In 1992, the American evangelist Billy Graham flew to Pyongyang to meet face to face with Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Mounting tensions between the United States and North Korea did not prevent Graham from preaching in two of the city’s official churches, meeting with church leaders and seminarians from around the country, and presenting Kim one of his books.
Two years later, Graham returned against the wishes of the US government. “I was told that war could break out at any minute. That’s how dangerous it was,” he said afterwards.
Graham, a staunch anti-communist, was interviewed on national television and visited Kim Il Sung University, where he spoke in front of 400 students and faculty.
“One of my reasons for going at this time was to express my concern for peace in the region and to make whatever small contribution I could to better relations between our two nations,” he said later of his visit.
American Christians have a long and complicated history with this part of the world. For decades, the US has had a significant military presence in South Korea. Prior to the Korean War, which began in 1950, hundreds of missionaries spread the gospel throughout Korea, which was one undivided peninsula for centuries.
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the 1953 Korean War armistice, an agreement which ended the military fighting but left the Korean people divided into two isolated countries without a peace treaty. Given the US history of intervention and presence in this part of the world, and following the lead of Korean people working for peace and gaining inspiration from Graham’s courage, American Christians have a responsibility to assist in ending the longest unresolved separation of a people in modern history.
Crossing borders of division
Korea has always been a part of my life. I grew up in Seoul, South Korea, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. From 2014 to 2019, I led six teams into North Korea for humanitarian work.
Hundreds of US missionaries like my parents worked alongside the Korean people before, during, and after the war. While at times complicated by serious failings and misuses of power, missiologists often regard these 140 years as one of the most effective periods of mission history.
Graham’s trips in the 1990s opened the door for Christian humanitarian agencies to serve in North Korea, many of which worked for decades after. Unlike the missionaries before them, these agencies don’t plant churches, don’t do evangelism, and don’t distribute Bibles. But for 25 years, these humanitarian agencies have been at the forefront of relief and development work in the country—from Christian Friends of Korea and its superb tuberculosis work to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), where I currently work, providing food and medicine to support children recovering in hospitals and bringing North Korean agricultural experts to the West.
The work of these faith-based agencies echoes the ministry of Bible characters who, sensing God’s tug, crossed borders of division with a willingness to take risks and engage face to face with a person or community their people feared or didn’t understand.
Jacob went to Esau seeking to heal their broken relationship (Gen. 32:3–33:17). Esther risked her life to plead the case of her people before the king. In Jesus’ most famous parable, the Samaritan crossed the road to a stranger in distress, regardless of his ethnic identity or religious affiliation (Luke 10). Following the call of the Holy Spirit, Peter went to the Roman military center of Caesarea to engage a commander named Cornelius (Acts 10).
These stories reveal not only courage, but a virtue rarely practiced in our time: empathy. Because news about North Korea largely focuses on the threat of nuclear attack or tense political relations, few Americans may see the country beyond the risk it might pose to the US. Meanwhile, with 70 years of no peace agreement, no encounters with North Korean people and few at the diplomatic level, Americans have had little opportunity to learn more from the 26 million people (a population around the size of Australia) living there.
A lack of empathy for the other side poses the greatest danger in the North Korea and US relationship, one US general told me, not military buildup. “North Koreans don’t understand Americans and the way we think,” he said. “And Americans don’t understand North Koreans and the way they think.”
As the Bible stories demonstrate, practicing empathy doesn’t mean pretending everything is okay. Meeting North Korea’s leader didn’t change Billy Graham’s mind about realities he disagreed deeply with. But empathy does mean doing more than condemning and criticizing. It requires curiosity about the dangerous “other” to engage them as human beings, to understand why they do what they do, and to meet face to face not only to speak but to listen.
Few American Christians will have the opportunity to personally travel to North Korea to serve people with vulnerabilities alongside the dedicated doctors, nurses, and kitchen workers there. But all of us can work to provide what Mennonite peacemaker John Paul Lederach calls “critical yeast,” small but powerful actions that interrupt histories of distrust and hostility.
Providing critical yeast
For many US Christians, the first step in embracing a role as “critical yeast” is by learning, lamenting, and praying. This starts by educating ourselves about the Korean War. Many of us know far too little about the conflict that falls between World War II and the Vietnam War. But for the Korean people and Americans with Korean heritage, the war changed their lives and those of their loved ones forever.
In 2020, 100 Korean American Christian leaders signed a statement of lament, asking American Christians to mourn the aftermath of the Korean War. Four million people died (including two million Korean civilians and 32,000 US troops) and millions of Koreans were separated from their families by the war and remain so even to this day, with the people of North and South Korea nearly completely isolated from each other.
Peter Cha at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Soong-Chan Rah at Fuller Seminary, and Eugene Cho at Bread for the World were among the statement drafters. “We believe that God is faithful, and that the arc of the universe in God’s victory in Christ bends toward justice, reconciliation, and beloved community,” they wrote. “We pray that someday all Korean people will be able to return to the birthplaces of their ancestors, to meet face-to-face across the peninsula, and to recognize each other as sisters, brothers and image-bearers of God.”
Second, US Christians can provide critical yeast through financial and prayer support to faith-based humanitarian agencies, which are a face of compassion to vulnerable people in North Korea. Such organizations worked in North Korea for over two decades until the COVID-19 closure of North Korean borders in 2020. Due to hostility between the US and North Korean governments, staff and volunteers from organizations like MCC, American Friends Service Committee, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision are among the few Americans who have regularly visited North Korea.
Through working alongside North Korean counterparts in areas such as health and agriculture, these Americans challenge the narrative that reduces the country to a hostile enemy by interfacing with North Koreans as fellow human beings, traveling through the country together and eating together. Supporting such individuals and their organizations in work with their counterparts is one way we can strategically extend our resources and compassion to people with vulnerabilities in North Korea.”
