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The Peacebuilding Role of Religious Civil Society Initiatives in the Korean Peninsula

The Peacebuilding Role of Religious Civil Society Initiatives in the Korean Peninsula

Photo credit: World Council of Churches

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kim, D. J. (2017). Building relationships across the boundaries: the peacebuilding role of civil society in the Korean Peninsula. International Peacekeeping, 24(4), 515–537.

Talking Points

  • Religious civil society leaders contributed to the Korean peace process in the 1990s.
  • Civil society leaders have access to top-level (political) leadership as well as their grassroots constituents (vertical capacity).
  • Civil society can use professional or religious associations to cut across the lines of conflict (horizontal capacity).
  • Religious civil society actors can re-frame issues outside of the common conflict narrative.


This article examines whether civil society has played a role in peacebuilding efforts beyond traditional government-driven peace negotiations in the Korean Peninsula. Despite the government-imposed restrictions on cross-border movement and communication between North and South Korean groups and individuals, civil society efforts to build sustainable peace exist. More specifically, the author examines how a religious civil society organization, the ecumenical National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), has navigated the Peace and Unification Movement.

To begin, the author notes the importance of peacebuilding as opposed to peacekeeping. The former aims to transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships, whereas the latter aims to prevent or contain physical violence and thereby potentially impedes interaction and defers addressing root causes of conflict. Civil society actors are uniquely situated, in that they can coordinate and foster vertical and horizontal relationships for sustainable peacebuilding. In other words, civil society leaders have access to (political) top-level leadership as well as to their grassroots constituents (vertical capacity), and they can use their professional or religious associations to cut across the lines of conflict (horizontal capacity).

The author conducted in-depth interviews with South Korean civil society leaders and former staff members of international organizations to describe their roles in the Peace and Unification Movement of NCCK in the 1980s and 1990s. Former South Korean government officials, who were leaders in negotiations with North Korea during the same time periods, were asked to reflect on the role civil society played in the peace process.

After the 1953 Armistice Agreement—the Korean War never officially ended—both North and South Korea justified dictatorial rule, initiated an arms race, and strengthened their respective militaries. Even though South Korea’s authoritarian regime ended in the late 1980s, the overall context of negotiations and peace talks by the governments was used to strengthen domestic political power in both countries. In South Korea that meant that civil society leaders needed to create a space where they would not be portrayed as “communist sympathizers” by opposing the government’s hard-line and that they needed to shift away from government-driven peace processes that strengthened the respective regimes. In this context, the NCCK asked that the World Council of Churches (WCC) act as a mediator between North and South Korean Christians. The WCC asked both governments for cooperation for a meeting between members from both sides. The result was a Christian-themed conference­—not a conference officially about peace and unification—in 1988, leading to the activation of a peace and unification discourse and a church declaration on national unification and peace. This was the time when the official South Korean position changed toward new engagement with North Korea, which ultimately led to high-level talks between North and South Korea and the 1991 Basic Agreement. In this agreement, the governments pledged reconciliation, non-aggression, exchanges, and cooperation.

Civil society leaders interviewed for this study considered the NCCK movement to have made a significant contribution to the progress of the peace process in the 1990s. They stressed their role in creating public opinion allowing the government to justify its engagement in productive peace talks. In sum, civil society leaders saw themselves in between the government and public opinion. Former government interviewees recognized some impact of civil society on the peace process but considered the changing international context—more specifically the end of the Cold War—more important. As concluded by another researcher cited in this study, the changes in the international environment drove how the policies were conceptualized, whereas public opinion drove the implementation strategy.

The author also found that the NCCK built horizontal relationships with counterparts in North Korea and, at the same time, engaged with high-level South Korean intelligence officials to secure permissions for their initial gathering. In doing so, they leveraged what peace researcher and practitioner Lederach calls their “middle-level leadership.” The religious leaders were not directly dependent on or affiliated with the top-level power-holders. They were respected by and connected to the grassroots level and had direct access to the upper levels of political hierarchy.

