The North Korea-South Korea Summit and the Panmunjom Declaration: Let’s Wait To Hear From North Korean Christians

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.

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Why I Don’t Pray for North Korea to “Open to the Gospel”

As I travel to speak about North Korea, I frequently hear Christians say, “I have been praying for many years for North Korea to open to the Gospel.”

This is a very understandable sentiment due to how North Korea is portrayed in the news. Take for instance the recent Associated Press article, Missionaries at border spread Christianity to North Korea in which I am quoted (though not in relation to the point I am seeking to make here). The article opens:

To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, she is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.

In return, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman asks them to study the Bible, pray and sing hymns. She also has a more ambitious, and potentially dangerous, goal: She wants the most trusted of her converts to return to North Korea and spread Christianity there.

Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger.

The article is true as far as it goes, but it is what is omitted that is most crucial to understanding the relationship between North Korea and Christianity, namely:

An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are Christians.

In other words, Christianity does not merely stand outside the door of North Korea and knock. Like yeast, Christianity continues to leaven the North Korean loaf.

And as I shared in These are the Generations, a book I wrote with third generation underground North Korean Christians, the kind of Christianity that leavens the North Korean loaf is North Korean Christianity. That is because Christianity first took root among Koreans in what is today North Korea (Pyongyang, most dramatically) before it took root among other Korean speakers. And it has continued to be practiced in North Korea without interruption since it arrived more than one hundred thirty years ago (or two hundred thirty years ago, in the case of Catholicism).

It has continued to be practiced without interruption, that is, but not without cost. It takes a lot of Christians to make 100,000 Christians inside North Korea. In other words, it’s hardly a static group. A third are in concentration camps. Some defect. Some are killed. Some apostasy.

But by and large, underground North Korean Christians are not waiting for the present regime to blow over in order to resume their Christian activities. They continue to evangelize and disciple in the face–or perhaps more accurately, in the teeth–of some of the strongest opposition to the Gospel in human history.

And, as such, we can learn a lot from them, if (a) we recognize that they exist and (b) we are humble to admit that the church at present is in desperate need of such learning. In my opinion, North Korean underground Christians and other persecuted Christians around the world are likely Christianity’s last best hope, since unlike the church in South Korea and America, they have not compromised with their culture and are thus paying the price for their non-compromise with their own blood. As Paul Minear notes with concern about the church in the West,

The Church has so emasculated the Gospel that it threatens no other power-structure. The Church no longer arouses hostility among the same elites and to the same degree as in the first century, but this is due not so much to a change in the operation of power-structures as to the Church’s betrayal of the Gospel itself.

Not so in North Korea. And so while I continue to do evangelism and discipleship with underground North Korean Christians, I do so in robust partnership with them today, not in the hopes that North Korea may one day “open up” so that the Gospel may “go in”. It is not the Word of God that is ever bound, the Apostle Paul notes rather matter-of-factly in 2 Timothy 2:9. Instead, I would add, it is we Christians in so-called “free” nations who are bound: bound to an emasculated version of the Gospel that is stymied in the absence of government-granted freedom of religion and so pain-averse that it does not know how to pass through closed doors the way its resurrected Lord calls it to.

 

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On The Death Of Our North Korean Student, Mrs. Choi

Today, Holy Saturday, we are having the memorial service for our former student named Mrs. Choi. She was born February 10th, 1973. Her hometown was Chungjin, in North Hamgyeong Province. She was sold in China and lived near Harbin for some years, giving birth to a son. She came to Korea on April 21, 2017, as part of the 233rd class at the Hanawon Refugee Resettlement Center. She enrolled in our UT school October 14th, 2017. She lived in Daegu but came by train on Friday nights and stayed sometimes with some of our UU students and sometimes with her Hanawon friends in order to be here for class Saturday morning.

Why do we do this memorial service for Mrs. Choi today? Is it because she was such a good student? No. In truth, she was not a great student or a bad student. Is it because she followed Christ so well? No. In truth, there were many things about Christ that she did not know or understand. Is it because she was such a good person? No. Like all of us, she had many struggles. She sometimes had conflicts with her friends. She put all her efforts into bringing her son to South Korea. In order to earn the money to do that, she sometimes did wrong things. She ended up in trouble that resulted in her death earlier this month. She died within a month after she was able to bring her son to South Korea. Her body was cremated and placed at the Yongin Crematorium. This is a facility operated by the government for the disposal of the bodies of those who have no one. No newspaper reported her death. No one has called for a fuller accounting of how she died. None of her friends or family members or colleagues from Hanawon 233 have come today to participate in this memorial service.