Third, US Christians can consider the American government’s involvement in the Korean peninsula and the responsibility we bear as citizens to influence public policy. As the Korean American statement drafters put it succinctly, “the prophetic call of the church is to speak truth to power, and that can call us to political action.”
Due to its role in the Korean War, the United States must be a signer of a peace agreement to end the war. Christians can pray for, raise awareness of, and rally around the signing of such an agreement. And we can support laws like the Divided Families Reunification Act, which supports family reunion opportunities for American families and their relatives in North Korea.
While isolation and punitive pressure efforts (including sanctions) on North Korea have been vigorously applied, especially regarding human rights and nuclear weapons, they have failed to change the situation. Diplomacy guided solely by pressure, which doesn’t seek to understand how the “threatening other” thinks, is dangerous and lacks moral imagination. As Nobel Peace Prize winner and Christian political leader Nelson Mandela of South Africa put it, “When we dehumanize and demonize our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them.”
The fact that the United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations—no ongoing channels of communication, negotiation, and trust—is dangerous. Disagreements, misunderstandings, and threats can easily escalate into conflicts and increase the risk of war.
Indeed, the US has diplomatic relations with many other nations it is in high tension with, such as China. One critical yeast moment occurred in 1971, when an American ping-pong delegation visited China. “Friendship matches” led to cultural exchanges and planted seeds for eventual diplomatic relations, like Republican president Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 with totalitarian leader Mao Zedong. The leaders met at a time when China had nuclear weapons, and the relatively recent Korean War—which the Chinese call “Resisting America and Assisting Korea War”—had led to the deaths of 180,000 Chinese soldiers.
In 1995, just 20 years after the Vietnam War, the United States established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which is still a communist state. Since then, Vietnam War veterans including the late senator John McCain have become leaders in reconciliation initiatives between veterans on both sides. If China and Vietnam, why not North Korea?
Fourth, we can provide critical yeast by following the lead of courageous South Korean Christians working across the divide. To be clear, just as American Christians disagree about how to address the history of racism, South Korean Christians deeply disagree about how to engage North Korea. For some the North is perceived as an enemy nation. For many in the younger generation, it is another country. Meanwhile, others view the North as a family member to pursue healing with.
One of my mentors in peacemaking work was Syngman Rhee (no relation to the first South Korean president) who served as the first Asian American moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Rhee grew up in Pyongyang, and after communist troops killed his father, a pastor, during the war, his mother sent him and his brother to the South, where he joined the military.
After later immigrating to the US, Rhee went to seminary and joined the civil rights movement. As a Presbyterian church leader influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., Rhee was one of the first Korean Americans to visit North Korea in 1978. His mission was not only to cross divides, but to see if his family was still alive after 28 years of separation and no contact. His mother had passed away only three months earlier, but Rhee was briefly reunited with his siblings. When Rhee returned to South Korea, some called him a traitor and “communist lover.”
Yet as Rhee said to me once, “Chris, reconcilers are called to be bridges. And bridges get walked on from both sides.”
Other South Koreans are following that call. For example, Bae, Min Jeong a young South Korean woman I know, didn’t grow up feeling the trauma of the divided Korean peninsula. For her, North Korea was another country.
In college, however, she joined an InterVarsity Korea visit to the China–North Korea border. During a boat ride to view the North, she was instructed not to reveal she was Korean, and was full of fear. Suddenly, for the first time in her life, she saw two North Koreans up close—two soldiers sitting on a beach. They put down their guns by the river, waved at the boat, and offered a greeting in Korean.
“One of them looked exactly like my younger brother,” she said. “Only then did I understand that we are one people.” Minjeong said she “just cried and waved my hand.” When she returned to the South, she redirected her life toward a passion for reconciliation.
Not natural, normal, or inevitable
When I was growing up in South Korea in the 1970s, two groups of Americans were ever-present: missionaries and military personnel. While the Western missionaries have since left and South Korean churches have for decades been sending missionaries across the world, over 28,000 US troops are still stationed in South Korea, including the largest US military base on foreign soil. The truth is, the United States has indelibly shaped the ecclesial, military, and economic landscape of the Korean peninsula. As some of my South Korean friends say, “We think of the United States as a Northeast Asian nation.”
My friend Sue Park-Hur, a Mennonite pastor with ReconciliAsian, often reminds me that the Korean divide should concern not only “Korean Americans, but all Americans; war is not just our past.” This 70th anniversary year of a divided Korean people leaves US Christians with a responsibility and call.
As the first US missionaries to an undivided Korea knew, that divide is not natural, normal, or inevitable. Pursuing humanitarian cooperation and constructive diplomacy doesn’t erase deep disagreements, but it connects us to a deeper call. As the Korean American Christian leaders put it, “We believe our deepest motivation to engage the Korean divide as followers of Christ is not political or economic but as peacemakers and agents of reconciliation, following Jesus’ costly way of the cross—of discipleship, forgiveness, and justice which restores broken relationships.”
Given its potential to trigger a devastating war, the situation on the Korean peninsula is one of the most dangerous peace and security issues facing our planet today. In 1994, when the Clinton administration was seriously considering war with North Korea, Graham’s visit helped defuse the situation because he was able to help North Korea's leader and President Clinton understand better what the other was saying.
Graham told reporters, “My prayer is that the trip might have made some contribution to peace in a complex and potentially dangerous part of East Asia.”
At this historic and volatile moment, it’s time for the American church to follow in Graham’s footsteps to take diplomatic and border-crossing risks.
Chris Rice is director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City, and was previously co-founding director of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation. His new book is From Pandemic to Renewal: Practices for a World Shaken by Crisis (InterVarsity Press).