Korean Catholics marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War -- a war which never technically ended -- Thursday with Masses offered for reconciliation on the divided Korean peninsula.
“Prayer is the most powerful weapon of the Church struggling for peace," Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, archbishop of Seoul, said June 25.
“By creating a culture of forgiveness, justice will become more human, and peace will be more permanent,” the cardinal said in Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral.
Nearly three million Korean people died in the Korean War, in which the peninsula lost 10% its overall population from 1950 to 1953. During the conflict, the United States suffered 33,686 deaths in battle, as well as 2,830 non-battle deaths. The Korean peninsula is technically still at war, 66 years after the armistice signed in July of 1953.
Catholics in South Korea prayed a novena leading up to the June 25 anniversary, which has been marked by the local Church for decades as an annual “Day of Prayer for the Reconciliation and Unity of the Korean People.”
According to Archbishop Kim Hee-joong of Gwangju, Korean Catholics have observed June 25 as a day of prayer for the Korean peninsula since 1965.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, parishes across South Korea were encouraged to offer Masses on the anniversary with added safety restrictions rather than having large crowds gather at cathedrals.
Since the division of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel, the North and South have significantly diverged economically and culturally.
Twenty-five million people live in North Korea, the country with one of the world’s worst human rights records. 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.
South Korea, in contrast, has experienced significant economic growth since the Korean War. Its rapid development after the war has become known as the “miracle on the Han River,” in which the economy grew by an annual rate of nearly 9% for three decades.
The Catholic Church in South Korea has also grown by nearly 50% in the past two decades, according to a study by the Korean bishops’ conference. Today there are an estimated 5.8 million Catholics in South Korea.
Before the Korean War, Pyongyang had been referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East” and was considered a center of Christianity in Northeast Asia. There were about 50,000 Catholics registered in parishes in 1945 in what is now North Korea, according to the Korean bishops’ conference, with more than double that number of Protestant Christians.
Most of the priests who were in North Korea were captured, killed, or disappeared just before the Korean War broke out in 1950, 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.
Bishop Peter Lee Ki-heon of Uijeongbu was born in Pyongyang in 1947, and fled to the south with part of his family at the age of four as a result of the Korean War.
Today he leads the Korean bishops’ Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People. Ahead of the anniversary, Bishop Lee urged the government to find a way to expedite inter-Korean exchanges without violating international sanctions, according to the South Korean Yonhap News.
Recently inter-Korean relations have deteriorated, with Pyongyang threatening last week to send troops to the demilitarized zone, which divides the peninsula. On June 6 North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un ordered the demolition of the joint liaison office, which had been created by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Cardinal Yeom, who is technically apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pyongyang in North Korea, prayed for leaders to work to find the common good for both countries on the divided Korean peninsula.
“All leaders of the Korean Peninsula and the international community are responsible for the future of our nation,” Yeom said.
“With this in mind, I hope that we will overcome the personal, partisan, and national interests and realize the true good for both North and South Korea,” the cardinal said.