I hope you’ve read this month’s Voice of the Martyrs/US special edition newsletter on which we were honored to collaborate. Make sure especially to check out the Voice of the Martyrs online article on the 30,000 Christians who are in North Korean prison camps, and then sign the Letter of Confession to join underground Christians in confessing only Christ to Kim Jong Un.
Given the unspeakable atrocities in the camps and in North Korea in general, it can come as a huge surprise to Westerners to hear that North Korean defectors in South Korea actually love and miss their country. How could anyone miss a place like North Korea?
To truly understand North Korea means understanding not only its prison camps and police state culture but also learning about the sights, smells, tastes, and everyday life experiences of North Koreans. It’s only then that the love makes sense.
For example, you may have seen the satellite photos of North Korea at night. It is as black as the sea, bordered on one side by the blinding light of China and on the other side by the blinding light of South Korea. It is possible–and accurate–to describe that darkness with words like “energy bankrupt.” But North Korean defectors will tell you that it is also the most breathtaking night sky in the world, and they have stories about moonlight walks underneath it.
The night sky in North Korea is a sight to behold. It might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent . . .
The young couple would walk through the night, scattering ginkgo leaves in their wake. What did they talk about? Their families, their classmates, books they had read – whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.
You might be thinking, “The happiest memories of someone’s life happened inside of North Korea?” Surprisingly, we have heard that sentiment expressed many times by North Koreans. They abhor the camps, decry the political system…and still miss their home.
That’s why we should not read about the prison camps and think of escape as the solution. In fact, South Korea is the deadliest place in the world for North Koreans. 16.3% of all North Koreans who die in South Korea, die by their own hand: suicide. Many more admit to feeling lonely and depressed due to culture differences, language differences (the two dialects are about 40% divergent), and guilt due to the family members they left behind.
It may not be surprising to learn that NK defectors are depressed, but it is utterly surprising for Westerners to see that North Koreans defectors have happy memories of North Korea, and that many even wish they could go back!
North Korean defectors’ perspective on life in NK is markedly different than we might imagine. They have lived, breathed, tasted and felt North Korea in ways that we never can. As a result, we should let our outrage over the prison camps and our action in signing the Letter of Confession lead us to continue to walk alongside North Korean defectors, hearing their stories (sad as well as happy) and joining our hearts with theirs. The Barbara Demick book is a great place to start in gaining insight into everyday North Korean life. Pastor Foley’s These are the Generations provides a related glimpse, only this time into the everyday life of North Korean Christians.
And next time you see the photos of North Korea at night, don’t think only of energy bankruptcy. Think of two young lovers strolling under the moonlit Chongjin sky.