Voice of the Martyrs Korea is built on this fundamental principle: When seeking to understand and interpret matters related to North Korean Christians, it is best to ask North Korean Christians. In fact, we believe that before we pray for or help North Korean Christians, we should seek to learn from them–not only about North Korea, but also about how each of us can be more faithful Christians where God has placed us.
This is the best counsel I can give regarding questions about the impact of Friday’s North/South Summit on North Korean Christians. It can certainly seem challenging and time-consuming to find a North Korean Christian to ask about such matters. The voices and opinions of government leaders, reporters, media commentators, and North Korean analysts are more readily at hand. I noted no shortage of Christians around the world borrowing phrases from Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In themselves to hail the summit as the dawning of a divine new day. I saw Facebook posts over the weekend from Christians overflowing with emotion as they described the events of the summit as God’s answer to their own years of prayer–a “kairos” moment the likes of which we have not previously seen.
And yet I believe that one thing Christians around the world can do in moments like these, rather than rushing to share our own thoughts and opinions and those of others, is to remind the world–and each other–that North Korean Christians are real, and are one body with us, and are God’s main spiritual provision for North Korea, and are aware of most of the events that you and I are seeing, and have perspectives which they are willing to share from which we fellow Christians can learn much. Remember, for example, that between 60 and 80 percent of North Korean defectors maintain regular monthly contact with their relatives inside of North Korea, and that North Koreans have developed durable and reliable systems of information transmissions that allow news about current events to travel more rapidly than we might imagine. It perhaps makes for a less dramatic Facebook post to say, “Let’s wait to hear from North Korean Christians about this summit,” but it is possible that such an effort to hold a space for those who rarely are given the microphone can accomplish more than our own tearfully hopeful ruminations. And likely something of Hebrews 13:3 is operative in such waiting behavior: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Reminding the world that we should wait to hear from them is one of the concrete and practical ways we can remember the persecuted.
As we await their comments, we can read carefully what is being written and shared by secular commentators, comparing it to what we have already learned from North Korean Christians. Is complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization the peace for which North Korean Christians have taught us to pray? No, it is not.
And that is not because North Korean Christians are naive or provincial or impractical or idealistic. It is because North Korean Christians have reminded us that the “North Korea situation” is only secondarily political but primarily spiritual in nature. It is about national captivity and subservience to evil, of which nuclear weapons are only symptomatic. Addressing symptoms often leads to overlooking root causes. The root cause here is the North Korean government’s redefinition of what it means to be human–not as “one created in the image of God”, but rather as “one useful and loyal to the Kim family”.
Many Christians around the world seemed to see in the events of the summit generational spiritual strongholds broken, and North Korea and Kim Jong Un somehow set free for new thoughts and actions in service to God. But we in the free world are always woefully naive about the depth, nature, intransigence, and remarkably deceptive character of evil. We need our brothers and sisters from persecuted countries to remind us what evil is really like, since they are the ones daily seared by its lash. It is not that they are somehow too jaded, too burnt out, too close to the situation to hope rightly. In fact, it is because they know the evil we are dealing with that they also can know real hope when they see it. And they can teach us to distinguish real hope from counterfeit, and to wait on the Lord who rarely works on human timetables or through media spectacles.
The North Korean Christians with whom I communicated over the weekend were surprised that Christians around the world were quick to receive what Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In were sharing as something new. Were we even to review the previous North/South summits, we would see nearly identical sentiments, wording. proposals, and even photos and special meals put forward. Consider, for example, this 1991 New York Times report from the first inter-Korean summit:
Leaders of North and South Korea signed a treaty of reconciliation and nonaggression this morning, renouncing armed force against each other and saying that they would formally bring the Korean War to an end 38 years after the fighting ceased.
The agreement would also re-establish some measure of regular communication between the two countries, including telephone lines, mail, some economic exchanges and the reunion of some families who have been separated since war broke out in 1950. It would also commit the countries to rebuilding railway and road links across the heavily guarded border, known as the Demilitarized Zone, which has been the symbol of the armed division of the country for almost four decades.
Officials on both sides described the accord as the first step toward what they term the inevitable reunification of the Korean peninsula…
Lee Dong Bok, South Korea’s chief spokesman, termed the agreement “a historical milestone and an evolution in inter-Korean relations.”
In the accord, the two sides agreed to forswear all acts of terrorism or any efforts to overthrow the government of the other.