But it is not complete to say that Mrs. Choi was born February 10th, 1973. Instead, we must say that on February 10th, 1973, the Lord Jesus Christ breathed life into a newborn baby whom he had formed in her mother’s womb, and he numbered every hair on her head.

It is not complete to say that her hometown was Chungjin, in North Hamgyeong Province. Instead, we must say that God in his infinite wisdom, in order to accomplish his perfect purposes in the universe and in her life, and in each of our lives, placed her in Chungjin, in North Hamgyeong Province at that particular day and time and moment in history.

It is not complete to say that she was sold in China and lived near Harbin for some years, giving birth to a son. Instead, we must say that God permitted her to be sold into slavery, for even though his ways are not our ways, he works all things together for our good, even when everything in our circumstances look bad. It was in that place that she came to know the Lord Jesus and even to receive Dr. Foley and other members of our team into her home. The Lord Jesus says that whoever opens their home to a servant of the Lord and welcomes them into their home, that person is actually receiving him, and he will not forget that. Not ever.

It is not complete to say that she came to Korea on April 21, 2017, as part of the 233rd class at Hanawon. We must say that God arranged for her to come, and to be a part of the 233rd class, not the 232nd class or the 234th class, for reasons that only he knows. And she came with her Bible and was able to contact us because of it, which was part of God’s gracious provision for her, too.

It is not complete to say that she enrolled in our UT school October 14th, 2017. We must say that Christ himself sent her to us, with specific instructions for us to treat her as his daughter, and to extend to her the same love and care that we would extend to him.

And it is not complete to say that in the process of working to bring her son to Korea she made bad choices and did bad things and ended up in trouble that resulted in her death earlier this month. And it is not complete to say that no newspaper reported her story. And it is not complete to say that her friends have left her. And it is not complete to say that the government had to cremate her body because she had no one. We must say that when every other hand gave way—her family, her friends, North Korea, South Korea, the church, us—Christ never let go of Mrs. Choi. He did not turn his back on her. He did not condemn her. On Holy Saturday he descended to the very depths of death in order to make sure that no one who came to him would ever be lost. His grip is firm. “I do not lose even one that was put in my hand.”

How little we know the character of Christ! How little credit we give him for the perfect, unfailing love he shows toward us! How much we focus on our fears, our sins, our own efforts, our own desires, our own goals, our own ways of thinking! How seldom we realize that he is the one who breathed life into us, the one who ordered our steps, the one who watches over every detail of every day to ensure that his perfect will towards us will be accomplished!

What does Christ want from us? How should we respond to his perfect love?

The answer is found in today’s Holy Saturday scripture reading, though if you do not read carefully you will miss it. It is in Matthew 27:61. Matthew writes:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

What does Christ want from us? To sit and wait for him. Especially when he seems absent and circumstances are urgent. Especially when we fall into sin. Especially when we are afraid. Especially when we are lost. Especially when everyone else leaves us. Especially when our families need us and are in trouble, and we feel like we must act and do something and be their savior… Stop and sit. Wait on him. Show your respect and trust in the Lord of glory. Recognize that he, not you, not the Korean government, not money, not the church, is your savior. Put your faith and trust not in yourself or in your family or in your friends or in your church or in any earthly thing. Put all your faith and trust in the one who descended farther into death and sin than you ever have, or will, or could. He did that not just so that he could forgive your sins. He did that so that you would never need be separated from him.

It is not complete to say that Mrs. Choi’s life has ended. We must say that Mrs. Choi’s life is just now beginning, and will stretch on forever in perfect glory in the presence of God. We must say that Mrs. Choi was always directly and personally under Jesus’ care, but now she sees him face to face, and knows him as he has always known her. We must say that Jesus has drawn her death up into his own, that his eternal life is now hers as well.

Death will end. Life cannot.

Because of Christ, because of Holy Saturday, death will always end in resurrection. For those who reach out to Jesus, they can be certain that he has them in his grip, he will not them go, he will never leave them, he has prepared a place for them, he will take them there in his perfect timing.

And now, at last, Mrs. Choi is truly home.

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