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Tales of Two Koreas



TALES OF TWO KOREAS Training Young People for Unification

Father Ben Torrey is preparing young South Koreans to effectively reunify with North Korea. His mission, using prayer and labor, continues a more than 100-year connection between his American family and Korea.

Father Ben Torrey named himself Dae Young-bok after his father, Father Reuben Archer Torrey III, who called himself Dae Chon-dok. Father Torrey and his wife moved to Korea in 2005. Currently, he is focusing on cultivating “agents of reconciliation and unification” to work in North Korea, the essence of his “Fourth River” dream.

High in the Taebaek Mountains of Gangwon Province, Samsuryeong (literally, “Three Water Pass”) feeds tributaries sloping toward the east, west and south. At ground level, a far different tributary is being created for the remaining direction, north. It is the self-appointed “Fourth River” project of Father Ben Torrey, who envisions a stream flowing from the south to hydrate the reunification of the Korean peninsula.

Father Torrey is convinced that South Koreans in their 20s and 30s, or the millennial generation, will witness the unification of the two Koreas in their lifetime. He is also convinced that they are far from prepared. Thus, since 2010, he has operated “Fourth River” to equip this generation with skills and knowledge for the rebirth of a unified Korea.

The project is housed at the Samsuryeong Center in Taebaek, once a booming coal mining town, about 200 kilometers southeast of Seoul. The center includes the River of Life School, an alternative secondary education school, and the Three Seas Youth Center.

The school, which is administered by Father Torrey’s wife, Liz, focuses on cultivating “agents of reconciliation and unification.” Students are taught the importance of cooperation and helping others, a significant departure from the all-out competition in standard schools. The youth center is for middle-school to college-age students. It aims at cultivating their spirit and building up their physical fitness.

“It’s all the more important to train young people as future leaders that this country will need at a time when Korea is expected to emerge in the international community as a powerful unified country,” Father Torrey says.

“Of course, South Korea is full of bright young people. But unfortunately, they lack not only interest in, but understanding of, North Korean youths,” he goes on. “Even after the two Koreas are unified, there will be various problems in the process of integrating two different societies, or risks arising from the differences between their worldviews, values, culture, and use of language. We need to make thorough preparations from now on as we’ve learned lessons from the German unification and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We should carefully prepare for these problems now. Project Fourth River is just for such a mission.”

Father Torrey is the fourth generation of the Torrey family connected with Korea. Reverend Reuben Archer Torrey, Sr. (1856–1928), his great-grandfather, visited Korea while working as a missionary in China. His grandfather, Reverend Reuben Archer Torrey, Jr. (1887–1970), also a missionary in China, helped restore Korean churches after the Korean War. And his father, Father Reuben Archer Torrey III, rebuilt the Saint Michael’s Theological Seminary, the predecessor of Sungkonghoe University, in southwestern Seoul, and established the Jesus Abbey, six kilometers from Taebaek, to create an ascetic community.

Father Torrey speaks to a class in the chapel room at the Samsuryeong Center in Taebaek, formerly a booming coal mining town in Gangwon Province.

Father Torrey explains to students the meaning of the Samsuryeong (“Three Water Pass”) watershed, the source of streams flowing downward toward the east, west and south.

Family Legacy
Father Ben Torrey belongs to the Syro-Chaldean Church of North America but his father was a priest in the Anglican Church and his great-grandfather and grandfather were pastors of the Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church, respectively.

Born in the U.S. state of Massachusetts in 1950, Father Torrey grew up in Korea from age seven to 19. Together with 10 young Korean men, he lived in a large military tent for six months while they assisted his father until the first building of the Jesus Abbey was dedicated in 1965. His father had purchased the land outside of Taebaek on the advice of local Anglican Church parishioners.

Father Torrey went back to the United States in 1969 to attend college. Although he returned to Korea in 1978 and helped design and construct buildings in the Samsuryeong area for a year, he never intended to settle down in Korea. He had an IT career until he founded The King’s School, a missionary school, in Connecticut in 1994, and served concurrently as chairperson of the school foundation and dean of the school until 2004.

The Calling
The inspiration for Fourth River came in 2002, at the funeral of his father, who was better known by his Korean name, Dae Chon-dok. A longtime friend of the late Father Torrey III said the Garden of Eden had four rivers but Samsuryeong only had three.

Father Torrey immediately linked the remark to his father’s longtime dream of constructing a facility to train young people for the unification of the Korean peninsula. He recalls how the thought stuck with him after the funeral, and he felt a burning sense of mission to fulfill that dream. Determined to prepare for the opening of North Korea, he told the Jesus Abbey staff in 2003 that he would join the abbey community. The abbey immediately appointed him as director of the Three Seas Youth Center, and Father Torrey and his wife returned to Gangwon once again in 2005. Their two sons and one daughter live in the United States.

The River of Life School’s curriculum includes North Korean studies in addition to regular secondary school subjects. It teaches the differences in language, history and social systems between the two Koreas and its library shelves are stacked with books on North Korea.

Father Torrey says South Korea’s highly competitive education system is ill-suited for understanding and empathizing with conditions in North Korea. “In the future,” he says, “those who can understand and share the pain of others and who can communicate with those who fall behind will be able to become leaders. We teach how to cultivate cooperative spirit and how to cooperate rather than compete. The very basic element for Korean unification is cooperation.”

Father Torrey speaks to a class in the chapel room
at the Samsuryeong Center in Taebaek,
formerly a booming coal mining town in Gangwon Province.

Classes and Chores
Work is also a key curriculum component in accordance with the teachings of St. Benedict who stressed the need to “pray and work” (“ora et labora” in Latin).

Every Wednesday morning, a slew of tasks await at the Jesus Abbey, which serves both as Father Torrey’s residence and an interdenominational ascetic fellowship community, as well as at the school, the youth center and the Three Seas Ranch, which aims to eventually teach North Korean farmers how to raise cattle.

The work includes cleaning, gardening, weeding and pruning tree branches, pasture seeding, and washing clothes and blankets. The ranch sprawls over some 500,000 square meters of land Father Reuben Archer Torrey III borrowed from the Korea Forest Service, serving as an outdoor classroom. Nature and work blend harmoniously. Father Torrey believes that people learn how to cooperate with each other through labor. When he was a teenager, he chopped wood for four years to help his father build the Jesus Abbey, and today he still chops fire wood.

He once ran a weeklong summer labor camp for students from other schools at the River of Life School. This was also part of his efforts to increase young people’s understanding of North Korea and help them prepare for its opening. During the camp, the students were not allowed to use their cellphones. The priest is now constructing a school building with a dormitory wing in order to accommodate more students.

Some 60 people live together at the Jesus Abbey. Visitors can book a Monday-to-Wednesday stay, in which they will work and eat together; meditate more than three times a day; and pray for someone else, not for themselves. The visitors must also surrender their phones. The accommodation is free as the abbey is funded by donations but, of course, visitors may give as they wish. In May 2019, Father Torrey started expanding the Samsuryeong community, and he is currently collecting money to expand Fourth River. He believes that God will give him as much as he needs. He worries more about conflicts and schisms within the South Korean churches and society. He emphatically says, “We need to restore unity in South Korean society first for the sake of national unification.”

The Jesus Abbey, a 10-minute drive from the Samsuryeong Center, is an interdenominational Christian fellowship community built by Father Reuben Archer Torrey III in 1965. Currently, Father Ben Torrey resides here.

Kim Hak-soon ournalist and Visiting Professor, School of Media and Communication, Korea University
Heo Dong-wuk Photographer


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