May. 5, 2020

WCC’s work for peace receives highest Korean honour

Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, presiding bishop of the Church of Norway and former general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

05 May 2020

* By Anne Casparsson

For many decades, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has worked to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula. From bringing people from both sides of the divided country together, to building an international ecumenical network to support them, the WCC has a history of formulating and promoting a vision for peace.

This unique role hinges on relationships that have been built up over time in a region that has suffered not only from conflict but also from a long history of division, mutual suspicion, and distrust which has affected not only the people of the Korean Peninsula but the entire world.

On 5 May former WCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, who will be consecrated as presiding bishop of the Church of Norway on 10 May, will receive the Dongbaek Medal of the Order of Civil Merit, during a ceremony at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Oslo, Norway.

The award will be presented on behalf of Moon Jae-in, president of the Republic of Korea, as well as prime minister Chung Sye-Kyun.

Below, Tveit reflects on the WCC’s history of working for peace, in remarkable and diverse ways, on the Korean Peninsula. An early encounter and reconciliation process between North and South Korea was launched by the WCC at the ‘Tozanso Consultation’ in Japan in 1984. Since then, the WCC and its member churches have continuously supported the churches and Christian communities of North and South Korea in promoting peace and reconciliation.

Tveit served as WCC general secretary for a decade, beginning in 2010. Below, he reflects on his experiences, particularly of ecumenical efforts for peace on the Korean Peninsula, from that time of service.

Could you describe how the WCC 10th Assembly, held in Busan, South Korea in 2013, re-energized churches’ initiatives for peace on the Korean Peninsula?

Rev. Dr. Tveit: Several thousand participants attended the Assembly in Busan, representing member churches and ecumenical partners from all around the world. It was an occasion for all of these people, and their churches and organizations to renew their awareness and engagement regarding the continuing division of the Korean people, the unresolved Korean War, the urgent need for dialogue instead of confrontation, and the significance of the ecumenical role in seeking a just peace in this context. It was my duty as WCC general secretary to support and identify how I could help revitalize the dialogue for peace on the Korean Peninsula, which during this time was not very proactive. The assembly gave us a very strong mandate to do this. I promised our counterparts in both the National Council of Churches in the Republic of Korea and the Korean Christian Federation in the DPRK that I would do what I could. And during the period since then, we have worked together intensively, through a period of
some of the most dangerous geopolitical tensions, and some of the highest hopes for peaceful transformation.

Describe the process and the work with the Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK).

Rev. Dr. Tveit: Yes, the Ecumenical Forum for Korea – or to give it its original full name, the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification & Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula – has been a very important instrument in this process. The EFK was created in 2006, building upon the experience of churches and ecumenical partners engaged in humanitarian response to the North Korean famine in the 1990s. Since the Busan Assembly, we have been widening the circle of ecumenical partners engaged in this forum. Among other significant initiatives undertaken through this instrument, in October 2015 a 12-person international ecumenical delegation - comprised of EFK members and observers - visited the DPRK. During the delegation visit, a formal EFK meeting was convened in Pyongyang on 28 October 2015, the first time an international ecumenical gathering was able to meet anywhere on Korean soil – North or South – with the official participation of both the KCF and the NCCK.

Then you met with Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, shortly after he was elected in 2017.

Rev. Dr. Tveit: Yes. The president confirmed the vision and role of the WCC as being something he wanted to support. He encouraged us to continue the work and saw great value in the churches’ involvement in initiatives for peace in the region. We were honored to have been received by him so soon after his inauguration as president.

How do you feel about receiving this award?

Rev. Dr. Tveit: It has been a special privilege to have been involved in this work as the general secretary of the WCC. I am very honored to receive this affirmation of my role in this regard. The award is primarily a recognition of the work of the WCC and all the people who have been involved in the process during these years and the preceding decades. I also think that the award inspires us to recognize the important contribution of the churches in the peace process.

How is the WCC’s role unique?

Rev. Dr. Tveit: Working for peace is the WCC’s calling; it is what the WCC has to do. It is also a call from Jesus Christ to the church, and from people’s longing for peace. All people are affected by this unresolved conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It is therefore very important for the ecumenical movement to continue to give this priority, to take new initiatives, and continue to be the faithful partner for peace. The WCC has a potential that goes beyond what others can do for promoting peace in the region, because of the nature and source of its calling. Peace is possible, but it takes all the skills, both diplomacy and political creativity. Another thing I have learned is that the exceptional and unprecedented sanctions, even if decided by the UN, are making things worse rather than better. They do not lead to positive change but bring a lot of suffering to ordinary North Koreans. How can you motivate people to work for peace with all the suffering and division caused by
sanctions and confrontation? It makes a huge difference and I think it is part of the conflict rather than part of the solution.

Over your decade as WCC general secretary, is there progress for which you are grateful?

Rev. Dr. Tveit: It has been a blessing to work with the Korean partners and to understand both their deepest wishes and prayers for peace and that they don’t give up. They also inspire us not to give up. I am deeply grateful for this experience. The support of others is extremely important during times of war and conflict. The deepest way of supporting is by praying. Both North and South Koreans need the spiritual support of others, and the support from churches all over the world is important. It is our task to believe in peace and cultivate a deep commitment nurtured by hope.

* Anne Casparsson is a freelance journalist who focuses on peace and justice.