- Sukho Choi formed the Jung To (or Blessed Land) Society In 1991, was ordained a Buddhist monk and thus became the Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, the name he is known by today.
- Choi and his group established a free school and a medical center and village development program in Dongeshwari, a sixteen-village hamlet of untouchables in a destitute corner of India.
- He visited “food refugees” from North Korea in China and surveyed five hundred of them in 1997 and 1998; learned the desperate circumstances of their lives in China and the appalling dimensions of the famine in North Korea.
- Realizing that there are more people dying from famine and illness in North Korea than were killed in the Korean War, Pomnyun Sunim’s advocated and worked to help the North Korean people, believing this was the true path to reconciliation and reunification.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his compassionate attention to the human cost of Korea’s bitter division and his hopeful appeal for reconciliation.”
By the time Sukho Choi was born in 1955, ten years had passed since Korea was partitioned at the end of World War II and two had passed since the Korean War and its carnage had come to a halt-without reuniting the country. His was a rigid world of North and South. As he came of age, his own home of South Korea made a successful transition to democracy and rose to industrial prosperity; North Korea, meanwhile, descended deeply into isolation and poverty. The two societies lived worlds apart, their otherness reinforced by the Cold War and its stigmatizing propaganda. Choi concluded it need not be so. As a Buddhist monk and leader of South Korea’s Jung To Society, he has advanced the cause of reconciliation.
Sukho Choi entered the Buddhist monkhood as a youth but abandoned his robes to join South Korea’s democracy movement. On two occasions he was arrested and tortured. As the movement prevailed, Choi turned from political issues to social ones. He formed the Jung To (or Blessed Land) Society to apply Buddhist teachings to the full range of modern ills, from greed and poverty to environmental degradation. In 1991, he was ordained a Buddhist monk and thus became the Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, the name he is known by today.
During the next several years, Choi and his group established a free school and a medical center and village development program in Dongeshwari, a sixteen-village hamlet of untouchables in a destitute corner of India. But Choi was increasingly consumed by matters closer to home.
North Korea was long accustomed to dearth. But the 1990s brought floods and drought and by mid-decade people were starving. Tens of thousands of them fled across the border to China. Choi visited these “food refugees” repeatedly and surveyed five hundred of them in 1997 and 1998. From them he learned the desperate circumstances of their lives in China and the appalling dimensions of the famine in North Korea. He calculated some three million people had died.
As his organization assisted the refugees, Choi raised the alarm at home. “People are dying,” he told South Koreans. “More than were killed during the whole Korean War. It’s happening right now, right at this moment.” He urged them to put aside their fears and suspicions and to help the North Korean people. This, he said, was the true path to reconciliation and reunification. They responded by donating some two million dollars for food aid and thousands of articles of clothing for North Koreans. One million of them also petitioned the South Korean government to send massive quantities of food and medicine to the North. Meanwhile, Choi carried his message to relief organizations and governments abroad, beseeching them to increase their efforts in North Korea and to end Cold War embargoes. In New York, his local followers committed themselves to assist North Korean farmers with fertilizer, seeds, and tools and to build a factory there that now supplies essential nutrients for eleven thousand children.
Choi’s ongoing advocacy and relief efforts reflect his belief that Buddhists must engage the real world and act to relieve suffering. He does so in concert with other engaged Buddhists around the world and also with like-minded Buddhist and Christian NGOs in Korea.
All of this is part of Choi’s larger vision for “a new humane society” that also reconciles people with nature. Like the good teacher he is, Sukho Choi-the ever-smiling Venerable Pomnyun Sunim-can convey his complex vision simply. What the world really needs, he says, is “Pure Minds, Good Friends, and Clean Lands.”
In electing Sukho Choi to receive the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding, the board of trustees recognizes his compassionate attention to the human cost of Korea’s bitter division and his hopeful appeal for reconciliation.
Your Excellency Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, President of the Philippines, Trustees of the Foundation, Distinguished Guests, and Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is a great honour for me to have been selected as the recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding this year, but I only have done what I had to do as a monk and indeed I do feel that I am unworthy of the award. I have realized, however, that this award is not given only to myself, but to everyone who took part in the humanitarian assistance to North Korea and the process of reconciliation. I accept this award on behalf of everyone who has been involved in the due course and I would like to express my profound appreciation to the trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for giving me this award and to everyone who is here today. Also I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to all the other awardees tonight.
I hope this award will create more interest in achieving peace on the Korean peninsula in the international community and that together we can harbour peace and expand humanitarian assistance and protection of the North Korean refugees. It should be given to the North Koreans who are still going through very difficult times. Furthermore, there are conflicts and wars still going on even as I speak in some parts of the world. For the sake of everyone who is suffering from wars, disasters and ideological conflicts, I hope that they will be resolved soon. Peace Movement starts from understanding and recognising their differences and to be awakened to the fact that we are all connected as one. Hence, we all need to make a transition from relationships of competition and hostility to harmonious ones. Upon receiving this award, I shall put my best efforts forward to realize peace in Asia and the Korean peninsula.
In closing, let me express my sincere gratitude to the late President Magsaysay in whose memory these awards were established. I would also like to express my respect for the people of the Philippines, for having such an honourable award. I thank everyone who is gathered here today, and in the name of the Lord Buddha and the teachers of humanity, I pray that there will be peace, love and happiness among all living beings.
Thank you very much.
The young Buddhist monk from South Korea could not believe what his hosts in China were telling him: that North Korea was experiencing famine and that people there were dying of hunger.
If they had been talking about Africa, he said, he would have believed them. But North Korea? “No way,” he said, reasoning that at one time North Korea was better off than South Korea. No matter what problem that country was experiencing, he thought, it could not be that bad. It was 1995.
The following year, the monk returned to China and was again told about the famine in North Korea, this time by an acquaintance who was a Chinese official. This acquaintance said that, due to starvation, North Korean children were becoming stunted. The monk responded by showing his acquaintance pictures taken during a trip to India, where he had been helping to feed the starving children of dalits (outcastes or untouchables). India was where the need lay, the monk said.
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