For North and South Korea to come together in partnership or as one nation will require a shared vision acceptable to both societies. Prioritizing harmony and proximity in personal and organizational relationships across society and the economy can provide a framework that is in keeping with Korea’s social traditions, as well as with biblical social design. A “Track Two” process for building consensus based on a relational framework through a program of consultations contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa and ending civil war in Sudan. Such an approach could now be applied in the Korean Peninsula.

Whatever happens in the immediate future, if North and South Korea are ever to come together again as one nation, they will need a shared ideological framework and a roadmap to restore harmony between the families and communities that have been divided for so long. Hence there is a need to explore a shared vision that would be acceptable to both North and South Korean societies. In what follows, we argue for a relational understanding of both individual well-being and public policy. This approach has strong resonance with the cultural and political history of the Korean Peninsula, with its deep roots in Confucian teaching, and more recently with the influence of the Christian worldview.

Given the current state of inter-Korean relations, the immediate goal is to reduce tensions and misunderstandings through opening constructive dialogue. It is to be hoped that this step may move on to agreement on a range of issues on which both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) may agree to cooperate; joint initiatives will help to increase trust.

Much will depend, of course, on what the major powers with an interest in the region decide to do in the months and years ahead. There can be little doubt, however, that unity of understanding and purpose among all those living on the Korean Peninsula will serve the interests of long-term peace and social harmony, which is the primary goal of any peacebuilding process, beyond the mere securing of an end to the fear of war.

This article will outline a confidence-building approach as a contribution to the resolution of the long-running conflict between North and South Korea. It is envisaged that this initiative will take place over several years through an NGO-sponsored series of consultations covering many sectors of public life. The team at Relational Peacebuilding Initiatives (RPI) used a similar “Track Two” methodology in the period leading up to the end of white rule in South Africa and also to help to resolve conflict between North and South Sudan in the period leading up to the 2005 Naivasha Agreement.[1]

The starting point: Identifying new foundations

Our starting point in identifying new foundations is the potential of a relational approach to both the framework of public policy in the Korean Peninsula and the process by which this framework is considered and refined. The relational approach described here has wide appeal to those of all religions who recognize that relationships are key not only to people’s personal identity but to the building of peace between nations and ethnic groups. Arguably, this approach is likely to have particular appeal to Koreans, given the importance of relational perspectives and priorities in traditional Korean culture. As will be shown below, we believe that starting with this relational foundation and framework creates the opportunity to define a new set of institutions that have their roots in biblical revelation but that can be shown to have a rationale that is a logical outcome of its relational starting point.

Christians recognize that their faith is profoundly relational. They believe in God as a Trinity of persons in eternal relationship with one another, and they affirm that relationships are basic to the character of the universe in general and to human beings in particular. Righteousness, sin, and covenant are all relational terms. The purpose of the incarnation was for God to relate directly with human beings, so Jesus was given the name “Immanuel” (God with us). Jesus’s life was that of a perfect relational person; he redefined poverty, for example, as primarily a relational rather than a financial concern (e.g., see Luke 4:18, along with Luke 5:27-32). The purpose of his death on the cross, the central event in Christian history, together with the resurrection, is described in both the Old and the New Testaments in the language of forgiveness and reconciliation; it is about the restoration of broken relationships. Jesus says that all Old Testament law and the prophets are summarized by the two great commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor; love is a quality of relationship, not a description of power or wealth.

God is concerned for just relationships and social harmony, not only between individuals but between cities and nations. Resentment and hostility, resulting from history or from actions today, are the antithesis of love. Christ warns that every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined. The consequences of such antagonism are likely to include physical, financial, and emotional hardship, and ultimately violence. However, when peacemakers sow seeds of peace, they harvest righteousness (James 3:18)

Jesus calls peacemakers blessed (Matt. 5:9). Reconciliation between nations, ethnic groups, and individuals is rooted in Christ’s work on the cross. More generally, Christians are called to seek and pray for the harmony (shalom) of nations (see Jer. 29:7). So, what initiatives might Christians take to build trust between North and South Korea, and between the two Koreas and their powerful neighbors and allies? Surely peace and strong, healthy relationships must be central goals of the Christian agenda, given that relationships are so important in God’s eyes.

Preconditions for rebuilding relationships of trust

To analyze trust, or distrust, in the context of public life requires fresh categories and language.[2] Relationships, like clouds, are hard to define and measure. Biblical language speaks much about how close or far people are from God, that is, the degree of relational distance, the converse of which is relational proximity.[3] What can Christians propose to political leaders to reduce relational distance, and how can they constructively help to resolve tensions and build trust between those holding opposite viewpoints?

