South Korean President Moon Jae-In speaks during a press conference marking his first 100 days in office at the presidential house in Seoul, August 2017. 
Jong Yeon-Je / REUTERS

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticize the South Korean leadership for “appeasement” of North Korea. In a dig at South Korean President Moon Jae-in days earlier, Trump likewise cautioned that “Talking is not the Answer!” in reference to Moon’s preference for negotiations with Pyongyang. It is possible that the South Korean president is so focused on talks not only out of electoral commitments, but also because of religious conviction. Moon is a practicing Catholic, and although religious identity is not always an appropriate prism for assessing political decision-making, it may be relevant in this case.

In his four years as pontiff, Pope Francis has been emphatic about the right and wrong ways to settle international conflicts. It is unlikely that any believer could escape the implications of his “diplomacy of encounter,” which prioritizes dialogue and physical meetings between opposing parties to promote mutual knowledge, trust, and a focus on the common good. The diplomacy of encounter has reaped rewards: Francis just concluded a tour of Colombia to shepherd through a peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that the Church helped broker. Several key Christian tenets were crucial to securing the accord, among them avoiding vengeance, developing a sense of unity, and practicing radical forgiveness. (When he visited South Korea three years ago, Francis called forgiveness “the door which leads to reconciliation.”) This approach was employed by the Holy See in 2014 when it hosted American and Cuban negotiators in Rome to risk a new diplomatic accord after an 18-month impasse. In South Korea, Moon’s policies are well aligned with the diplomacy of encounter, specifically with what Catholic theologians term a “just peace,” an alternative to St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous formulation of “just war” that is more consistent with the Gospels’ advocacy of non-violence. Authentic encounter serves to humanize rivals in the other’s eyes, inspiring opponents to forge agreements that forgo retribution. A just peace has no winners or losers. Moon’s September 14 CNN remarks in which he nixed any deployment of nuclear weapons in his country can also be understood as coming from a Catholic framework.

Although the U.S. media often labels Moon “liberal” or “left-leaning,” it is difficult to categorize him in American political terms. He is a peacenik, it is true, but he is also a social conservative, for example in his public opposition to same-sex marriage. In truth, the best way to understand the South Korean president is through his Catholic faith.

A POLICY OF RECONCILIATION

Elected last May, Moon replaced President Park Geun-hye after she was impeached and removed from office in a soap opera-like scandal that roiled the country. Over one million people called for Park’s resignation at the height of the public protests against her involvement in a multi-generational web of elite corruption. In contrast, Moon’s career has been apparently corruption-free and marked by a lifelong commitment to democracy. Because he was jailed in 1975 for protesting against Park’s father, the former President Park Chung-Hee, and jailed again by South Korea’s last military dictator, Chun Doo-huan, Moon was barred from working as a judge or prosecutor, and became a human rights lawyer, functioning outside the system.

During his campaign for the presidency, reconciliation with North Korea through dialogue was one of his signature policies. Park, too, had promised to improve relations with the North, but made little progress. Public opinion surveys consistently demonstrate popular desire for bilateral talks—77 percent were in favor in a June poll. Most people are increasingly convinced that isolating Pyongyang has failed, an intellectual conclusion that is reinforced by the emotional conviction that a single people has been artificially divided. Moon’s family embodies the dislocation: He was born in a hovel on Geoje Island, off Korea’s southeast coast, three years after his mother fled the North on a U.S. cargo ship with 14,000 other refugees as part of the Hungnam evacuation.

In his inaugural speech on May 10, Moon dedicated himself to peace. He said that he’s willing to “fly to Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo, if needed, and I will also go to Pyongyang, if conditions are met.” He was also planning to fly his team somewhere else. Within two weeks of taking office, Moon sent an envoy to Rome to meet with Francis and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. At meetings that stretched across several days, Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, president of the Korean bishops conference, and members of the president’s team sought support from the Holy See for reconciliation on the peninsula. Unusually, the pope received Kim twice during the week. Engaging the Vatican on this issue is more than symbolic: The alliance provides Moon with a broad-based, discreet network of resources for exploring non-military options, including a large group of Japanese and Korean bishops as well as support from Catholic leadership in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Under Francis, the Vatican has forged high-level channels with Beijing and provides Seoul with sources of information and analysis independent of Washington. Although still not publicly ballyhooed, Rome and Beijing have developed an unprecedented functional relationship under the guidance of Francis and Cardinal Parolin.

