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a rusted sign with Korean writing

Forgiving My North Korean Enemy

Dr. David Suh, with Kurt Esslinger

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  • metin erdem

    Dear Dr. Suh, thank you, you lived a real life. A life dedicated for others. Forgiveness is the healing of soul . We need to love everything that was created by God. The human is the most valuable thing created by God. We all belong to God and we need to forgive each other . We all are brothers and sisters. Yes, Loving your enemy is the real revenge. If everybody forgives eachother, there will be no war on earth. Also there will be no violence in our society if we forgive our brothers and sisters.

I was born in 1931, in the village of Kanggye near the northern border of Korea, before North and South Korea became separate nations. My father became a pastor during the years Korea was occupied by the Japanese. His outspoken resistance to Japanese occupation put our family in danger, so they moved to Manchuria, closer to the edges of the Empire of Japan. My father sent me to a Japanese middle school because he wanted me to learn the language of the empire. I was in school – the only Korean in a class full of Japanese youth – the day that the empire fell, on August 15, 1945. I remember the Japanese teacher announcing that the emperor had just surrendered, and World War II was over. While my classmates all expressed their grief, I had to hide my feelings of joy, and ran home to my father after school to celebrate openly with him.

After Japan left Korea, my family moved back to our home in Kanggye. When the south and north zones became two separate countries in 1948, my father became an outspoken opponent of the communist leadership of the new North Korean administration. Some Christians, who had joined the communist administration and created the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), urged pastors like my father to join. He refused, however, and thereafter they viewed him as an enemy. His outspoken opposition attracted the attention of the North Korean police.

In June 1950, only five years after Japan surrendered Korea to the Soviet Union and the United States, war flared up again. Soon after the war began, my father went missing. While wondering who might have taken him and what they might have done to him, I also had to worry about my own safety. I turned nineteen that year, old enough to be picked up by the North Korean army and taken to fight in the war. My younger brother and I hid in a hole under the floor of our house.

I found my father’s body covered in bullet holes and blood, and felt, as I held the body, anger and a strong desire for revenge.

The North Korean army finally picked me up when the August heat of 1950 got so uncomfortable that I went out to get some fresh air. They trucked me into town and lined me up to see the doctor who was supposed to determine my physical fitness for the war. To my astonishment, the doctor told me, “You are sick.”
I don’t know what I was thinking at the time; of course I should have agreed and accepted his “diagnosis.” But I argued with him, instead: “No I am not sick, I am healthy.” Fortunately, he insisted, and gave me a certificate that said I was not healthy enough to join the army. I didn’t know him, as he was not a member of our church. To this day I still have no idea why he decided to do that for me.

As I was leaving the line of young men, I heard my little brother call out to me. The army had found him as well. “David, where are you going?” he asked me. “You should be going this direction. We are supposed to go that way to the war.” When I showed him my medical release paper, he said: “Okay, brother. You shouldn’t go to war. I will go to the army instead of you.” I never saw him again after that moment.

Why am I here, then? I often wonder what my purpose is, if these people did so much to help me survive. As old as I am, and as many years as I have spent praying, I am still asking myself these questions.

After the United States won access to North Korea, my family was finally free to look for our father. Someone told me that my father’s body was by the Taedong River in Pyongyang. I went looking, and sure enough, I found a group of four other ministers who were tied together and executed. I found my father’s body covered in bullet holes and blood, and felt, as I held the body, anger and a strong desire for revenge.

I then moved to the South, and joined the South Korean Navy as a way to avenge my father. When I scored highly on an entrance test, I was offered another opportunity. My results made me eligible for a program that sent high performing Koreans to study in the United States, and a friend I had made in the US Navy encouraged me to take it up. Near the end of my study, he invited me over for dinner and asked, “What are you going to do next?”

I had been planning on returning to the Korean Navy at that time, but he had a different suggestion. “You are not the navy type, he told me. You are a scholar.” He helped me to return to the United States and register in a Christian college in Montana. I went on to study theology and then earned admission to Union Theological Seminary in 1962. While there, I read Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison, and went to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak of the Civil Rights Movement in Washington, DC. I watched my friends and fellow students join in the Civil Rights Movement, which made me reflect on my own attitude toward my enemy, and my desire for revenge. “What should be my Christian attitude toward my enemies who killed my father?” I asked myself.

I had to make a decision: Would I choose revenge, or forgiveness?

After receiving a PhD from Union Theological Seminary, I returned to Korea and joined in the movement for human rights and democratization against the forces of South Korean dictatorship while teaching at Ewha University. At that time Park Jung-Hee was in power and, in the name of anti-communism, severely oppressed the South Korean workers, students, and Christian intellectuals who opposed him.

“My father fought against the communist dictator and gave his life for human rights and democracy and freedom in North Korea,” I thought, “and here is this so-called democratic dictator. What is the difference between a communist dictator and a capitalist dictator?” I realized that I should follow my father’s example against all dictatorship. That is when I became involved with the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK). I was eventually arrested by South Korean police for “agitating students to demonstrate against Park Jung-Hee.” I was forced to resign my position at Ewha in 1980, but this freed me up to be ordained as a pastor of a local congregation. Despite the pressure from the government, I never ended my involvement in the Korean peace and unification movement.

This gave me the opportunity to join the NCCK for a consultation in Montreal, Canada, in 1991 that included the North Korean government-aligned KCF. I discovered that the head of the North Korean delegation, who was the same age as I, was the son of one of the founders of the KCF, my father’s main enemy. Both he and I were scheduled to speak before Canadian church and government leaders as well as representatives of the World Council of Churches.

I really struggled the night before my talk. “Father, your son is here to talk about peace, and I’m representing South Korean Christians. What do I do? How can I meet this man?” The following morning, right before the meeting began, he came to me and said, “Dr. Suh, can you translate my speech?” I said, “You have your own interpreter who came with you.” He responded, “No, no, he is not an interpreter. His English is not good. He came here to watch me.” But if I were to help him translate his speech, I would violate South Korea’s National Security Law, which could get me arrested. “Wait a minute, I have to talk with my friends from South Korea.” I went to them to ask their opinion. And my friends, my really close friends, turned away from me and said, “Hey, that’s your business.”

I had to make a decision: Would I choose revenge, or forgiveness? And then I heard a voice say, “Loving your enemy is the real revenge.” That convinced me.

They are Christians, they are Koreans, and they long for peace and unification just as I do.

I helped him with translation, and then gave my own keynote address representing South Korea. After I did that – it was a small act, but I had violated South Korean law by helping my North Korean enemy – I felt a sense of freedom from the bondage of vengeful thoughts. It was like a moment of grace, a chance for me to perform a loving action for my enemy. From then on I felt free to talk about North Korea, peace, and reconciliation. In 2004 I had a chance to visit Pyongyang and give a sermon in front of a congregation of three hundred people. I told them this story and they all wept. They are Christians, they are Koreans, and they long for peace and unification just as I do. Now I am not only free on these issues, but also I have conviction that we may be united as brothers and sisters once again.


Editorial Note: This article was adapted from an interview by Kurt Esslinger, which was broadcast as a webinar hosted by Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ/Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in cooperation with the NCCK Reconciliation and Unification Committee.

Kurt Esslinger, pastor and mission co-worker of the Presbyterian Church USA assigned to the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK).

a rusted sign with Korean and English writing The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) sign located in the woods at Pan Mun Jom, separating North and South Korea.
Contributed By David Suh

Dr. David Suh is a retired pastor and professor of Ewha University.

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