Men in the Middle

Inspired by his seminary educated grandfather, Tony Namkung works for peace on the Korean peninsula and yearns for a more authentic church

by Eva Stimson (M.A.C.E.'77) former editor of Presbyterians Today, now a freelance writer and editor.


Kun A. “Tony” Namkung was barely three years old when he had his first and only encounter with his grandfather, Namkung Hyuk, a larger-than-life figure in the Korean peninsula’s fledgling Presbyterian church. More than six decades later, he has “no recollection” of that meeting. Yet the life of this Korean-American history scholar has been profoundly influenced by a grandfather he cannot recall.

In 1929, Hyuk became the first Korean to earn a doctorate degree from what was then Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. He went on to become the first Korean faculty member at missionary-founded Pyongyang Presbyterian Theological Seminary in what is now North Korea. His influence extended beyond the church, as he played a leading role in early-20th-century movements advocating the modernization of Korean society and resistance to colonial rule.
Hyuk was known for seeking peace among factions within the Korean church. Today, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Tony Namkung works behind the scenes to help defuse tensions between North and South Korea and between North Korea and the United States. His under-the-radar diplomacy has taken him on more than 50 trips to North Korea, including visits earlier this year traveling with Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico; and John Daniszewski, vice president of the Associated Press.

When he is not on the road, Tony makes his home in New Jersey. He adheres to the faith of his grandfather, but prefers to stay on the fringes of the institutional church.

Tony wants to reclaim the reputation of his grandfather, a man he says “has largely disappeared from history.” In the meantime, he continues Hyuk’s legacy by quietly working for peace. He helped bring North Korea to the negotiating table amid a major confrontation over nuclear arms during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s. He also helped facilitate the release of two American journalists captured by North Korea in 2009. A Feb. 4 article in the Christian Science Monitor highlights these and other diplomatic endeavors.

Yet, despite his achievements, Tony, like his grandfather, is not widely known in the United States.
 

Where Christians need to be
Tony Namkung was born in 1945 in Shanghai, where his parents, grandparents, and extended family had fled six years earlier to escape the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea. Hyuk, the family patriarch, had already returned to Korea by 1945, but he met his young grandson when he came back to Shanghai for a visit—the visit Tony was too young to remember.

Tony is a middle child, with four older siblings and two younger ones. “I’ve always regarded myself as being a person in the middle,” he said in an interview earlier this year. A former university professor, he has spent his professional career trying to bridge the gap between the academic and public-policy arenas.

“Early on, I took an interest in track 2 diplomacy, an unofficial track that involves academics and other private citizens talking to their counterparts in other nations,” he says. From 1977 to 1984, Tony Namkung served as deputy director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, helping organize annual meetings that brought together academics and government officials from Russia and China.

He has been the go-to advisor for numerous delegations to North Korea, driven by a commitment to foster peace and understanding among nations, particularly North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. “I’ve acted as a back channel of communications between governments,” he explains. “I do this not to advance some political ideology or agenda, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

It’s a conviction he attributes to the influence of his grandfather, who refused to take sides in disputes between liberal and conservative factions in the Korean church. And, though Tony doesn’t quote biblical proof texts to justify his work, his commitments echo Paul’s charge to Christians in 2 Corinthians 5 to engage in the ministry of reconciliation.

“That middle position is exactly where Christians need to be,” he says. “If we’re to have any kind of impact, to make the world a more peaceful place, we need to understand both sides.”
 

Becoming more Korean
It wasn’t until he was an adult, living in the United States, that Tony Namkung became interested in his Korean heritage. His father had grown up living on a mission compound in Korea, surrounded by English-speaking missionaries. Once the family left Korea, Tony’s father pushed him and his siblings “to forget about Korea and become American,” Tony says. In terms of Korean culture, “we grew up knowing nothing.”

After attending high school in Japan, Tony was offered a basketball scholarship by a college in upstate New York. After a year there, he transferred to Calvin College in Michigan, where he was the only Asian on a campus full of students from the Dutch Christian Reformed tradition. He graduated from Calvin in 1967, and then earned a doctorate in history from the University of California at Berkeley.

Tony soon found himself wanting to know more about the history of the Korean peninsula. “I became more Korean as I grew older,” he says. “As we grow older, we become more interested in where we came from. I had suppressed a lot of Korean-ness in my early years, and it was coming back to the surface.”
He also became curious about his grandparents, but finding information about them was “like pulling teeth,” he says. He began by talking with his uncles who had emigrated to the United States. He also scoured libraries in South Korea, where he found some information about his grandfather in academic theses and dissertations.

Hyuk left no published books, Tony says, but many of his sermons are preserved at the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary in Seoul. This is the theological school of the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK), a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and member of the World Council of Churches. Both the PCK and a more conservative denomination, the General Assembly Presbyterian Church of Korea, claim to carry on the heritage of Pyongyang Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where Hyuk was a student and faculty member.
 

A compelling story
In a May 2012 lecture at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Tony Namkung recounted some of the details he uncovered about his grandfather’s life. Here are highlights:
• He was an early convert in a nation that still regarded Christianity as a foreign religion. Hyuk was born in Seoul into a family of Confucian aristocrats in the late 19th century. It was a time when China, Russia, and Japan were competing for control of the Korean peninsula. Aware of China’s waning influence over Korean culture, Hyuk enrolled in a Christian mission high school, where he mastered English in four years. Convinced that Western capitalism was the key to a prosperous and stable future for his nation, Hyuk found a job in the customs service.

