In a sparsely furnished apartment in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, the woman stood and offered her song of faith. In deep tones of conviction that touched the listening visitors seated on the floor, she sang of "the sorrows that like sea billows roll," yet "it is well with my soul."
Other members of the small house church shared in prayer, singing, and conversation as they met by special dispensation of the government with an ecumenical delegation of Christians from America.
While the North Korean government arranged the gathering, "what it couldn't orchestrate is the genuineness of the spirituality, which was very evident," says the Rev. John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service (CWS), the humanitarian agency of 36 Christian denominations.
During a five-day visit to North Korea in November, the US delegation from CWS and the National Council of Churches (NCC) met with local congregations and the Korean Christians Federation (KCF), and delivered 420 metric tons of flour to help assuage the country's severe food shortage. Part of a year-long joint initiative by US and Korean ecumenical groups to support a peaceful resolution to the tense political and humanitarian crises, the trip also involved sessions with North and South Korean officials.
"Both political and religious leaders must wrestle with what is a just response to the vulnerability of the North Korean people," Mr. McCullough said in an interview on his return from two weeks on the peninsula.
He suggests food should not be held hostage to the political crisis, and also that there should be more recognition of the profound desires of Koreans for movement toward reconciliation.
The devastating food shortage, which has led to the deaths of more than 2 million North Koreans since 1996 persists. But international humanitarian aid to the country has been caught up in the political crisis for the past two years, as threats from North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons capability and a US policy shift rejecting bilateral negotiations have heightened tensions.
"Prior to 2001, America was the leading deliverer of humanitarian aid - some 400,000 metric tons of food commodities," McCullough says. "This year we are the fifth
provider, with the US government total having dropped enormously to 40,000 tons. In addition, the Japanese have almost eliminated their support."
[The US State Department said last month that another 60,000 tons would be donated after the World Food Program announced it would have to cut off North Korean aid due to insufficient donations.]
"We should separate the humanitarian crisis from the political crisis," McCullough emphasizes. CWS itself has delivered food shipments worth $4.5 million since 1996, paid for by Orthodox and Anglican and other Protestant denominations.
Americans also need to be sensitive to the fact that there is always more than one point of view on any situation, he adds. "As Americans, we have every reason to trust what our government tells us, but that doesn't displace the fact that there is a North Korean perspective and we need to avail ourselves of the opportunity to hear how they view the crisis.... My experience is that there are people in that government who are committed to finding a constructive relationship with the US just as they are with South Korea."
The US ecumenical groups have had a longstanding relationship with ecumenical groups in both North and South Korea.
"Reconciliation and reunification are ... in the forefront of their thinking," McCullough says. "There is consistency in the perspectives of the religious communities in North and South, and also a degree of consistency in the political rhetoric of the two countries," he adds. "There is common concern about the continuing role of the US in the dynamic of the peninsula, and a desire ... for a reduced role of the US military."
Indeed, as the two Koreas have actively pursued reconciliation, tensions have risen within the US-South Korean relationship, with some seeing the US as a drag on progress. Young people in the South who have little recollection of the war are actively calling for US withdrawal.
"The younger generations do not see the North as the enemy; they do see a less than beneficent despot, but not a leader who is desperate or reckless," McCullough said in a recent speech at Boston University. "They see a nation caught in an ideological struggle."
Official negotiations on the North Korean nuclear crisis, which involve the US, China, Japan, Russia, and the Koreas, were scheduled to resume in December. But they fell through over the issue of a US guarantee of North Korea's security at the same time that Pyongyang agrees to end its nuclear program. In the wake of President Bush's "axis of evil" statement, the North is fearful of a preemptive strike, McCullough says. North Korea wants security guarantees and economic assistance, but the Bush administration has refused "preconditions" to the shutting down of the nuclear program.
On his trip, McCullough met with Kim Young Dae, vice president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly. Mr. Kim, the third-ranking member of the North Korean government, "emphasized their depth of concern about the lack of bilateral discussions with the US." The delegation met with US officials involved in the negotiations upon their return home.
"I'm hoping the US will find [a way] to have those conversations with the North, which will allay some of their fears and make them more amenable to sitting with the other five parties and working through the crisis," says McCullough.
What both North and South Koreans now most want to see fulfilled are their deep desires for reconciliation and reunification, he says.
As for the churches, they are working to promote a peaceful resolution and support reconciliation efforts. They have called for a US pledge not to attack North Korea preemptively and also to seek an active end to the "state of war."
"We need a reduction in the rhetoric, and the world's attention needs to be called to the humanitarian crisis and the 2004 UN Appeal for $200 million for aid," McCullough says. "And we need to pray - for peace and for the uniting of North and South in a way that enables Koreans to be more positive participants in the global community."