4 November 2013 | by Paul Valentin
The whirlwind WCC assembly programme continues apace. The weekend was spent in and around Seoul, where we travelled by coach and bullet train.
A brief visit to the border with North Korea was a stark reminder of the sad reality of a divided country and divided families.
Our Korean hosts again pulled out all the stops for a stellar cultural programme on the Saturday night and, for the Sunday, the 500+ participants were divided along confessional lines to attend church services with local congregations.
After seeing some of the mega churches, I was relieved to find myself with my five international fellow 'pilgrims' from Madagascar, Canada, Switzerland, Kenya and India in a smallish but very warm and welcoming Anglican congregation in a community north of Seoul (Uijeongbu).
Today it is back to business, which for me has included a meeting with representatives of the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea and attending a forum on Korean 'comfort women' under the Japanese occupation.
There we heard the harrowing story of 86-year old Won-ok Gil, who was forced into sexual slavery when she was 13.
She regained her freedom aged 18 after Japan’s defeat, finding herself alone and without resources in China. She made it back to Korea but could not travel to her home city of Pyongyang because of the division of the country.
She could neither get married nor conceive children, but ended up adopting an orphan, who grew up to be a pastor.
Seeking an apology
Many of the estimated 200,000 Korean comfort women did not survive and only 239 women have come forward to raise the issue in the public sphere, demanding a formal apology from Japan but still being denied an acknowledgement of guilt.
Asked what motivated her to continue speaking out, Won-ok, who is now very frail and uses a wheelchair, stressed the fact that sexual abuse continues to haunt many other countries. So for as long as she can, she will continue to keep the issue in the public eye.
We picked up our ecumenical conversation on climate change again but it left me feeling frustrated.
Here we are with the unique possibility to get the churches united behind a clear position on climate change, and many in the room just want to talk about the solar panel on their roof or about turning down the heating.
These are all important things but focusing on them reveals an unwillingness to engage with the really difficult debates - confronting governments and challenging them to face their responsibilities; being honest with congregations about the state of the world.
Setting an agenda
There is comfort in limiting one’s range of vision but this is one issue that should not allow for that. I certainly hope that tomorrow we will finally manage to pin down a really bold agenda.
If we fail, we will have to settle for something bland that many will agree with but that, in the greater scheme of things, may not make much of a difference.
Our staff are in Busan, South Korea attending the World Council of Churches assembly. The theme of the assembly, 'God of life, lead us to justice and peace', provides a focus for theological reflection, worship and meditation, as well as for planning programmatic activities before, during and after the assembly.