One of the greatest tragedies of the inter-Korean conflict is the loss of shared identity between the two peoples. If the situation arises that the two nations have the opportunity to become one again, building a shared sense of collective identity will be the primary task of a unified administration. As the experiences of other countries show, navigating a political transition involves both dealing with the past and building a vision for the future that provides a sense of national solidarity and hope; the church has a key role to play in facilitating reconciliation and long-term peace.

For all the optimistic discourse—both in the Korean church and more widely—about the benefits of restoring the (ostensibly singular) ethnic Korean nation to its rightful condition, a newly unified Korea will continue to be defined by the legacy of conflict for decades after achieving this milestone. As the experiences of a great many postconflict societies worldwide tell us, the process of recovery from a past marred by colonialism, war, division, authoritarianism, and human rights abuse is both complex and slow. All of these afflictions have been experienced on both sides of the inter-Korean divide, before and since the peninsula was divided in two. While South Korea has made great strides in overcoming its difficult history, the North is routinely vilified by the international community as a pariah for failing to democratize, liberalize, disarm, and give its people the freedom they are owed. As if the ideological and developmental differences between the two Koreas were not enough, a consequence of the divide that is perhaps most often overlooked stems from the reality of the two Koreas having remaining divided for so long under two vastly different systems. Little to no opportunity for social exchange for over six decades has meant a hybridization in the collective identity of the two Koreas that is greater than that experienced by any previously divided nation. A core task of building a postconflict Korea will thus be fostering a united identity that ensures a shared sense of belonging, security, and trust among the new nation for the long term.

The discourse on unification in South Korea has long drawn on historically grounded, ethnocultural conceptions of nationhood to justify the need to restore the peninsula to its so-called natural state. However, plans for why and how unification should be carried out have evolved in recent years. In particular, the emphasis on ethnic oneness as the core motivation for pursuing unity has given way to promoting the economic potential of a unified Korea in a bid to “sell” such a policy to an increasingly noncommittal South Korean public. When presented to the international community, unification is touted as the ideal solution to both the suffering of the North Korean people and the security problem posed by North Korean nuclear weapons development. Yet, within such discourse, little attention is given to the social consequences of national integration in relation to identity. The question this article thus seeks to address is: How can two distinctly different societies overcome decades of separation and identity hybridization in a way that will enable a unified perspective on who they are, their place in the world, and their future within it? To address this question I use lessons from the field of transitional justice to argue that, in order to facilitate social healing and the construction of a coherent, stable sense of nationhood among citizens, a balance will need to be struck between the adoption of mechanisms and conceptual approaches that help the national community address the past and look to the future under a shared set of values and national aspirations. I also consider how the mission of the Korean church may need to revise its approach to the unification question in a way that incorporates thinking about the practical mechanisms and social values that can facilitate peace and reconciliation in postdivision Korea.

Identity matters

Social identity theory is an area of research in social psychology that has been adopted by scholars of politics and international relations to help explain phenomena related to the construction and expression of identity in terms of states, nations, and the various communities within them. This theory holds that the in-group out-group distinction is an integral part of the human condition, and that individuals pursue their inclusion in a group in order to enhance their self-esteem, identity, and sense of security.[1] This line of thinking sees national identity as a “product of political processes,” which gives its members a sense of community.[2] Identities are not fixed “personalities” that appear completely formed; rather, they are better thought of as a narrative to which individual members of a collective can subscribe to differing degrees, and which political elites can invoke to achieve political goals. A national biographical narrative tells individuals constituting the nation three important things: (1) who they are now, in the present, and the structure of their characteristics as a collective; (2) what their past (the national, common past) consists of; and (3) where they are heading, that is, how they should act.[3]

Moreover, narratives of nations are not static, nor are they a record of everything that ever happened.[4] Rather, a narrative highlights those aspects of the past that matter. Similarly, imagining the future is “tied to who we are and who we want to be.” [5] The past and future aspects of a national narrative are very important in the Korean context, since these are the two sites where unification as a concept exists, while the present is divided. First, the inevitable characterization of unification arises from the past of the two Koreas as one ethnocultural unit, destined to return to their “natural” state. Second, in its future aspect, unification is seen as a condition where the two Koreas finally throw off the legacy of international meddling in their affairs and reach their full potential, doing so together. However, the current view of North Korea in the South Korean national narrative is not so clear-cut.

