Insik Kim’s formative years were shaped by a Cold War that suddenly turned hot.
When Chinese troops marched into his North Korean town in 1951, 12-year-old Kim fled to the South amid the chaos, not knowing the whereabouts of his family.
“It was a harsh kind of existence for a few months,” he said. “I experienced what it means to be hungry.”
After six months of living on his own as a refugee, he was reunited with his father. They were told repeatedly that the rest of the family — Kim’s mother and a brother and sister — had been killed.
As a youngster in South Korea, he worked in grueling jobs at a rock quarry and a laundry. He did well in school and received an opportunity to study in the United States, where he was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1969. Like most of his contemporaries, he saw the world through the communist versus free world lens.
Yet one day, Kim started seeing the world in a new way. While a young minister, he was deeply moved as he contemplated the message of 2 Corinthians 5:17–20. It’s a passage that describes Christians as new creations who have been given a ministry of reconciliation.
“We are peacemakers, ambassadors of Christ,” he said. “That passage spoke to me very strongly.”
In his role with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as area coordinator for Asia and the Pacific, Kim spent much of his ministry seeking to transcend the Cold War divides.
Kim’s ministry of reconciliation meant helping the PC(USA) and its partner churches draw people to closer relationship with each other and God. It’s a legacy he built from the time he began working for the church in 1973 until his retirement last October. It’s a vocation that points to his calling as a peacemaker and an evangelist.
As a teenager, he preached on the streets and passed out gospel tracts to all who would take them.
“An elder said to my father, ‘Your son has become a fanatic. You should discipline him,’” Kim said. “My father said to him, ‘A lot of kids are doing bad things, but at least my son is trying to share some good news on the streets.’”
Kim’s ministry as area coordinator was marked by a holistic view of the gospel, said Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission.
“Insik insisted on balancing social justice and evangelism when others were urging him to lean one way or the other,” Farrell said.
One of Kim’s passions has been the reunification of North and South Korea. It’s a cause that will continue to claim his attention in retirement. He will spend time in Korea working with acquaintances across the peninsula on reunification.
“Koreans, whether they live in the North or South, have shared the same history, culture and language for 5,000 years and for 1,300 years (until the end of World War II) they lived in a unified country.” Kim said. “But now almost 10 million people are separated from their loved ones.”
Kim, who lived much of his life thinking his mother and siblings had died during the Korean War, found out otherwise in 1986 when he was able to gain entrance to North Korea with an ecumenical delegation. He visited with his family, delivered the news that his father had died a few years earlier and gave thanks for an opportunity he thought would never come.
“That was absolutely a miracle,” he said. “I believe it is God who gives and takes away life. It became so real to me.”
“My mother told me, ‘I am so glad that you came and that you are alive. I can now die in peace,’” Kim said.
Across Asia and the Pacific, Kim’s bright smile and affirming personality are well known among church leaders and PC(USA) mission workers. His many contributions include helping re-establish mission relationships in China, aiding the witness for human rights in the Philippines, encouraging the small but faithful Christian community in Japan and supporting the growing Presbyterian movement in Korea.
Kim says he leaves with gratitude for the opportunity for such a wide-ranging ministry. “The PC(USA) has been good to me,” Kim said. “It has helped me minister and grow.”
This story first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of World Mission Highlights, a twice-yearly magazine published by Presbyterian World Mission. For a free subscription, visit the Highlights Web page.
Editor’s note: Shortly before his retirement last fall, the Rev. Insik Kim wrote the following reflection on his prayer that the Korean peninsula be reunited. — Jerry L. Van Marter
Yearning for Reunification
by Insik Kim
Korea is a nation with a long history and a rich cultural heritage. It is a beautiful country with many mountain ranges, rivers and rice fields. Seventy million people claim this peninsula as their home. Koreans are a homogenous people with one language and tradition — a unified country for 1,300 years, until the end of World War II when the United States and Russia separated North and South Korea along the 38th parallel.
This division, which was never meant to be permanent, brought tragedies far beyond those which occurred during war it was meant to end. There was a great loss of life and much destruction during the war — 4 million human casualties, including 36,000 U.S. soldiers killed and more than 100,000 wounded.
Yet after the war, there were 10 million Koreans who were separated from their families by the division, and I am one of them.
When the war broke out in 1950, I was 12 years old, a 7th grade junior high student. On the eve of the United Nation Forces’ evacuation in 1951, my father and I headed south, forcing us to leave behind my mother, sister and brother. When we left home, we did so thinking that we would be able to return home fairly soon, since the war would end in a few weeks. However, a truce was not declared until 1953, and the country remained divided.
In the following years and decades, the only information that separated families could obtain were rumors and propaganda. Children, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters — there was no way for any of them to find one another or even to know if whether they had survived the last part of the war.
The people of Korea — young and old — have been yearning for the reunification of their country. Christians in both North and South Korea have been praying for this unity for more than 50 years. God has been faithful through that time, and one of the first rays of hope came in the mid-1980s, when the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. became interested in the quest for peace and the reconciliation of the Korean people.
The Council decided to develop a policy direction in consultation with their counterpart in Korea, and I was part of the 10-member team appointed by the Council to participate in drafting a policy statement. One of our team’s tasks was a fact-finding trip to both North and South Korea. We made the journey in the spring of 1986.
For me, this trip also was personal — I would get to see my native homeland for the first time since leaving home in 1951. I had mixed feelings about the journey, for I did not know if any of my family members were still alive.
When we arrived at the Pyongyang International Airport, we were greeted by church leaders, government officials and children with bouquets. Our host informed the three team members who were native Koreans that arrangements had been made to locate our family members.
That first night, I was so excited at the thought of reuniting with my long-separated family that I could not sleep. The next day, we were anxious to hear good news, but there was no mention of our families. We spent the next two days in deep anxiety but also going about our work. Our disappointment began to turn into anger. Then, on the third morning (April 22), our host brought us good news: members of all three families had been located and would be coming to meet us!
We left to do our work with lighter hearts. That afternoon, we returned to our hotel. There, in the lobby, our family members were waiting for us. Memories of my mother were of her in her mid-30s. My sister had been 9 and my brother only 4 when we were separated.
Now, standing before me was my aged mother and adult siblings. It was an emotional moment. We embraced and wept. How thrilling it was to be in the presence of my mother and to be together as a family again!
During the course of the visit, I shared with my family about my wife, children and other family members back in the U.S. With heavy heart, I shared with my mother the passing of my father in 1977 in South Korea. After a moment of silence, my mother said with a smile, “I am glad you are here!” She asked whether my father had remained alone. “He remarried,” I replied. “Are there any children?” mother continued. “Yes,” I said. I felt pain deep in my heart.
Mother held my hands and said, “I am glad that there was someone who made a home for your dad. I am very grateful to her. Insik, she is your mother and a member of our very own family. My son, please take good care of her!” My mother was sincere, and I wept. The next day I was given an opportunity to visit my hometown where I was born and grew up and was reunited with my uncle, aunts and cousins. Although meeting them for the first time, I felt as if I had known them all of their lives.
When the 10-day visit came to an end, I bid farewell to my mother. She was speechless, but as she held my hands firmly was able to say, “Son, I now can go with my two eyes closed.”
I am a very fortunate person. There are 10 million separated people in Korea who do not know if their loved ones are still living or what kind of life they may have lived. We all long for spring to return again — the hope and realization of the reunification of Korea.