This week, news reports announced South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pope Francis in the Vatican. During their meeting, the president extended an unexpected invitation to Pope Francis, asking him to visit North Korea. The verbal invitation was made on behalf of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, known internationally for his repressive authoritarianism, and worrisome nuclear program.
Despite Kim’s notorious reputation, the South Korean president has reached out to him several times since his election in May 2017.
Reconciling the rift between democratic South Korea and communist North Korea has been high on South Korea’s agenda. So far, Moon has held three summits with northern officials to see how relations between the two states on the peninsula can normalize.
The north and south have been separated by an almost impermeable border since the end of World War II.
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The rift is not only a political tragedy. Families have been split apart and unable to see each other for decades, as this instance of a father living in North Korea shows. Until last year, he had not seen his daughter for 68 years. This story is only one of countless others.
President Moon’s desire to re-open the border is most likely to reunite separated families again. But Is he compromising his democratic principles?
President Moon’s efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties with the North can seem like a such a compromise. His biography shows him to be a strong warrior for these principles. He was a staunch human rights advocate and student activist as a young man. In the 1970s, he strongly opposed the Yushin constitution, which legitimized the authoritarian government of the south from 1972-1981.
Against this political biography, his decision to take a friendlier approach towards autocratic North Korea looks unusual, even hypocritical. What accounts for his strange behavior?
If it isn’t politics, it might just be religion. In fact, doesn’t his peace agenda look a bit like the Gospel?
President Moon is the third Korean president who is Catholic. He is the second president who remains a practicing Catholic while in office. His baptismal name is Timothy, after the companion of St. Paul who was the first bishop of Ephesus. Yet, President Moon doesn’t say much publicly about how his faith influences his politics.
Despite the many offenses of which the North Korean regime is guilty, President Moon reaches out to them with respect and brotherly regard. His policy is an unusual and refreshing exception to the polarized politics typical in our world. It also shows us the hope-inducing power of preaching the gospel without words.
His desire for reconciliation isn’t only after peace. It’s also about solidarity.
During his meeting with Pope Francis, the president gave the Holy Father two gifts: a sculpture of a face of Jesus crowned with thorns and a large marble statue of Our Lady, with the facial features of a Korean woman.
Handing the sculpture of Jesus to the Pope, the president said the thorns represent the pain and struggles of Koreans. This comment, coupled with the image of the Asian Madonna, suggests he is someone who understands that Christianity needs to be lived in solidarity with those who are suffering, regardless of race, nationality and political loyalty.
Could it be that his reaching out to the North is an extension of what he’s experienced in his own relationship with the Christian God?
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