Identity in the inter-Korean division

The way South Koreans identify with North Korea varies not only from person to person (with studies showing significant differences between older and younger generations) but also within the overall national collective. This variation permeates the South’s institutions, including the church. While in some contexts the people of North Korea are regarded with nostalgic affection, in others they are considered as the enemy. The psychological separation from North Korea has long been reinforced in the South by the legitimizing efforts of successive South Korean governments.[6] The “omnipresent but very particular vision of unification” has been described as “one that largely ignores the reality of existing antagonistic identity practices,” which has led to a fundamental tension in South Korean national identity.[7] While progressives in the South have argued that the only way to achieve unification in the postdemocratization era is to revitalize a popular ethnonationalism, their efforts have failed to attract enough support to overcome the political, social, and military obstacles to national unity. In contrast, despite the separate state-formation on both sides, with both North and South having mobilized popular identification with the modern constructs of the two Korean states, the sense of one-nation-ness among all Koreans has never withered away. The South Korean national psyche thus includes two competing means of identification with North Korea: “shared ethnic identity,” with its corollary norm of unification in the form of “one nation, one state,” and the mutual, hostile mirroring of the other as ‘treacherous enemy.’”[8]

In addition to this dual positioning of North Korea, another component has arisen in the South Korean identity narrative in regard to North Korea, namely, that of hierarchical, moral superiority. While South Korea basks in the approval of the international community as an advanced liberal democracy with all the trappings that such a status entails, the North’s position as a belligerent troublemaker, an abuser of human rights, and a place where malnutrition and poverty are widespread makes it easy for the South to see itself as the superior partner in the unification project. The danger with this narrative, however, is a tendency to frame unification as ideally occurring via the total absorption of the North into the South. For example, unification policy discourse often presents the people of the North as a valuable source of manpower on which to build a unified economic powerhouse. However, this approach pays little heed to North Korean agency and identity as a distinct community, let alone their needs in terms of recovery from decades of oppression. North Korean defectors in South Korea have experienced this hierarchical disparity firsthand, reporting discrimination in many aspects of life in the South, resulting in a sense that their place there is merely that of second-class citizens.[9] The South Korean church has been found to be complicit in perpetuating this hierarchy by virtue of seeking to “share the Gospel from a position of cultural and economic power,” rather than from that of vulnerability and humility.[10] Such social stratification, however, is not an effective model through which to pursue inter-Korean unification.

Previous contributors to this journal have described the contested position of the South Korean church in relation to unification issues, noting, albeit in different terminology, the identity issues described above. Joon-Sik Park has described how national unification has long been part of the mission of the Korean church.[11] However, the strong anti-Communist position found in the conservative church majority, focused on personal transformation and salvation, has come into conflict with the missio Dei position taken by more liberal churches in relation to North Korea. The result is that conservative churches, many of which were founded by those who fled North Korea during the division (1948) and the Korean War period (1950–53), have been prevented from “engaging reunification issues from a Biblically informed perspective of reconciliation, and from moving beyond their evangelistic interest and humanitarian concern toward undertaking peacemaking initiatives.”[12] However, as will be shown in the final section of this article, the church holds significant potential to overcome such identity constraints, to help rewrite the narrative toward North Korea from a new perspective, and to engage with practical mechanisms that facilitate long-term reconciliation.

Overcoming the divide: Nation-building and social reconciliation

To set the scene for what a unification process that incorporates an identity perspective would look like, it is helpful to take note of the precedent set by other countries that have traversed the process of recovery from past conflict, as discussed in the field of research on “transitional justice.”[13] The primary omission in the approach to unification to date has been a failure to acknowledge the unique features of the North Korean people as a distinct identity collective, namely, one that has lived under a succession of deified rulers who have oppressed and abused them for over half a century. The culture shock that would be faced by a North Korean population emerging into the new dawn of a democratic regime change would be deeply destabilizing for them psychologically and emotionally. It will thus be essential to create a space to process and reframe the lives they have known under the regime and to facilitate recovery from the oppression they have experienced. As momentous as it sounds, the task is not impossible, and as scholars in the field of transitional justice have found, the church has much to contribute to the process, under the right conditions.