Three main components of trust are mutual understanding, perceived fairness, and shared goals and values:

1. Mutual understanding can be developed best through face-to-face dialogue; communication is far richer when the parties are in the same room. Trust also requires sustained contact, or continuity, with those who hold the opposite point of view so as to understand the rationale of the other side’s position. Trust is strengthened by not assuming the worst of the other’s intentions (see 1 Cor. 13:7).

2. Perceived fairness—mutual respect, or “parity”—requires recognition that all are made in the image of God, a commitment to fairness in the distribution of risk and reward, and fairness in the process of discussion or negotiation.

3. Shared goals and values involve a joint commitment to mutually beneficial outcomes. They are often a key factor in the search for peace and can require leaders to agree to both the underlying principles at stake and how these impact their constituencies. In the context of the Korean conflict, shared goals and values need to arise from an alternative ideology and societal model that stands apart from the individualism that lies at the heart of capitalism, and from the collectivism of Communism. Relational thinking, or “Relationism,” with its starting point in relationships rather than in either the individual or the collective as the respective starting points, provides an alternative.

This understanding of the main components of trust, together with the institutional norms described below, mean that a normative element is introduced into discussion of relationships.

The relational approach to peacebuilding

Peacebuilding can take place along several different “tracks.”[4] For this discussion these tracks will be distinguished from one another, but they are not mutually exclusive; they can involve many of the same participants and can reinforce one another. For them to be most effective, however, it is important that they be clearly distinguished.

Track One concerns the formal negotiation process and directly involves those in positions of top leadership or those who bear a brief on their behalf, as well as any other official actors, whether states or intergovernmental organizations. Prior to the formal negotiation process there may be a more informal, often secret, prenegotiation phase (often called Track One and a Half). Typically, Track One addresses the immediate steps required to be put into place for a peace settlement, as well as the substance of the constitutional and other arrangements that need to be put in place as agreed by all the parties, both domestic and international.

Track Two concerns intermediate-level facilitation, operates on a low-profile basis, and is conducted among persons in positions of significant responsibility. These participants need to have influence that reaches both to the high-level policy-makers and to the grass roots. Typically, Track Two initiatives are wide-ranging in their coverage and middle-distance in their focus; that is, they cover the spectrum of national politics and concern the range of possible futures, not holding fast to any particular constitutional model or to any specific social or economic outcomes. They aim to build trust to secure a sustainable basis for the common good. Track Two initiatives do not seek to achieve an immediate resolution of the conflict (as in Track One), but rather to create a shared vision for the future.

Track Three processes tend to have a local or issue-specific focus. Because they are carried out at a communal level, the secrecy of Track One and the confidentiality of Track Two are difficult to sustain. They tend to take the form of dialogue rather than that of the mediated negotiation of Track One or the facilitated consultation process of Track Two.

Experience in South Africa and Sudan

The RPI team now working to build peace in the Korean Peninsula previously worked to create peace in South Africa in the period leading up to the end of apartheid (i.e., 1987–94). Although confidential at the time, the process in South Africa was well documented, and its significance has subsequently begun to be recognized.[5]

The second arena of RPI work was in Rwanda from 1994 to 1999, following the genocide there. RPI’s third peacebuilding initiative, from 1999 to 2004, involved a series of consultations between the major political parties, ethnic groups, and regions in North and South Sudan.

In both South Africa and Sudan, the process was similar. There were a series of consultations as part of a Track Two process that built up confidence across the divides and so helped to undergird the initially secret Track One process, which led onto formal negotiations. These consultations also helped to provide a framework for the various Track Three processes that were undertaken later.

The key features of the consultation process employed in both South Africa (between the ANC, the white establishment, and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party) and in Sudan (among the various national, regional, and ethnic groups) may be described as follows:

1. The consultations were not a negotiation but an exploration and creation of a possible shared vision for the parties to the conflict. The participants were thus not official representatives but attended in their personal capacity.

2. In both the South Africa and Sudan peacebuilding processes, the ten or so consultations covered economic, social, and political issues and took place over several years.

3. In addition to the participants from the country concerned, the consultations were attended by international interlocutors, not as formal representatives but as informal channels to the key international actors.

4. For each different topic, subject experts (whether academics, professionals, or from within government departments) attended in their personal capacities, and from the international community. Papers were commissioned by the convening organization’s Secretariat to address key issues identified by the participants and international interlocutors to help the parties move toward consensus.[6]

Capitalism and socialism and a new relational society/economy model

The biblical foundation for proposing a model for both society and the economy is to understand biblical law as a social paradigm, as argued by Christopher Wright.[7] The approach is developed and expanded in two important books: Jubilee Manifesto and God, Justice, and Society.[8] We can understand biblical law, whatever its origins, as an alternative legal solution to the ideas of Greece, Rome, and other traditions, for the great issues of political economy. Arguably, biblical law may be regarded as the design of a relational God for a relational society and a relational economy—provided by God to his people as they move into the promised land to establish themselves for the first time as a political entity.