“In his mid-20s, Hyuk discovered a force more powerful than language and foreign trade: God,” Tony says. Presbyterian missionaries, who recognized in the young man leadership qualities that could help them in establishing a strong Christian church in Korea, took Hyuk under their wing, helped him find a wife, and welcomed the couple into the mission compound to raise their family.

Hyuk’s conversion to Christianity took place gradually. Like many others of his generation, he was drawn to the church’s “spiritual strength”—something missing in capitalism alone, Tony says. “The missionaries appeared utterly selfless, focusing their efforts on the poor, the dispossessed, and even those officially outcast from society.”

• His faith motivated him to resist the Japanese occupation. Hyuk began teaching in Christian mission schools and at age 35 enrolled in the seminary at Pyongyang. Meanwhile, the Japanese had taken control of the Korean peninsula and were asserting control over more and more of Korean society. Hyuk joined organizers of a resistance movement that culminated in a revolt on March 1, 1919. The Japanese quickly suppressed the resistance, killing, torturing, and imprisoning thousands of Koreans. Hyuk’s involvement cost him a year in jail.

“The March 1 uprising, strongly Christian influenced, was the high point of Protestantism in Korea,” Tony says. The church fragmented over the next few decades, as some Christians chose to collaborate with the colonial rulers or withdrew from involvement in politics. But Hyuk stood firm in his belief that the Bible, as interpreted by Reformed theology, calls Christians to work in the world on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

“For Hyuk, Calvinism was not just a matter of individual salvation but one of engagement with the world in all spheres, including the political,” Tony Namkung says.

• He was a fast learner and open-minded teacher. After his imprisonment, Hyuk finished his studies at the Pyongyang seminary. He was offered a teaching position at the seminary on the condition that he pursue additional theological training in the United States. Reluctantly he agreed to go, leaving his wife and children behind in Korea. He then raced through a bachelor’s and master’s program at Princeton and a doctorial program at Union Theological Seminary, finishing coursework that normally takes at least five years to complete in just three years.

Back in Pyongyang, Hyuk worked for 15 productive years, training students for the ministry, editing a theological journal, writing biblical commentaries, preaching, and helping translate parts of the New Testament. His theology was solidly Calvinist and he held a high view of the authority of Scripture. Yet he allowed more liberal theologians to express their views in the theological journal he edited, and he taught students steeped in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy that there were other ways of interpreting the Bible.

• His destiny was shaped by the intractable conflicts within his church and nation. In 1932, Hyuk was elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Korea. But later in that decade, the Japanese cracked down on the church, forcing Christians to bow to the Japanese emperor and to worship at Shinto shrines. They shut down the Presbyterian seminary. In 1940, Hyuk and his extended family left Korea and resettled in Shanghai.

After World War II, Hyuk returned to Korea. The war had exacerbated the tensions between the country’s liberal and conservative Presbyterians, and both sides tried unsuccessfully to persuade Hyuk to join their cause. Instead, seeking to unify the church, he dedicated himself to ecumenism and became executive secretary of the Korean Council of Churches.

When war broke out in Korea between the Chinese-backed north and U.S.-backed south, the 68-year-old Hyuk was arrested by North Korean soldiers and taken north. Tony believes the North Koreans may have wanted to use his grandfather for propaganda purposes. At any rate, says Tony, “he was never heard from again.”
 

A vision for the church
Today, Tony Namkung is about the same age his grandfather was when he disappeared. Whenever he finds himself in Seoul on a Sunday morning, he makes a point of worshiping with a tiny congregation that rents the fourth floor of a drab office building in the heart of the city. The pastor is a friend he met in Berkeley, who entered the ministry as a second career.

Tony joins the congregation’s 30 or so members in a brief worship service. They eat together, and then they sit around in a circle for three or four hours, talking about what is going on in their lives and praying for each other.

Tony says he is drawn to this congregation because it is like the church of the New Testament—and not like the megachurches so prevalent in Korea today. South Korea is home to some of the largest churches in the world, some claiming as many as a million members. Churches with that many members have to be run like businesses, and often the focus is on the pastor, Tony says. “You can’t really preach the gospel of love to a million people.”

Although Tony is not a regular churchgoer when he is home in the United States, the church figures prominently in one of his most vivid childhood memories. His family moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong when he was four years old, and then to Tokyo a year later. Tony remembers worshiping regularly with a Korean Presbyterian congregation in Tokyo—one of only a few Korean churches in Japan at the time.

“As we were filing out of worship,” he recalls, “the pastor of the church would pat me on the head and say, ‘You’re just like your grandfather. Someday you’re going to be working on behalf of the reunification of Korea.”

The pastor’s words proved prophetic. Although Tony now believes that reunification of North and South Korea is “an elusive goal, one that we’re not going to see in our lifetime,” he still holds out hope that peaceful coexistence can be achieved—perhaps with a peace treaty in which the two Koreas recognize each other’s legitimacy and agree to a smaller military presence along the demilitarized zone that separates them.

Recent events underscore the urgency of ending the standoff between the two nations, he says. “There are almost 2 million people facing each other across this no-man’s-land, now with the prospect of nuclear weapons.”

While he appreciates statements made by PC(USA) General Assemblies and ecumenical bodies in support of reunification, Tony would prefer to see more individual Christians who are in positions of influence—in government or diplomacy, for example—actively working to avert violence. “I see a real need for individuals to play more of a role,” he says, “to be more involved on behalf of the call for peace.”

It’s a vision his grandfather would heartily endorse, Tony believes.