Addressing the past demands construction of an accurate version of history and ensuring that, as far as is deemed necessary, former suffering is recognized and appropriately dealt with, whether by judicial methods or otherwise. The United Nations’ current agenda on North Korean human rights is very much in step with a liberal human rights paradigm, which pushes for criminal accountability for the North Korean regime as a key means of achieving closure for those who have experienced abuses. However, this positioning of the North Korean people as victims of the regime’s policies is a novel idea in unification discourse; it should not be taken lightly. A “victimhood identity” confers upon individuals and communities a range of expectations and needs that can be understood only through sustained engagement with the community aimed at finding out what their experiences have done to them and what they need in order to feel these needs have been adequately addressed. The danger in any political transition is that elite preoccupation with neoliberal institution-building might dominate the agenda, resulting in unsatisfactory resolution for victims of past abuse.[14] In a unifying Korea, the North Koreans themselves would need to be adequately empowered to handle their own interests in the process, while being made aware of the many institutional mechanisms that exist to facilitate social healing. However, researchers who have studied postconflict settings such as Northern Ireland do express caution concerning the handling of victimhood. While the ascription of a victimhood identity to an injured population can have value in humanizing them to the rest of society and build empathy, victim identities can become entrenched across generations and prevent the acceptance of satisfactory resolution of grievance.[15]

The liberal human rights paradigm, with its focus on the punishment of perpetrators and the vindication of victims, is the driving influence behind much of the activism that opposes the North Korean regime today. This paradigm has guided recovery in transitional justice processes in countries from Africa to Latin America; it is rarely effective, however, as a stand-alone approach. A concurrent paradigm—the reconciliation paradigm—ideally runs alongside the liberal human rights paradigm in postconflict settings; it is heavily influenced by the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This approach means the restoration of right relationships, in a fuller sense than that offered by the liberal human rights paradigm, involving “apology, forgiveness, empathetic acknowledgement of suffering and the transformation of enmity between both groups and individuals.” Reconciliation has most often been linked with the provision of amnesties or reductions in punishment, as in post-Apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. However, some see reconciliation as having a vital role in fortifying “hard” justice measures also, as in the recent conceptualization of so-called restorative justice. In working to rebuild a society previously harmed or divided, restorative justice, much like religious reconciliation, can encompass punishment, reparations, the restoration of human rights and citizenship, as well as healing practices such as apology, repentance, acknowledgment, and forgiveness.[16]

While the two paradigms applied to transitioning societies are not entirely distinct, and do in fact draw on ideas from one another, each social context demands an appropriate balance of the two to suit the religious, cultural, and political nuances of the society in question. It is therefore important that research begin now, including with the North Korean defector community in South Korea (around 30,000 at present),[17] to determine what the needs and interests of the North Korean people are likely to be regarding questions of finding and recording the truth about the past, pursuing justice, and how to best ensure the recovery of those traumatized by their experiences. Equally, it demands a broadening of the Korean church’s view to consider the available paradigms and their associated institutional mechanisms, and how the church might contribute to the design and establishment of an effective transition process.

Daniel Philpott’s detailed study of the role of religion in transitional justice settings worldwide has found two key determinants that shape the influence and success of the Christian church in such efforts. The first is the maintenance of a political theology of reconciliation; the second is a position of institutional autonomy from the state. A political theology of reconciliation, while mirroring the paradigm described above, does not necessarily preclude church leaders from also calling for accountability for regime leaders and perpetrators of human rights abuses, as was the experience of Timor-Leste (i.e., East Timor) and Germany. In Brazil and Chile, churches conducted investigations of past human rights abuses on a large scale, while the Catholic Church of Guatemala initiated, organized, and carried out the country’s own national truth commission. These efforts were successful, not just in their design, but also for their institutional autonomy, which involved “fending off predatory states” in favor of maintaining “moral extraterritoriality.” This autonomy was found to be instrumental in empowering the church to shape the state’s approach to overcoming the past and moving forward. By contrast, in other states such as Rwanda, Argentina, and the Czech Republic, close integration between church and state, as well as at times a dominant political theology of individual salvation at the expense of social change, human rights, and social reconciliation, resulted in relative impotence in the aftermath of tyranny, civil war, and genocide.[18]

