Building peace in Northeast Asia

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How does a South Korean soldier become a teacher of peace?

Delegates at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Saskatchewan’s Encounter and annual general meeting heard the answer to that question through the life stories of keynote speaker Jae Young Lee.

As a soldier, Lee was to guard a section of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, and report any unusual activity. After the death of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, South Korea anticipated that North Koreans would attempt to flee their country. Lee and his fellow soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who entered the DMZ.

The only movement Lee saw, however, was the free flight of birds. He thought about how the DMZ might look from a birdseye view, and that prompted him to think about God’s viewpoint. Lee said he thought “God would be very disappointed in people [who were] pointing guns at each other for peace.”

So Lee began considering alternatives to military service. His father, who had worked for six years at the Mennonite Vocational School operated by MCC in Korea in the 1950s and ’60s, suggested he consider Canadian Mennonite Bible College (a founding college of Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg). Although he knew nothing of Mennonite theology, Lee’s father remembered that Mennonites were good people.

While there, he grappled with the idea of Christian pacifism. “I still wore my military pants because they were comfortable,” Lee recalled, noting that a professor told him, “Jae, you’re the first student to wear a military uniform in my class.”

Wanting to learn more about pacifism, Lee enrolled in Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, and went on to study conflict transformation and restorative justice under Howard Zehr.

Lee visited MCC headquarters in Akron, Pa., where he was surprised to see older women packing health kits for North Korea in the material aid warehouse. Lee told them he was from South Korea, to which one woman replied, “Back in the 1950s, I packed these for South Korea.” Lee said he cried when she told him this.

He had grown up hating North Koreans, and, as a soldier, was trained to kill his enemies. He thought this was what God wanted him to do. Yet, he said, “these humble ladies were doing the same work for that many years with the same heart, the same mind. I felt great guilt. People like her saved millions of lives and brought hope, peace and justice to the world.”

On completing his studies, Lee returned to Korea, where he founded the Korea Anabaptist Center in 2001 and the Connexus Language Institute in 2004. Through the Korea Peacebuilding Institute, established in 2011, and the Korea Association for Restorative Justice, Lee and his associates offer instruction in conflict transformation and restorative justice in schools and prisons, and to police officers.

“We can’t just sit back and enjoy Gangnam Style pop culture,” said Lee, because the Cold War is still a reality in the highly militarized region. The Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute, founded in 2009 and supported in part by MCC, provides training in peacebuilding to participants from various national and cultural backgrounds. The institute’s goal, he said, is to transform Northeast Asia into “a region of active nonviolence, mutual cooperation and lasting peace for all.”

Restorative justice, said Lee, is a “way to follow Jesus,” noting that Jesus himself practised restorative justice by mediating between God and humankind. The Korean word for “peace” means “equal distribution of rice,” showing that peace and justice are inextricably linked, he said, concluding that restorative justice is key to a safe and peaceful society.

--Posted Nov. 19, 2014

Keynote speaker Jae Young Lee, left, visits with Tina Doell at the MCC Saskatchewan Encounter and annual general meeting held in Saskatoon on Nov. 1.

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