The South Korean public is not likely to take offense at Moon’s outreach to the Vatican. On the contrary, Catholicism is growing in the country faster than anywhere else in Asia. Currently, 11 percent of South Koreans are Catholic (approximately 5.6 million people), a number that has more than doubled over the last 20 years. Overall, Christians comprise nearly 30 percent of the population. Catholics are overrepresented among elite professions (engineers, doctors, professors, journalists), in part because the Church was strongly associated with the democracy movement that ended military rule in 1987. According to a 2015 poll of South Koreans, Catholicism is the country’s most respected religion, followed by Buddhism.

Reaching out to Francis also provides Moon with an alternative narrative concerning what beleaguers the peninsula, and how to escape mutually assured destruction. Since former President George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002, North Korea has been depicted in demonic terms; Trump’s mocking caricature of Kim Jong Un as a suicidal maniac is the culmination of that thinking. Following the Gospel, Francis would call on the West to scrutinize its own sins first. Without naming names, the pope has consistently expressed doubts that those with a financial interest in arms sales (primarily the United States and Germany in the case of South Korea) can authentically sponsor peace. He has ceaselessly criticized the “piecemeal World War III” fueled by arms merchants. (He and his top advisers were dismayed after the United States announced an arms deal with Saudi Arabia earlier this year.) The Catholic Church has long opposed not only the use, but also the possession of nuclear weapons. Francis rejects a security system based on fear as inadequate because it increases distrust, makes war conceivable, and is ineffective against threats such as terrorism, cyber warfare, environmental disaster, and poverty. In this context, Moon’s remarks that South Korea will never respond to Kim’s provocations by deploying or developing nuclear weapons can be read as a principled, faith-driven stand.

Moon’s remarks that South Korea will never respond to Kim’s provocations by deploying or developing nuclear weapons can be read as a principled, faith-driven stand.

For the United States, Moon’s religious outlook is complicated. The Catholic Church has asserted three positions on Korea that are antithetical to U.S. policy. First, it is against military build-up. Catholic clerics in South Korea have been vocal opponents of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system promoted by Washington. “THAAD is a weapon of war. You can’t be for peace if you’re preparing for war,” said Moon Paul Kyu-Hyn, a Jesuit priest and leader of the nation’s peace movement. Second, the Vatican opposes economic sanctions because it views this sort of pressure as harming regular people far more than elites, and as hardening disagreements. Finally, it promotes multiple channels of engagement with the North as the only viable—and moral—strategy.  Archbishop Kim, President Moon’s envoy to the pope, has emphasized that negotiation, to be authentic, must be initiated without pre-conditions.

THE PATH TO PEACE

In South Korea, cross-border contact has been illegal for decades. Even praising North Korea can lead to arrest under the country’s strict National Security Law. Moon Paul Kyu-Hyn, for example, was jailed in 1989 and spent three years in prison for traveling to North Korea. Nevertheless, seeds of the just peace approach are now flowering on the peninsula. Three months ago, a champion taekwondo team from the North was the first sports team to visit South Korea in ten years. Most Korean Christian churches encourage exchanges of athletes, students, and cultural and professional groups—as does Moon, who also supports more expansive humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

Catholic and other Christian organizations are helping to lay the groundwork for peace through charity work and other positive forms of engagement. The Knights of Columbus, the largest international Catholic fraternal organization, recently awarded a $100,000 prize to Gerard Hammond. Hammond is an American Catholic missionary priest who has been based in Seoul since 1960 and has visited North Korea every six months for over 25 years to help treat patients with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. His work is supported by the Eugene Bell Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing humanitarian medical care in North Korea. Its founder, Stephen Linton, served as an adviser and translator for the American evangelical minister Billy Graham, who met personally with North Korean President Kim Il Sung in 1992 and 1994. Graham’s son, Franklin, continues his father’s work as an outspoken supporter of engaging with North Korean leadership, even advising former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013 to invite Kim to the United States for a basketball game.

Both Francis and the Protestant World Council of Churches have endorsed peaceful reunification of North and South. This Christian vision, supported by Moon, could become the main counterweight to unending hostility and the daily fear of nuclear Armageddon. As Scott Sagan argues in the November/December 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, the best U.S. strategy for North Korea is patient and firm containment. Threats of preventive war have become irresponsibly provocative. Meanwhile, South Korea and its northern neighbor can begin the trust-building exercises that might, over years, change the dynamics of the conflict and create space for reconciliation. Moon has cultivated supportive communities, including the Vatican, that are eager to encourage his faith in dialogue. He is undeterred: “I will prevent war at all costs,” Moon declared last month. “I want all South Koreans to believe with confidence that there will be no war.” Moon’s presidency was unimaginable only a year ago, making his prominence today seem, well, providential, and the peace option believable.