“Sixty years,” he whispered as he tried to blink back tears. “Sixty years.”
We’d just walked outside from sitting in the audience at the Mount Dora Observatory on the southern edge of the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas. During the presentation, we’d heard the proud march-style music of a military band. We’d listened to a haunting ode sung to the out-of-view Mount GumGang, considered the most beautiful mountain in the whole of Korea. We’d taken in greetings from the military base’s chaplain and its commander, then heard a thorough explanation of the border-lining river, the once-in-a-while connecting bridges and the North Koreans’ buildings, flagpoles and statues by a private who serves as the base’s Korean-to-English translator. He threw in a few mocking insults of the North Koreans’ technological backwardness. Through the huge picture window we studied the North’s third-largest city, Kaesong, whose industrial complex shut down last April 8 due to political tensions, then reopened in August.
For most of the approximately 300 delegates, ecumenical advocates and observers, this field trip of 250 miles via high-speed rail from the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan offered a glimpse of the most militarized zone in the world (an odd reality, considering its label as a demilitarized zone).
But for Syngman Rhee, this was a journey measured not in miles but decades. In 1950, after his father, a Christian pastor, was executed by the northern regime, his mother directed Syngman, then age 19, and his 17-year-old brother to flee, knowing that if they stayed they too were likely to die. They left behind their mother and four younger sisters
The only way the two boys could survive as refugees was through enlisting in the South Korean Marines. After the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, Syngman was sent to Quantico, Va., to study at the U.S. Marine Officers Training School. Then he returned to Korea to complete his service. The following year, with the sponsorship of Lt. Gunner Hanson, a Christian he met at Quantico, he came back to the U.S. to earn an undergraduate degree from Davis and Elkins College. He continued his studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Yale Divinity School (Th.M.) and finally the University of Chicago Divinity School (to earn a Doctor of Religion degree).
What also followed was a distinguished career as a pastor and campus minister, 25 years as Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly staff leadership for global mission, and then upon retirement, service for 15 more years as professor of mission and evangelism and director of the Asian-American Ministry Center at Union Presbyterian Seminary. During that time, he was elected to serve as moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly in 2000-01 – making him a national hero back in South Korea. He also served as president of the National Council of Churches in1992-93.
But through the first 28 years of that journey, he carried the gut-wrenching pain of wondering, wondering: “Whatever has happened to my mother and sisters?”
From the day of his escape until 1978, he had no contact with them or information about them. Finally, the day came when his relentless attempts to reach them bore fruit. He was allowed to travel back to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. And he enjoyed a wondrous reunion with the four sisters and came to know their families.
He also discovered that his mother had died three years before his return.
Syngman has returned to the North a few times since, but the ache persists, and it will continue as long as this, the world’s only divided country, is led by two governments that keep a wedge between what is at heart one people, who yearn to reunite in fact as well as in their dreams.
The ecumenists’ field trip to Mount Dora provided this pastor-editor an unanticipated, heart-rending two days of schooling in the world of Korean Christianity by my friend, my board member and my hero, Syngman Rhee. I pray that the World Council Assembly will help bring into worldwide realization the thematic prayer, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” I will pray all the more for its realization specifically among Korean Christians – indeed for all people who call themselves Korean and who, with Syngman, whisper: “Sixty years. Sixty years.”