The study of the biblical paradigms, within a relational framework as set out above, points to a society that is very different from those created by either capitalism or socialism. Five of the key differences may be highlighted as follows:

Government. It is vital that distant government institutions do not take over too many of the functions that can be carried out at a more local level. These local responsibilities include creation of employment opportunities, provision of housing, education and health care, and resolving disputes that occur within the community. At the same time, the head of state, with other central institutions, is a focus of unity for the nation as a whole.

Time priorities. It is not possible to develop committed and long-term relationships between individuals within families and communities unless priority is given to investment of time in those relationships and, in a God-fearing community, with God himself. The Sabbath enables everyone to be able to spend time together on one day each week.

Family and roots. In the biblical social paradigms, family is not defined as the nuclear family, or household, as in Western social thinking, but as an extended family that stretches across generations. This biblical understanding, which is closer to a traditional Korean understanding of family, has marriage at its heart. This larger social unit provides a more effective welfare group than the household to support vulnerable individuals, and it typically can provide better care for the elderly when they are no longer able to look after themselves. Giving extended family an economic role is vital to its cohesion in the long term.

Finance. The lack of necessary contact between the providers and users of capital in a modern society, whether in the context of debt or through institutions of the modern corporation and capital markets, creates relational distance.[9] Money, however, should act as a form of social glue, helping people get to know one another across the many kinds of relations present in society.

Property. An essential feature of a “fair society” in biblical thinking is that every household, as part of an extended family, owns a home and, where possible, has access to a piece of land on which it can grow crops for home consumption and even for sale. The biblical economic model anticipates free trade in goods and services (capital, labor. and land) but aims to constrain inequalities of income and wealth through laws governing use of capital and ownership of property

Toward a relational Korean Peninsula

Relational thinking has an impact across many areas of social, political, and economic life. It might be applied to the Korean context in the following areas:

1. The goal and meaning of development as not being exclusively about economic growth but also about the quality of relationships at the level of families and communities, and across society.

2. The definition of poverty not just as a financial state but also as a relational condition, so that society strives to ensure that people are not marginalized, excluded, or lonely.

3. Human rights redefined in relational terms, so that the impact of decisions based on these rights considers all parties to the relationships affected by the granting or application of a human right.

4. Personal identity not defined by reference only to how individuals view themselves but in the context of their relationships to their families and communities.

5. Companies to have not just a financial goal, maximizing returns to those who provide capital, but also a social purpose so that they are seen to serve the public good. Also, companies are obliged to assess annually the quality of relationships with their stakeholders, including their employees, and have a dialogue with them that is reported as part of their annual report and accounts.[10]

6. Schools no longer based on competitive individualism, where each student is trying to outperform the others, but rather based on a vision of a relational society where cooperation is rewarded and where relational skills, not just technical skills, are measured.

7. Finance organized to build relationships between providers and users of capital by ensuring contact between them after the initial transfer of funds, and a shared interest in how successfully the funds are applied for the achievement of both relational and economic ends.

8. Health care to have an emphasis on prevention through public health initiatives, as well as the use of modern medicine to help heal those who are sick, and the reintegration of health care into care for the whole person within a family and community context.

9. Economic growth strategy to avoid borrowing by governments, companies, and individuals to ensure absence of long-term constraints on the economy’s performance. This strategy requires (1) a shared-equity approach to home ownership, (2) commitment to enabling families and communities to provide social care so that these responsibilities fall as little as possible on the state, and (3) new ways to involve shareholders in the companies that they help to fund.

Relevance of the relational society/relational economy model to Korea

Korea has suffered conflict as the result of great power rivalry across the peninsula throughout its history, but especially in the twentieth century. The current conflict on the peninsula remains unresolved and indeed threatens to be the source of a new international conflagration, with the possibility of destruction on a scale to match or even exceed the worst horrors of the twentieth century, with enormous cost to its neighbors, as well as to the wider international community.

Despite many families having members on both sides of the 38th Parallel, and despite many attempts at détente, relations between North and South have remained polarized and often tense. However, the shared language and long history of Korean culture offers hope that the future lies in unity rather than division. What is critically needed is an agreed ideological foundation and framework for political economy that can enable all parties to come together around a shared vision for the future of the peninsula.

It should not be assumed that in the future the North will dominate because of its nuclear capability or that the South will dominate because of its larger industrial and economic base. Although the population of the South is nearly double that of the North and although its GDP, as measured using the usual international measures, is many times that of the North, the identity of the North is distinctive and cannot easily be absorbed into the South, nor the South into the North.

What needs to be worked toward is a true partnership, with transformation of the political economy of both societies, through refocusing on the importance of relationships in families, communities, companies, schools, and across society. This approach draws on the roots of both Confucian thinking, which is deeply rooted in Korean culture, and Christian priorities. The latter avoids the culture of Confucian hierarchy, which can be an impediment to the ability of both sides to come to the table as equals.

