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Ground Zero for Northeast Asia Pilgrimage

June 13, 2015

major korean influencesIn bbally-bbally (“fast fast”) Seoul, it is easy to miss signs of the times. Standing in Seoul’s center this week, cars zooming around, the New Testament word kairos came to mind (not watch time, but the divine time of opportunity). This spot on the boulevard became a kind of “ground zero” for feeling the kairos of a divided Northeast Asia region of rising nationalism.

Begin with the mountain:  Just 35 miles behind it lies North Korea. Any military conflict, any disintegration in the North, would have immediate impact on Seoul’s 14 million. In many ways two Koreas have become accepted as normal, natural, inevitable, and the urgency to heal this divide has been lost.

At the mountain’s foot is graceful Gyeongbok Palace (built 1395), historical home of Korean kings. Yet for 250 years the king journeyed to Beijing to kowtow (prostrate) to the Chinese Emperor. (Japanese occupiers destroyed the gate in the 1920’s and built a huge government building behind it; when I grew up in Seoul the gate was rebuilt, yet with the Japanese building looming behind and above; later the building was demolished; now at the opposite end Seoul’s new city hall looms over the old Japanese version.)

To the right is the sole foreign embassy on this central boulevard, that of the U.S., making clear America’s historical and current role as a central force shaping realities in the region.

Across from the embassy, the statue celebrating King Sejong and the Korean Hangul alphabet. It symbolizes the struggle of less powerful minorities to preserve their traditions surrounded by powers of Japan, China, Russia, U.S., and globalization.

Looming in the foreground, the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin marks Korean resistance to a history of Japanese encroachment (the recent movie about Yi replaced “Avatar” as Korea’s most-watched movie and stirred up unresolved ill feelings toward Japan).

Unseen, seven hundred miles equidistant from this spot:  to the west, Beijing and China’s rise; to the southeast, Tokyo and President Abe’s intensifying nationalism; to the north, Vladivostok and Putin’s intentions.

Yet this boulevard is also a place of Christian sacrifice. Inspired by the Lord they understood to rule all nations, Korean Christian martyrs were tortured and killed by earthly rulers in this area in the 1800’s. In 2014 the boulevard was filled with 800,000 people when Pope Francis blessed their sacrifice.

Slowing down to take in the stories of such places is to receive a different time and different way of seeing, feeling, receiving. If I ever lead a pilgrimage of pain and hope in Korea, we will begin here.

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