A SOJOURNER'S VIEW: Tranquility in the midst of a threat of war. By Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR

SEOUL, Republic of Korea (MindaNews/31 May)– Moon is the Oldest Clock. This is the title of an art exhibit ongoing at the National Museum of Art in Deoksugung, Seoul, located at the very heart of this city. Introducing the exhibit, the curator, Namin Kim writes: “If art is oriented towards the wealth of exchange between man and this world, the perceived corresponding power of the mind, that is, restoring the power of the sensual perception is another way of expressing the efforts made toward restoring humanity.”

The works displayed in this exhibition acknowledge the presence of the uncontrollable waves that come from the subtle movements and value of silence and tranquility. These delicate abstract variables require complete concentration. If works of art that appeal to sight focus on the invisible properties of time, although the flowing tranquility of time may seem like it is located on the other side, if we concentrate on its “silence,” at least we will be able to be silent with it.

It is both ironical and timely that this exhibit is on display for all Koreans to see during these days. Ironic because silence and tranquility are certainly not the elements that constitute the realities on both sides of the Korean Peninsula these days given the tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang that threatens to blow up into a war! Timely because if both sides are challenged to walk the silent and tranquil path of peacemakers, a deadly war could be prevented to erupt. Those behind the decision to mount this exhibit – if one can assume that they are artists who commune with the social and ecological realms – must be thinking how serendipitous it is that this exhibit is ongoing.

Dr. Jong-Sun Noh, a professor on Christian Social Ethics at the Yonsei University, a well-known critic of government and social activist for decades, fears a war could erupt when I spoke with him on Thursday, 27 May 2010. He is not the only Korean who takes this view, even as they pray hard that it will not happen.

Since South Korea hosts bases of the United States and it is acknowledged that North Korea is a nuclear power, nuclear weapons are stored on both sides of the 38th parallel that has divided the two sides of the peninsula since the war broke out in the 1950s. With such weapons available in the event of a war scenario, Dr. Noh says that many Korean families are quite anxious these days and have sleepless nights.

Tension between South and North Korea escalated in the last two weeks following the release of the findings of a commission (made up of South Koreans as well as representatives from a few countries) indicating that North Korea was responsible in the sinking of the South Korean Navy frigate Cheonan on 26 March killing 46 sailors.

Immediately North Korea’s Kim Jong-il attacked the findings as “sheer fabrication” and threatened war if provoked. Inter-Korean tensions have worsened to the brink of military engagement. South Korea and the USA are planning a military exercise off the West Coast.
The papers indicate that U.S. stealth bombers are on standby at Japanese and Guam airbases, ready to hit any point in the North within an hour.

As South Korea has once again installed loudspeakers that are used for purposes of psychological warfare – e.g. broadcasting anti-North Korea propaganda – aimed across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – which supposedly anger Kim Jong-il – North Korea has threatened to destroy such installations.

Inter-Korean economic collaborative efforts like the joint industrial complex in the North’s city of Gaeseong have also been hit with the threat to scrap the pact; half of the 1,000 South Koreans working at the site have returned home due to the recent crisis. Even Red Cross contacts on both sides have been suspended.

As the Korean Peninsula holds a very strategic position within the geo-politics of Asia, all the superpowers are naturally drawn into the inter-Korean tensions. Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, made a four-hour stop-over in Seoul on 26 May to confer with President Lee Myung-bak. There is talk about asking former President Jimmy Carter to help initiate a summit between North and South Korea as he did in 1994 when North Korea and the USA almost reached a point of an armed conflict over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The crisis today is seen as more serious than the one in 1994 and Carter is the one American statesman that Kim Jong-il trusts most. The Korea Times’ editorial of 29-30 May issue called on Carter to mediate in order to diffuse the tension.

Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao met with President Lee last 28 May at Cheong Wa Dae. In their talks Premier Wen said China will “seriously review the results of the international probe and responses from countries concerned, and in accordance with the outcome, China will not protect anyone.”