In his speech at the summit, Kim Jong Un talked about a new day but said that new day would come about “by thoroughly carrying out all preexisting North-South declarations and agreements.” The one subject omitted from all preexisting declarations and agreements, as well as the new Panmunjom Declaration, is Kim Jong Un’s war against his own people. North Korea has long been willing to talk about peace to its north, south, east, and west, but what it considers as matters inside its own house it always has–and continues to–view as off-limits not only for negotiation but even for mention. Christians around the world may think that it is a natural progression for North Korea to move from nuclear talks to human rights ones, but this is only because Christians around the world do not know North Korean very well. Even the small and infrequent mentions of human rights by the US in the present summit lead-up have caused North Korea to, in its words, doubt the US’ sincerity. Talking about the mistreatment of ordinary North Koreans by the North Korean government is in North Korea’s words like “pouring cold water” on the warm feelings generated by Friday’s summit. Please, in other words, focus on the projectiles we have pointed at you, not at those we use daily to gore our own people.
Such insights need not turn us into political commentators, but they should remind us how North Korean Christians have taught us to pray about North Korea, namely, that Kim Jong Un would meet the Lord Jesus and be transformed by him. This kind of talk is quickly dismissed by political commentators but should not be so quickly dismissed by Christians. Yes, God uses nations to discipline, reward, and punish other nations. But his actions and interests cannot be reduced to such matters. He is consistently portrayed in scripture as relentlessly focused on the heart of the leader. How can we students of scripture be so easily distracted from that in our prayers for the nations and their leaders, especially North Korea, the US, and South Korea?
And this is perhaps the greatest danger of the present moment: Like King Saul impatiently making sacrifice rather than waiting for Samuel to do so, we Christians are surprisingly willing to sacrifice what we have learned from North Korean Christians–and from the scriptures themselves–because we really would like to believe that our prayers are being answered in front of our eyes. We wipe away our tears and think about how we have prayed for several years for a breakthrough in North Korea, and we embrace Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In for seemingly offering one. But for North Korean underground Christians who have prayed for the coming of the Kingdom for more than one hundred years, beginning with the Japanese occupation and continuing through three generations of Kims, they have learned to be more patient and selective about the Kingdom for which they are praying. Having been trained by suffering, they will be far less likely to be deceived and far more likely to recognize the true Kingdom when it comes. Let us wait on their thoughts, counsel, and positive identification.
Among the North Korean Christians to whom we have spoken this weekend, their preliminary response to the Panmunjom Declaration has not been as optimistic as that of their brothers and sisters around the world. I think that ought to lead us to examine our own hearts and the content of our own prayers and the images we treasure of what we think the Kingdom will be like when it comes, and it should lead us to repent, and to redouble our efforts to learn from North Korean Christians, about North Korea if nothing else.
Here in Seoul we are digging in for a long summer. Attempts have been made to recruit some of our own constituents to spy on us. There are rumors daily about which of our ministry programs–balloons, radio, discipleship bases, North Korean defector missionary training–will and will not be targeted for constraint as the South Korean government seeks to carry out its promise in the Panmunjom Declaration to “completely cease all the hostile acts against each other in every domain including land, air and sea.” Broadcasting and balloons have consistently been described by North Korea as hostile acts, and we have already seen stormy weather emerging on both horizons.
Yet we have learned from North Korean Christians not to worry but instead to view all things as gifts from the hand of our God. New ministries are always emerging from whatever limitations are enforced upon us, along with new opportunities to participate in the suffering love of the Lord Jesus Christ for Korean people wherever they are found. Our gospel skunkworks has always been active, and it remains so. We may not be able yet to share openly what we are doing and planning, but rest assured that we spend little time, energy, or money protesting or worrying and a lot of time, energy, and money partnering with the North Korean church to reach North Koreans with the gospel today and everywhere. The Panmunjom Declaration neither advances nor retards that. We neither celebrate it or mourn it. Instead, we have learned from North Korean Christians to stay focused on the kind of peace and freedom that governments cannot grant, withhold, or achieve. North Korean underground believers have lived in that peace and freedom in Christ for more than a hundred years, and they are willing to teach the rest of us how it’s done. We must just be willing to wait to hear their voice, and his, and to learn with humble and patient spirits that transcend the latest made-for-Internet media cycle.