The Rev. Insik Kim had not seen his mother in more than 35 years. When they were finally reunited a few years ago in North Korea, he says, he sat in his mother's lap and "cried like a little baby."
"Never mind that I had college degrees and I was a minister and all that. I just sat in her lap and cried," Kim, 53, said yesterday. He is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) official who is here for the denomination's General Assembly at the Baltimore Convention Center.
Kim explains that he and his mother were separated shortly after the Korean War broke out in 1950. They were reunited because he was part of a National Council of Churches delegation to North Korea in 1987.
He says religious organizations such as the Presbyterian Church can work to reunite North and South Korea and the many families that have been apart since the two countries went to war in June 1950. These organizations also can try to bridge the Christian communities in the United States and North Korea, he adds.
An eight-member delegation from North Korea is at the assembly to help spread the reunion gospel. The group includes two Christian ministers, a Christian lay official, a Christian seminary student and a former North Korean ambassador to the United Nations.
None of the delegation members speaks English, so Kim, a specialist in Asian affairs for his church's Global Mission Unit, has been serving as escort and spokesman for the North Koreans during their visit to Baltimore.
All eight delegation members are from Pyongyang, the capital of communist North Korea. Kim is a native of the northern province of Hwanghae. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he lives in Louisville, where his church's national office is located.
According to Kim, the delegation has three goals.
"One, we want to try to establish a relationship between Christians in the United States and Christians in North Korea. Two, we want to draw attention to the millions of people in both North and South Korea who haven't seen each other since the war. And three, we want to help make the case for reunifying the two countries in the near future," he says.
Delegation member and former U.N. ambassador Han Si Hae is vice chair of a Korean group called the Committee for Peaceful Unification of Korea.
The Presbyterian Church has deep roots in the Korean peninsula. The denomination sent a mission there in 1884 and for the next 60 years maintained a solid foothold in Korea. Thanks to Presbyterian efforts, Pyongyang became known as "the Jerusalem of Asia," says Kim.
But just after World War II, when the Communists took control of the northern half of the country, open religious worship became possible only in the south. Communication ceased not only between north and south, but also between Christians in the United States and North Korea.
Still, says Kim, the Christian church is growing in North Korea as best it can under the government restrictions against religion. Public worship is allowed in two churches, one a Roman Catholic structure and the other a non-denominational Christian place of worship called the Bong Soo Church. The pastor there is the Rev. Li Sung Bung, a member of the delegation to Baltimore.
Most services are held in underground fashion in "house churches," the homes of North Korean Christians. This form of worship was necessitated by both politics and the lack of churches, most of them destroyed during the war and never rebuilt, Kim says.
Since 1983, the Presbyterian church has slowly and quietly made overtures to Christians in North Korea, trying to re-establish the bond that was severed more than 40 years ago.
"We started to act in the early '80s because China had opened its doors to the West a few years earlier," says Kim. "We were encouraged by what was happening in China. Right now, we have 15 Presbyterians working as academic teachers in Chinese classrooms. We would like to make the same sort of inroads into North Korea soon, to develop a presence there."
Kim hopes to achieve a smaller, symbolic victory during a service for the assembly tomorrow at the Convention Center. He plans to present the North Koreans standing arm-in-arm with South Korean Presbyterians at the front of the hall.
"That will be a historic moment," he says. "It will really be something to see."