My brother was always the jokester when we were growing up in our suburban hometown in upstate New York. One day at school a classmate asked my brother where our family was from; he jokingly replied, “West Korea,” to which his classmate responded, “Oh that’s cool, what’s it like there?” Granted, this was in the late 2000s and conversations my siblings and I have fielded since then show that people know a lot more about Korea than they used to. Still, I occasionally find myself explaining that there are many separated Korean families, you cannot go in and out of North Korea as you please, or not every North Korean fully believes in the Kim regime.
Just as I am God’s child before I am a Korean-American, the people languishing under the Kim regime are human beings made in God’s image before they are North Koreans. In this article, I hope to speak to some of the recent developments in Korea and my concerns as a Christian who happens to be Korean-American.
Historic first steps
This summer, President Trump became the first sitting president of the United States to cross the demilitarized zone from the U.S. allied South Korea into North Korea. On June 30, 2019, the American president was en route home from the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan; during a scheduled visit to South Korea, President Trump added an unscheduled, tweet-prompted visit to North Korea’s leader, Chairman Kim Jong-un.
Lacking from the fanfare of this albeit historic event was substantive discussion on denuclearization negotiations and the manifold human rights violations occurring in North Korea under the Kim regime.
North Korea is often referred to as the “hermit kingdom” because it is isolated from the world as the Kim-led government enforces totalitarian rule over every area of life for its citizens, and sits in striking darkness next to the illuminated night sky of South Korea. Although it is difficult to enter North Korea and observe beyond what is presented by the state, decades of stories from defectors and investigators make it undeniable that the Kim Dynasty and its government systematically commit egregious human rights violations.
What’s not being talked about?
The persecution of Christians and religious individuals in North Korea
While there is virtually no right to freedom of thought, expression, and religion in the northern Korean country, there are Christians in North Korea. North Korea’s constitution only grants freedom of religion such that it does not “attract foreign intervention or disrupt the state’s social order.” The state interprets this article as reason to suppress any religious belief that threatens the state “juche” religion or worship of the Kim family, particularly Christianity.
The people languishing under the Kim regime are human beings made in God’s image before they are North Koreans.
The religious persecution of North Korean Christians is connected to and perpetuates many other human rights violations common in North Korea. The state designates its citizens a class under its “songbun” system based on loyalty to the regime. Christians and their families are designated in the lowly “hostile” class, and face greater restrictions to food, healthcare, and other living necessities.
Repatriation and the plight of North Korean refugees
Refugees who try to escape, are caught in China, and found to have come into contact with a Christian organization are sent back to North Korea to political prison camps where conditions are even worse than those of labor camps. China forcibly repatriates around 15,000 North Korean refugees every year. This is in direct violation of China’s obligation to the United Nations 1951 Convention & 1967 Protocol, the international asylum principle that dictates a state shall not forcibly return a refugee to a territory where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
China’s active repatriation of North Korean refugees is particularly painful given that South Korea grants North Korean refugees automatic citizenship, and nearly all North Korean refugees pass through China to eventually reach South Korea. China is the gateway to other Southeast Asian countries where there are South Korean embassies, and very few defectors successfully cross into South Korea through the demilitarized zone. Majority of the defectors in hiding in China are women who are sold as wives or cheap labor in rural villages and are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Resulting from these marriages are an estimated 30,000 stateless orphans in China as half-North Korean children are not granted citizenship via naturalization.
What about South Korea?
North Korean refugees’ difficulties do not end once they are in South Korea; North Korean refugees are entering South Korea at a unique time. While the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony presented a hopeful image of the two Koreas marching together, many in South Korea were unimpressed. Attitudes toward North Korean refugees and reunification in South Korea are complicated, particularly for the younger generation consumed by immense societal and cultural pressure.
South Korea is such a small country whose economy developed rapidly; competition in schooling and high youth unemployment cool what empathy the passage of time has left for a generation born after the partition of Korea. Further, South Korea’s birthrate reached an all-time low in 2018 falling below 1 birth per woman as more are delaying marriage and having kids. This presents a concerning dynamic and opportunity for prayer for the plight of North Korean refugee children in South Korea where adoption is not widely practiced.
Of course, there are exceptions to every generation. There are those in the older generation who view North Korea as an enemy, and there are those in the younger generation who are supportive of escapees living in South Korea. Whatever negative attitudes toward North Koreans that exist in South Korea are not because South Koreans have no compassion or are obsessed with only economic success. Such attitudes most likely arise from any real enduring interactions between North and South Koreans.
When news clips of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the official name of North Korea) portray its citizens fawning over the Kim family or its soldiers marching in step, it is difficult to see North Koreans as different from their leader. This is why the work of organizations, such as the ERLC’s recent short film, is so important because it portrays the human interest stories of North Koreans, even highlighting those who come to faith in Christ.
A reverent and prayerful advocacy
As ERLC President Russell Moore stated, “our remembering of those persecuted is not only so that we can advocate for our brothers and sisters, but also so that we can learn from them how to live as Christians.” Even in the most dangerous nation to be a Christian, believers seek to live according to their faith and the risk of their lives. Through the testimonies of North Korean escapees, we are able to witness the indefinable human spirit of survivors who repeatedly tried to escape from a state that could not control their faith. Further, God continues to work through families as parents pass their faith on to their children, though few North Koreans risk sharing their faith.
There are already movements among nonprofit organizations and churches in South Korea and in the U.S. to minister to North Korean escapees, to empower and provide job training, and to educate people on human rights and religious persecution violations in North Korea. These movements are encouraging as they raise awareness where there is a deficit and call Christians to prayer and civic engagement across generations and cultures. Here are a few ways you can pray for those who are suffering in North Korea:
- South Korea’s recent $8 billion in food aid will reach North Korean citizens truly in need as negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea remain at a standstill
- The end of the concentration camps in North Korea, and the protection of those imprisoned in North Korea
- The sustained hope and perseverance of believers in North Korea and that the gospel would spread
- The hearts of South Koreans will be ready to accept North Korean refugees and that churches and Christian organizations in South Korea will lead in this endeavor socially, culturally, and politically