The author concludes that the role of civil society in peacebuilding in the 1980s and 1990s can contribute toward reviving the current peace process. First, the previously established horizontal relationships with North Korean counterparts can be re-activated. Second, the same creativity and flexibility used by civil society groups prior to the 1991 Basic Agreement can be used to assist governments in reducing tensions. And, finally, while hardline policy-makers dominate the agenda, government interviewees did confirm that the vertical relationship with civil society had an impact—albeit limited—on government negotiations.

Contemporary Relevance

This article shows how dangerous negative peace—the mere absence of violence—can be in a volatile conflict such as the one on the Korean Peninsula. The 1953 Armistice Agreement left the root causes unresolved, leading to a conflict where currently the U.S.—a steadfast supporter of South Korea—and North Korea are escalating tensions and threats that can lead to a disastrous nuclear war. The prevention of violence should be the top priority, but one must not confuse this “negative peace” with the development of a clear peacebuilding approach.

In situations like these, when the leadership on different sides of a conflict is moving countries closer to war than toward peace, examining and understanding all viable options is of utmost importance. Religious civil society actors, as explored in this study, and others have a unique opening to change the existing trajectory by using their role outside of the political realm. However minuscule, flawed, and imperfect civil society approaches may seem, they must not be seen as isolated initiatives but as part of systemic approaches aimed at transforming a conflict context constructively. Moreover, they need to be seen in direct comparison to the military options and the known human, social, and economic costs of violence.

As this study has shown, the conflict context for civil society peacebuilding initiatives is a major factor determining the likelihood of success. Limited space to openly advance unification efforts was used creatively by the NCCK by adopting a religious frame. Current tensions and political impasse between the U.S. and North Korea, primarily driven by extremely hostile rhetoric coming from both leaders, show that civil society engagement is not only an option but a necessity to prevent a potentially catastrophic war. What was not discussed in this research—but something that applies across all civil society peacebuilding efforts—is their unique ability to humanize “the other” in situations where “otherness” and fear of “the other” are major drivers of conflict and war rhetoric.

Practical Implications

The practical implications of this research are multifold. In international conflicts, the focus is usually on “Track One” diplomacy, the official negotiations between high government officials or military leaders. By examining who civil society actors are, we can broaden our understanding of diplomacy to include those efforts that take place at multiple levels and thereby address the conflict more comprehensively. The so-called “multi-track diplomacy” framework includes official and unofficial conflict resolution efforts, citizen and scientific exchanges, international business negotiations, international cultural and athletic activities, and other international contacts and cooperative efforts. The nine specific tracks, which produce a synergy in peacebuilding, are: public opinion and communication; government; professional conflict resolution; business; private citizens; activism; religion; funding; and research, training, and education.

We need to identify and encourage civil society organizations that have the capacity to build vertical and horizontal relationships for sustainable peacebuilding. This study has shown how religious actors used their beliefs about how we should behave toward each other in the context of Korean peace and unification efforts. As the author notes, this is an already existing opening for the present-day situation. When considering the multi-track diplomacy framework, we can identify civil society organizations like Rotary International, whose commitment to peace, goodwill, and understanding is in their institutional DNA. Many Rotarians worldwide are dedicated to peace and have the capacity for horizontal and vertical engagement as discussed in this research. Civil society service organizations like Rotary International and its individual members can cooperate with professional peacebuilding organizations, such as the ones found in the Alliance for Peacebuilding, to achieve synergy.

Lastly, civil society expert Thania Paffenholz outlines some functions for civil society actors in peacebuilding. These are: protection; monitoring; advocacy and public communication; in-group socialization; social cohesion; intermediation and facilitation; and service delivery.

Continued Reading

Civil Society & Peacebuilding: A Critical Assessment By Thania Paffenholz. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010.

Engaging Rotarians in Global Violence PreventionLecture by Joseph Bock. Portland, 2014  (Video:

Civil Society Engagement in the ‘New Deal’ By Rachel Fairhurst and Kristen Wall. Peace Policy, 2014:

Korean Women Take on TrumpBy Christine Ahn. Foreign Policy in Focus, 2017: 

Keywords: civil society, North Korea, peacebuilding, South Korea

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 5, of the Peace Science Digest.


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