By the time Venerable Pomnyun Sunim was born in 1953, eight years had passed since Korea was partitioned at the end of World War II and less than a month 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. Pomnyun concluded it need not be so. As a Buddhist monk and leader of South Korea's Jung To (or Blessed Land) Society, he has advanced the cause of reconciliation.
Pomnyun 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, Pomnyun turned from political issues to social ones. He formed the Jung To Society to apply Buddhist teachings to the full range of modern ills, from greed and poverty to environmental degradation. Rejoining the monkhood, he was ordained in 1991.
During the next several years, Pomnyun 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 Pomnyun 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. Pomnyun visited these "food refugees" repeatedly and surveyed almost two thousand 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, Pomnyun 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, Pomnyun 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 the United States and Korea, his 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.
Pomnyun'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 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Korea.
All of this is part of Pomnyun's larger vision for "a new humane society" that also reconciles people with nature. Like the good teacher he is, the ever-smiling Venerable Pomnyun Snim can convey his complex vision simply. What the world really needs, he says, is "Open Minds, Good Friends, and a Clean Earth."
In electing Venerable Pomnyun Sunim 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.