If it is true that the DPRK in the North will never accept willingly the capitalism of the ROK in the South, and that the ROK will never accept willingly the socialism of the DPRK, some alternative framework for economic and social life needs to be proposed as an option that both countries will find acceptable.

In the context of the Korean conflict, shared goals and values will require an alternative ideology that stands apart from the individualism lying at the heart of capitalism, and apart from the collectivism of Communism. Relational thinking, or “Relationism,” with its starting point in relationships rather than the individual or the collective, provides such an alternative.

The rapid economic expansion and sophisticated technological development of the ROK have taken place not without strain on the social fabric, involving loosening of family ties and the rise of a consumerist culture. The DPRK has experienced the problem of how to balance the costs of political independence with the need to develop its economic base and provide the material needs of its people. There is also the extensive diaspora of Korean people who need to be included in any discussions regarding the future of the peninsula.

There are also issues in how Korea is to relate to its immediate neighbors, which are far from straightforward in the case of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Regarding Japan, there is the unresolved question of reconciliation with Korea, while difficulties arise from the United States having a continuing military presence in the ROK. It is in the best interest of all these countries that Korea as a whole is put on a long-term and peaceful course of development.

Given the deep distrust that exists, despite the limited success of the Geneva agreement of 1964, this is not an objective that can foreseeably be achieved at an intergovernmental level. All attempts at do so within the limited boundaries set by the nuclear weapons issue have continued to break down, notably in the framework of the six-party talks. More space needs to be created at the level of civil society for free and constructive interaction. However, without a common conception of the principles and values that would underpin a future social and economic order, this dialogue will not be possible.

What needs to be worked toward is true partnership through refocusing both the economy and the culture, of both North and South Korea, on the central importance of Relational values.


  1. Relational Peacebuilding Initiatives (RPI) is a not-for-profit Swiss association established in the Canton of Geneva (relationalpeacebuilding.org). RPI is a member of the Relational Thinking Network (relationalthinking.net), whose other members include the Relational Schools Project (relationalschools.org), the Relationships Foundation (www.relationshipsfoundation.org), and Relational Analytics (www.relational-analytics.com).
  2. For greater detail, see John Ashcroft, Roy Childs, Alison Myers, and Michael Schluter, The Relational Lens: Understanding, Measuring, and Managing Stakeholder Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017).
  3. For a biblical analysis of relational proximity, see Guy Brandon, “Relational Proximity: A Biblical Framework,” Jubilee Centre: Biblical Thinking for Public Life, www.jubilee-centre.org/relational-proximity-biblical-perspective.
  4. The terms “Track One” and “Track Two” were coined by William D. Davidson and Joseph V. Montville (“Foreign Policy according to Freud,” Foreign Policy 45 [1981–82]: 145–57). The term “Track Three,” used here in a specific sense, also relates to the three levels identified by John Paul Lederach (Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies [Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997], 38–55).
  5. Willie Esterhuyse, Endgame: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2012), 115–17, 138–39, 210, 243; Jeremy Ive, “Peacebuilding and the Ending of Apartheid,” Cambridge Papers 23, no. 2 (June 2014).
  6. See Jeremy Ive, “A History of the Newick Park Initiative (NPI) and Its Contribution to Building Peace in South Africa, 1986–1994,” Jubilee Centre: Biblical Thinking for Public Life, July 2014, www.jubilee-centre.org/history-newick-park-initiative-jeremy-ive.
  7. Christopher J. H. Wright, Living as the People of God (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985).
  8. Michael Schluter and John Ashcroft, Jubilee Manifesto: A Framework, Agenda, and Strategy for Christian Social Reform (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005); Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice, and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
  9. Jonathan Rushworth and Michael Schluter, Transforming Capitalism from Within: A Relational Approach to the Purpose, Performance, and Assessment of Companies (Cambridge: Relationships Global, 2011), www.relationshipsfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Transforming_Capitalism_Report.pdf.
  10. Changes in corporate governance through so-called integrated reporting are highlighting the importance of stakeholders, rather than simply shareholders, in corporate reporting. Not only financial capital is to be measured, but also human capital, intellectual capital, environmental capital, and relational capital.

This is the author-accepted manuscript. The fully-published article can be found here.

Michael Schluter & Jeremy Ive, A Relational Approach to Peacebuilding in the Korean Peninsula. International Bulletin of Mission Research,  42 (2), pp. 152-161. Copyright © 2018 by the Author(s). Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Michael Schluter, a British citizen, lives in Cambridge and is currently executive director of Relational Peacebuilding Initiatives.

Jeremy Ive, a British citizen, is currently a Church of England minister in Kent, UK. He is senior adviser of Relational Peacebuilding Initiatives.