Ji Seong Ho may now be the best-known North Korean defector on the planet. The image of him holding his crutches aloft as President Trump told his story in the State of the Union address will not soon be forgotten. President Trump said that Mr. Ji is “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.” In one of many interviews following the State of the Union address, Mr. Ji explained:
I think I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t live for any single more day. And even if it means I would die by risking crossing the border, that was so worth it because I just wanted to live one single day as a genuine human being.
Mr. Ji said that his crutches symbolize the truth “that you can achieve anything if you do not give up.”
These are the kind of words that resonate with most of us in the so-called “free” world, so it is no wonder that Mr. Ji was feted on the perhaps the highest stage that the free world has to offer.
I have nothing negative to say about Mr. Ji, and I am happy anytime the world hears North Koreans share their own thoughts in their voice. Yet…
I wish you could meet the people we get to meet: North Koreans crossing the border in the opposite direction of Mr. Ji. Heading home. In possession of a message powerful enough to raise the dead. A message that one does not have to cross any border or escape any country in order to live as a genuine human being.
“Yes, that’s easy for you to say,” some might reply. “You have not been in that situation.” I often receive criticism from Westerners for our organization’s stance against defection–we don’t encourage it, we don’t assist in it, and we spend a good deal of our ministry time and resources picking up the shattered pieces of life of North Koreans who do defect, often through the aid of well-meaning Westerners who hold liberty, freedom, choice, and safety as the greatest goods. Yet…
There is a message some North Koreans learn, typically while visiting China–on a work visa, a relative visa, or having been sold there by their own government working in cooperation with Korean-Chinese gangs. They typically learn the message from people like us whom the North Korean government brands as terrorists precisely because we spread this message to its citizens wherever they are found: North Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Korea. And this message enables North Koreans to be genuinely human wherever they are found, whichever side of the border they are on, and even without ever needing to leave North Korea.
I know many of the names and faces and stories of these North Korean message carriers, and I can picture their backs as they turn to head back home, crossing the border into North Korea in possession of nothing more than this message. Like Mr. Ji, they believe that they can achieve anything if they do not give up. But the “anything” they are seeking cannot be confined to this lifetime. As the author of Hebrews writes,
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Mr. Ji found a new country–South Korea. And he is being celebrated in another country–America. And as he was being celebrated in that country this week, he said, “the next time I go to North Korea will be when reunification finally happens.”
But the greatest North Korean heroes, in my view, are those who returned to North Korea not at the point of political reunification but at the point when they were reunified with God, through receiving his son, Jesus Christ. These heroes are now even greater outcasts and greater enemies than was Mr. Ji when he was in North Korea–the North Korean government tirelessly searches for converts to Christianity and regards them as far more base than any physically handicapped person. They are martyred quietly, almost never as dramatically as the stories you hear from Christian organizations who focus on this sort of thing. Mostly they just disappear one night, and then their names are taken away from them, and they die nameless, faceless, voiceless deaths after a short time in a North Korean concentration camp.
I am not ashamed to call these my heroes.
And God is not ashamed to be called their God.