Pilgrimage for Peace to Korea was a ten-day pilgrimage organized in collaboration with the Korean Caucus of Wisconsin UMC and the Dongbu Annual Conference of the Korean Methodist Church. Five active clergy members, one retired clergy and eight laity participated. While the majority came from Wisconsin, there were also participants from Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee.

The purpose of the pilgrimage was to experience the division of the two Koreas and to engage with Christians of South Korea in their works for peace and reconciliation. The pilgrims travelled all across the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, from an island off the west coast of the peninsula to the most northeastern tip sharing the border with North Korea. The pilgrimage provided the participants with profound and powerful experiences to realize how catastrophic another war would be in the land, how desperate people want for peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas, and at the same time how complex the issue is with all the mix of the wounds in their hearts and the power that the U.S. has exerted in the peninsula. The prayers for peace had deepened in the hearts of the pilgrims as they learned more about the history of Korea and as they met and engaged in dialogue and meal-sharing with Koreans of different generations.