Following two historic summits involving North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s bishops are calling on Catholics to pray a novena for nine specific intentions for the Korean peninsula June 17 - 25.
The novena culminates on June 25, the annual “Day of Prayer for the Reconciliation and Unity of the Korean People.”
This novena is by no means a new endeavor for the Korean bishops, who have been leading Catholics in prayer for the reconciliation and unity of the divided Korean peninsula for decades. According to Archbishop Kim Hee-joong of Gwangju, Korean Catholics have observed June 25 as a day of prayer the Korean peninsula since 1965.
The first documented novena for Korean reconciliation and unity was in June 1993, a time when North Korea was beginning its descent into a famine caused by the collapse of their Communist economy, which had formerly been sustained by a heavy reliance on the Soviet Union. It is estimated that 500,000 to 600,000 people died in North Korean famine from 1993 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A novena is nine days of consecutive prayer for a particular intention, often appealing for the intercession of a saint. It is modeled after the nine days the apostles spent in prayer between the time of Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This year’s nine prayer intentions capture the complexity of the issues facing the peninsula in 2018:
June 17: Pray for the healing of a divided nation
Nearly 3 million Korean people died, 10 percent of its overall population, in the brutal Korean War from 1950 to 1953. But the Korean peninsula is technically still at war, 65 years after the armistice signed in 1953.
Since the division of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel, the North and South have significantly diverged economically and culturally.
On April 27, the leaders of the two Koreas signed the Panmunjom Declaration in which they committed to pursue future meetings with the goal of declaring an official end to the Korean War.
June 18: Pray for divided families
Hundreds of thousands of people were permanently separated from their families by the division of the Korean peninsula. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Reunification, fewer than half of South Koreans divided from their family members are still alive, and their average age is 81.
The North and South Korean governments have occasionally held tear-filled reunions for the divided families. At one reunion in 2015, an 85-year-old wife was reunited with her husband, whom she had not seen in 65 years. They had 12 hours to spend together before they had to return to their respective countries.
June 19: Pray for our North Korean brothers and sisters
Twenty-five million people live in North Korea, the country with one of the worst human rights records in the world. A United Nations investigation in 2014 produced a 372-page report that documented crimes against humanity, including execution, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, forced abortions, and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.
There are currently an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people in North Korea’s six political prison camps, in which the U.S. State Department has found evidence of starvation, forced labor, and torture.
June 20: Pray for North Korean defectors
There are currently 31,530 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, according to the unification ministry. Nearly all North Korean defectors escape by crossing the northern border into China before embarking on another dangerous journey to escape China, which repatriates escaped North Koreans discovered on Chinese soil. Many women refugees have been sold into sex trafficking in China.
PTSD is common in North Korean defectors after surviving such a journey, and many struggle to adjust to the South, where they often face discrimination. Catholics have been working with North Korean defectors for years to help them adjust to South Korean society.
June 21: Pray for the leaders of North and South Korea
Kim Jong Un was 26 years-old when he became the leader of North Korea in 2011, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il. He is the third “Supreme Leader” in the Kim family dynasty begun by his grandfather Kim Il Sung.
Kim made history in 2018 by crossing the military demarcation line into South Korea to meet the South Korean president in April and then being the first North Korean leader to meet an American president in June. While it is unclear whether this is an indication of Kim’s willingness to make serious changes in North Korea, the South Korean bishops request prayers for Kim Jong Un.
Moon Jae-In became president of South Korea in May 2017 after his predecessor was impeached on corruption charges. Moon is a practicing Catholic, former human rights attorney, and the son of North Korean refugees. He prioritized peaceful diplomacy with the north at a time when tensions with North Korea were high.
June 22: Pray for the evangelization of North Korea
In 1945, there were about 50,000 Catholics registered in parishes in what is now North Korea, according to the Korean Bishops Conference, with more than double that number of Protestant Christians. Before the Korean War, Pyongyang was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East” and was considered a center of Christianity in Northeast Asia.