Another area of precedent set by the experiences of other settings relates to nation-building and looking to the future. As the theory on national identity tells us, having a vision of a stable, peaceful future has essential cognitive significance for all nations, but none more than those who are emerging from division, war, or authoritarianism. Visions of the future are a key policy practice of leaders, and those tasked with administering inter-Korean unification will need to construct a narrative that provides a sense of both hope and security for a united people. A central task for Korea’s political leaders will be to define the new nation in the terms of parameters that prioritize peace and positive values. The experience of South Africa in working to overcome its black/white racial divide, while by no means complete, is an important example of the potential of crosscutting identities to serve as a bridge across divided communities. As other authors in this issue described, by recognizing and sidelining the constructs used to divide the nation, the possibility of unity in new political and moral commitments can be a means to move toward a postdivision future.[19]

Finally, it is important that both the leaders and the peoples of a united Korea exercise patience in the process of facilitating social reconciliation. As the experience of postunification Germany demonstrates, residual identification with former home-states can linger for generations, and social problems stemming from the East-West German psychological division persist to this day.[20] While the picture I have drawn here highlights a range of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to be overcome before unity and peace can be achieved on the peninsula, I wish to conclude by arguing that the preparatory work to deal with the identity divide can and should begin now, and that the church has an important place in facilitating this effort.

What role for the Korean church?

Park’s analysis of Korean Protestant Christianity describes how early receptivity to Christianity in Korea distracted Korean churches from the need to continue working for the conversion of Korean culture.[21] This fact provides some degree of explanation for why unification discourse within the South Korean church tends to place an overwhelming focus on the errors of the North and the need for its redemption, rather than taking a more introspective approach to South Korean society’s own readiness for a unification process, as well as giving due consideration to what a political theology of reconciliation might bring to the table. Furthermore, the aforementioned divide between prioritizing social action (liberal churches) or personal salvation (conservative churches) as the missional goal of work focused on North Korea has not allowed for a coherent approach by the church to the unification question.[22] A final factor missing from the approach of the Korean church has been an ability to avoid looking at the inter-Korean conflict as an isolated phenomenon unique to the Korean Peninsula. This missing element has precluded thinking about how lessons might be learned from other countries where churches have had a decisive role in bringing about peace and reconciliation.

Yet, despite the criticisms of, and limitations to, the church’s effectiveness to date, South Korean faith-based organizations have demonstrated an admirable willingness to work within the North Korean context. They have met the many challenges presented in the field by developing creative approaches to North Koreans and their institutions.[23] Moreover, although South Korean “Christian nationalism” has tended to carry a political agenda and an anti–North Korea overtone, it has nevertheless laid some important groundwork in how to approach North Korean society if and when the wall comes down. Until that happens, however, much greater emphasis needs to be given to the transformation of South Korean society to help it reach a state where it has the resilience to withstand the necessary destabilization a unification process would bring.

Park has argued that it is imperative for the Korean church to embody the biblical values of hospitality, forgiveness, and humility in order to avoid violating the identity and integrity of the other, and to foster mutual respect between peoples coming from different backgrounds.[24] Verdier’s study on the evangelical approach to North Korea does present evidence of a departure from traditional antagonism and moral superiority in regard to North Korea, toward a position of greater humility, recognition of the importance of understanding the worldview of North Koreans, and of relational restoration, or shalom.[25] A focus on reconciliation first actually provides a more powerful framework through which to achieve national restoration, given the contribution of reconciliation to “increasing human flourishing . . . [and] leavening, diluting and sometimes transforming the emotions of hatred, resentment and revenge that frustrate stable and just political orders, sometimes for generations.”[26] Building a united Korean identity thus demands striking a careful balance between looking to the past, facilitating healing. and seeking justice for wrongs, as well as looking forward to a stable, peaceful future together. It is important that the church engages with a unification process in an independent manner, united in its aims, while cultivating a robust and fruitful dialogue with the secular agenda. In this way, it might better achieve the legitimacy and moral authority it needs to serve as a positive force in shaping mechanisms that help overcome the identity divide, build trust, and support an enduring peace.