As China has close ties with Pyonguang, Premier Wen’s words were interpreted to mean that Beijing will not protect anyone found responsible and if North Korea did it, so be it. This was good news to most South Koreans and it bannered the headlines of all newspapers on Saturday, 29 May.

The moves on both sides of the Peninsula and their respective allies in the coming days will be most crucial if peace will reign or war will break out. Meanwhile, Korean activists are not pleased with the manner that media has been reporting on these incidents. Except for what can be accessed in the internet, all established media outlets in Seoul have been espousing mainly the State’s line regarding the crisis.

They claim that questions need to be asked of the Myung-bak administration regarding this crisis. Why were the findings of the probe fast-tracked? Is it because June 2 local elections are coming up and the administration wants to reinforce its hold on the populace?
Are economic considerations implicated given the financial problems that the Korean economy is faced these days given the recession? And why the dominant US role in all these? Because war is also good for the recovery of the US economy?

Activists are unhappy that these questions are not being asked openly which account for a segment of South Koreans seemingly supportive of President Myung-bak’s recent moves.

The South Korean progressive church circles and ecological non-government organizations are also concerned that all the attention being focused now on the inter-Korean crisis has pushed aside other important issues. During a time when the majority of Koreans are not as socially aware as they were during the time of the dictatorship and are indifferent to engage the State on important social and ecological issues, these activist circles fear that the current crisis make it even more difficult to mobilize the Koreans on issues such as the Four Major Rivers Project.

This multi-billion pet-project of President Myung-bak was originally aimed at interfacing the four major rivers of Korea in such a manner as to have canals for transportation, dam projects and the like. Eco-activists began to oppose the project since it was proposed for various reasons: there was little consultation among the people especially those to be affected, it would destroy the delicate eco-systems especially the wetlands, it would involve such huge costs and would entail big debt for the country and there was lack of transparency on the part of the government regarding decisions made as who were involved in the construction work (allegedly, one of the major construction firms involved is the one where President Myung-bak served as CEO before he joined government).

However, despite the opposition to the project, the government has gone ahead with the construction work. The campaign to oppose the dam has persisted. Recently, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Korea came out with a statement – Our Opinion on Life Issues and the Four Major Rivers Project – where they stated: “We have listened to an explation for the project by a government working-level task force. Still we cannot understand why the government, mobilizing much heavy equipment and evading legal procedures without a national consensus, has to push forward in such a hasty manner this large-scale construction project which may cause irrevocable damage to our land.”

Many concerned Catholics in Korea are delighted with this statement; one friend told me that “it was a miracle that our Bishops came out with this statement”. Since 13 days ago, a dozen priests (diocesan, Jesuits and Franciscans) have gone on hunger strike to oppose the project. Every 3 PM in the last 13 days, they have encamped outside the Myeong-dong Cathedral in downtown Seoul (site of hundreds of protest prayer-rallies during the height of their own dictatorship in the l970s-80s). Mass is celebrated every 3 PM with hundreds of religious and lay people joining them. The hunger strike is set to end in the coming week, even as protest activities will continue. Protestant groups and Buddhists have also been involved in various campaigns opposing the dam.

I went on an exposure to one of the construction sites along a tributary to the mighty Han River, roughly a three-hour ride from downtown Seoul with a group of Christian environmental activists last 25 May. We were shocked with the extent of the destruction of the wetlands along the river and in awe at the machinery that has been mobilized for the construction work. One could easily tell this was a multi-billion project. However, beyond the sights where destruction of the delicate riverine eco-system were already ongoing, were also the remaining spots of the river banks where one still experienced silence and tranquility. Some were garden sites preserved by Buddhist monks.

In the silence of the surroundings disturbed only by the sounds of endangered bird species and the tranquility of the easy flowing waters of the river that will soon change its course, we prayed.

I prayed very hard for Korea. That peace will reign. That all will be well.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)