A Guest Post from Dr. Hyun Sook Foley
The estimated population of North Korea is nearly twenty-five million people, but North Korea is actually the country of one story: the story of Kim Il Sung.
As North Koreans grow up, they have to memorize more than one hundred stories about Kim Il Sung’s life. That includes exact dates, place names, details, everything. Kim Il Sung is the subject of nearly every North Korean’s story, and Kim Il Sung is the hero of nearly every North Korean’s story.
But when North Koreans escape their country and enter South Korea (where more than thirty thousand North Korean defectors have now resettled), they are confronted with the reality that Kim Il Sung is no hero. For North Koreans, learning to tell their own stories as anything other than Kim Il Sung’s story is quite challenging. They quickly latch on to the stories that others tell about them, and those stories are always deficit stories: Defectors are considered traitors by North Korea, and even in South Korea there is strong prejudice against them. They are viewed as lazy, stupid, dishonest, and untrustworthy.
Many North Korean defectors internalize these negative narratives about themselves, and the results are literally fatal: North Korean defectors have the highest rate of death due to suicide of any group in the world: more than 16 percent. That shows how deadly it is to adopt any narrative frame but God’s for telling your life story.
That’s why I became involved in listening to the life stories of North Korean defectors and coaching them to retell their stories using a “hero’s journey” framework. It really was a matter of life and death! Virtually every defector with whom I have ever sat down with tells me his or her story as a victim story, as a story of worthlessness, unbearable pain, or both. The person’s life is filled with memories of starvation and concentration camps, combined with the worship of the leaders that made it happen—a worship that is ultimately transformed into hatred.
So after I hear them share their stories this way, I share with them about God, who, according to Revelation 12:11, intends for us to triumph over our enemies by the blood of His Son, Jesus, and by the word of our testimony. In other words, our very survival depends on the stories we tell about ourselves. I advise my North Korean defector brothers and sisters to learn to tell the stories God tells about them, because if they don’t, they will end up living forever inside the story of Kim Il Sung, even though they have left North Korea physically.
After I coached North Korean defectors in these truths enough times, I started to realize that the same is true for the rest of us too. We also have to learn how to tell our stories the way God tells them. If we don’t, we will always tell (and live in) stories about ourselves that lead to unhappy endings.
The good news is that those who experience the most pain and suffering and setbacks and life-shattering tragedies are those who go on to do the greatest things and have the best lives—if they learn to see, understand, and tell their own “hero’s journey” story the way God tells it.