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The Peninsula

Bottom-Up Diplomacy with North Korea Hits a Roadblock

Published August 11, 2020
Author: Korea View
Category: Inter-Korean

What Happened

  • North Korea’s state-sanctioned Korean Christian Federation (KCF) has not commented on its South Korean counterpart’s draft of a joint prayer for peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, raising the possibility that this ceremony might be canceled for the first time in more than 30 years.
  • Many observers were caught by surprise as the KCF had traditionally maintained close ties with both South Korean and international religious organizations even during periods of heightened tensions.
  • The communication freeze by the KCF follows the announcement by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on May 26 that it will revise the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act to ease grassroots exchanges with North Korea.

Implications: Any approach to North Korea, whether top-down or bottom-up, ultimately rests on Pyongyang’s receptiveness. Therefore, Kim Jong-un’s unwillingness to engage may forestall President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to maintain momentum around inter-Korean engagement through exchanges between grassroots and civic organizations. The lack of response from the North Korean christian organization is indicative of this challenge. Seoul had hoped that these non-governmental exchanges would sustain interest in state-led projects like inter-Korean tourism and reconnecting railways that are currently immobilized because of the diplomatic impasse.

Context: South Korea’s Korean Conference of Religions and Peace has been a consistent advocate of engagement with Pyongyang even as relations between the Koreas began to deteriorate in 2019. As a pan-religious consultative body, KCRP has long championed interfaith cooperation as a means for engaging the two Koreas. In 2017, members of the group discussed matters related to inter-Korean exchange with President Moon Jae-in during his first month in office.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant and Sonia Kim. Picture from Universal Peace Federation

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