We have been back from our visit to South Korea for a little more than a week now, but I keep thinking about the hopes people have for the peaceful reunification of North and South Korea. This is a topic that came up in all the interviews we did there. One man we filmed, a seminary professor, remarked that only God's love that will truly unite a people so long divided. While there can be legal and economic unity, there can still be division between people who have no common experience. So the Korean church is praying for both physical and gospel unity of Koreans currently living on both sides of the DMZ.
When we arrived, there was a sign in the airport noting the 60th anniversary of the Korean War and welcoming veterans. I thought that was unusual, but in the eyes of many Koreans we talked to, the war was a turning point in South Korea's economy. That region had always lagged behind the north, but after the war it was rebuilt and now it is a flourishing economy--and the north is in shambles. That point was highlighted in an article that ran in the New York Times the day we arrived home. Here is the opening illustration:
Like many North Koreans, the construction worker lived in penury. His state employer had not paid him for so long that he had forgotten his salary. Indeed, he paid his boss to be listed as a dummy worker so that he could leave his work site. Then he and his wife could scrape out a living selling small bags of detergent on the black market.
It hardly seemed that life could get worse. And then, one Saturday afternoon last November, his sister burst into his apartment in Chongjin with shocking news: the North Korean government had decided to drastically devalue the nation’s currency. The family’s life savings, about $1,560, had been reduced to about $30.
Last month the construction worker sat in a safe house in this bustling northern Chinese city, lamenting years of useless sacrifice. Vegetables for his parents, his wife’s asthma medicine, the navy track suit his 15-year-old daughter craved — all were forsworn on the theory that, even in North Korea, the future was worth saving for.
“Ai!” he exclaimed, cursing between sobs. “How we worked to save that money! Thinking about it makes me go crazy.”
North Koreans are used to struggle and heartbreak. But the Nov. 30 currency devaluation, apparently an attempt to prop up a foundering state-run economy, was for some the worst disaster since a famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s.
Interviews in the past month with eight North Koreans who recently left their country — a prison escapee, illegal traders, people in temporary exile to find work in China, the traveling wife of an official in the ruling Workers’ Party — paint a haunting portrait of desperation inside North Korea, a nation of 24 million people, and of growing resentment toward its erratic leader, Kim Jong-il.
That portrait is hard to comprehend. Yet it is only relatively recently that any part of Korea had much wealth. Poverty was evident throughout the nation when the first missionaries arrived. Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries faced severe persecution in their initial attempts to share the gospel. Because many missionaries and converts were killed during the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States included a protection clause for missionaries in the 1882 Treaty of Amity and Trade negotiated with Korea. That opened the door for a wave of missionaries. The first Protestant missionary to Korea from the United States, Horace Allen, arrived in 1884. Allen introduced the first western medical facility in Korea, which grew into the Severance hospital now affiliated with Yonsei University. (We visited that impressive facility when one of the film team fell ill during our trip. I was equally as impressed that emergency medical care didn't bankrupt us there.)
Allen, like most of his fellow missionaries, is buried in the missionary graveyard near the Han River in Seoul. We were given permission to film an interview there, which was an honor. Before we set up our camera and gear, we watched a short film on the history of Korea's missionaries, which was informative and inspiring. Though Citygate Films was there to make a short documentary about a new church, being in that graveyard brought home the message that we were building on a rich heritage.
Those are the serious comments. But I can't end these reflections on Korea without commenting on the fine food we experienced there. I've eaten at Korean restaurants in the States, but the ones I've visited don't compare to what we experienced in Seoul! The first thing I learned is that Koreans use both a soup spoon and chopsticks for their meals. The second thing I learned is to expect a table full of small dishes containing big taste. The third thing I learned is that I like acorn. As in acorn pudding and acorn noodles. Squirrels know what's up! The fourth thing I learned is that Korean barbeque rocks. The meat is cooked right in front of you at the table and it is sizzling good. And the last thing I learned is that abalone is not just for mother-of-pearl jewelry or furniture inlays. The meat also makes a fine dish, which historically was considered a rare and luxurious ingredient. I definitely miss some of the fine eating we experienced there!
Photos from top: 1) Seoul's "prayer tower," a very tall commercial building that got its name from its resemblance to praying hands. (By Lucien Dowdell). 2) One of the gravestones in the missionary graveyard. 3) Larry Malament of CrossWay Community Church in the graveyard. 4) Korean silverware. 5) Korean barbeque requires the whole table!