Just before the Korean War broke in 1950, most of the priests who were in North Korea were captured, killed, or disappeared, according to the Korean Bishops Conference. The beatification process has begun for 40 monks and sisters of Tokwon Benedictine Abbey who were martyred by the Communists.
In 1988, the “Korean Catholic Association” created by the Communist government registered 800 members. This association is not recognized by the Vatican, but is one of three state-sponsored churches that operate in North Korea under strict supervision of the Communist authorities.
Mass is occasionally celebrated in Pyongyang's Changchung Cathedral when a foreign priest is on an official visit to the country, but on Sundays the liturgy of the word is usually celebrated by state-appointed layperson, explained Father Lee Eun-hyung in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need.
Persecution of Christians is worse in North Korea than anywhere else in the world, according to the World Watch List by Open Doors, who estimates that there could be as many as 300,000 Christians practicing their faith underground in North Korea. Christians within the atheist state have faced arrest, re-education in a labor camp, or, in some cases, execution for their faith.
Pastors who have traveled to North Korea with the hope of secretly evangelizing have been arrested, but Christian organizations in Seoul continue to broadcast the Gospel via radio into the North with the hope that someone will find a way to tune into the signal.
June 23: Pray for the various exchanges between North and South Korea
One part of the Panmunjom Declaration signed by both Korean leaders is a commitment to more cooperative exchanges between the two countries. In the past, these exchanges have been both cultural and economic. The theme of the South Korean bishops’ annual symposium this year will look at the future of Inter-Korean exchange and cooperation on June 21 at the Catholic University of Daegu.
On June 13, the South Korean ministry approved an official exchange program between students from Seoul National University and Kim Il Sung University, the leading universities of the two countries respectively.
June 24: Pray for the true reconciliation of the North and the South
“Reconciliation” is a word that the South Korean bishops frequently use when discussing North Korea. “Until the day finally arrives when peace is permanently established on the Korean Peninsula and our divided people are united, the Catholic Church in Korea shall continue to accompany the journey towards the reconciliation and unity of the Korean people with one accord,” said Archbishop Kim Hee-joong on April 27.
Since the division, both countries have produced significant propaganda dehumanizing each other. The novena prayer (see below) includes this line, “Forgive us our slander and fighting with one another and heal the wounds of division, grant us the grace of reconciliation.”
June 25: Pray for the peaceful reunification of the Korean people
For many Korean Christians, the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula is the ultimate goal. “Just as the church in Germany took an important role in the reunification of East and West Germany, the Korean church will raise our voice for the peaceful co-existence of two Koreas,” said Father Timothy Lee Eun-hyeong, the secretary of the bishops’ Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People in 2017.
“The Korean nation is symbolic of a world divided and not yet able to become one in peace and justice,” said Saint John Paul II on a papal trip to South Korea in 1989, “yet there is a way forward. True peace — the shalom which the world urgently needs — springs eternally from the infinitely rich mystery of God’s love.”
The pope saint continued, “As Christians we are convinced that Christ’s Paschal Mystery makes present and available the force of life and love which overcomes all evil and all separation.”
Here is the English translation of the South Korean bishops’ novena prayer:
Novena prayer for reconciliation and unity of the Korean people
Lord, You have created us in Your own image and likeness.
Make us daily more like You.
You have made us one in love.
Strengthen our love for one another.
O Lord, Your desire is for peace among us.
May peace be restored on this peninsula.
Forgive us our slander and fighting with one another and heal the wounds of division, grant us the grace of reconciliation.
O Lord, You desire the unity of all people. Heal the pain of separation that divides us.
Make us aware of our mutual indifference and help us strive for unity as we share all we have with one another.
Help us to respect and love one another and so bring about peaceful reunification.
Give us faith, Lord, to believe in You and let the Kingdom of God reign in this land.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Mary, Queen of Peace, Pray for us!
All Korean Martyr Saints, Pray for us!