  1. William Bloom, Personal Identity, National Identity, and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).
  2. Felix Berenskoetter, “Parameters of a National Biography,” European Journal of International Relations, October 16, 2012, 2, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066112445290.
  3. E. Ringmar, “On the Ontological Status of the State,” European Journal of International Relations 2, no. 4 (1996): 439–66; Jutta Weldes et al., “Introduction: Constructing Insecurity,” in Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities, and the Construction of Danger, ed. Jutta Weldes et al. (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1999); David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1998); Alexander Wendt, “The State as a Person in International Theory,” Review of International Studies 30, no. 2 (2004): 289–316.
  4. Ringmar, “On the Ontological Status of the State,” 451.
  5. Felix Berenskoetter, “Reclaiming the Vision Thing: Constructivists as Students of the Future,” International Studies Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2011): 654, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2478.2011.00669.x.
  6. Yong Shik Choo, “Rethinking Ethnic Homogeneity: A Dilemma of Reconciliation and Unification in Korea” (PhD diss., John Hopkins Univ., 2003); Gi-Wook Shin, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2006).
  7. Roland Bleiker, “Identity and Security in Korea,” Pacific Review 14, no. 1 (2001): 128.
  8. Ibid., 41-43.
  9. Sarah A. Son, “Identity, Security, and the Nation: Understanding the South Korean Response to North Korean Defectors,” Asian Ethnicity 17, no. 2 (February 24, 2016): 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/14631369.2016.1151236.
  10. Joon-Sik Park, “Korean Protestant Christianity: A Missiological Reflection,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 36, no. 2 (April 2012): 62.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Transitional justice is defined by the United Nations as “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation” (Guidance Note of the Secretary-General: United Nations Approach to Transitional Justice, www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/TJ_Guidance_Note_March_2010FINAL.pdf).
  14. Simon Robins and Erik Wilson, “Participatory Methodologies with Victims: An Emancipatory Approach to Transitional Justice Research,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 30, no. 2 (2015): 219–36.
  15. Paige Arthur, ed., Identities in Transition: Challenges for Transitional Justice in Divided Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011), 8.
  16. Daniel Philpott, “What Religion Brings to the Politics of Transitional Justice,” Journal of International Affairs 61, no. 1 (2007): 95. 97, 98.
  17. Ministry of Unification, “Policy on North Korean Defectors,” www.unikorea.go.kr/eng_unikorea/relations/statistics/defectors.
  18. Philpott, “What Religion Brings to the Politics of Transitional Justice,” 102, 103.
  19. Arthur, Identities in Transition, 8.
  20. Roland Bleiker, “Identity, Difference, and the Dilemmas of Inter-Korean Relations: Insights from Northern Defectors and the German Precedent,” Asian Perspective 28, no. 2 (2004): 35–63.
  21. Park, “Korean Protestant Christianity,” 60.
  22. Marie-Laure Verdier-Shin, “Contextualised Mission: The South Korean Evangelical Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in North Korea (1995–2012)” (PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, 2014), 14, http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/18435/1/Verdier-Shin_3603.pdf.
  23. Ibid., 273.
  24. Park, “Korean Protestant Christianity,” 62.
  25. Verdier-Shin, “Contextualised Mission,” 275.
  26. Philpott, “What Religion Brings to the Politics of Transitional Justice,” 97.

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

Sarah A. Son, Identity and Social Reconciliation in a Postconflict Korea: What Role for the Church? International Bulletin of Mission Research,  42 (2), pp. 143-151. Copyright © 2018 by the Author(s). Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Sarah A. Son, a British-Australian academic and researcher, has served in missional church plants in Japan, the UK, and South Korea. She is currently a research professor at Korea University’s Human Rights Center and research director of a Seoul-based NGO called the Transitional Justice Working Group, which focuses on North Korean human rights issues.