Has God forgotten North Korea?

by Robert MacAlvin


Dilemma Facing the New Leader

On 19th December 2011, the world was startled by the announcement that Kim Jong-il, 'The Dear Leader' of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - North Korea's official name, had died of a heart attack two days earlier. This was the man, the second-generation dictator, who ruled for 17 years and defied global condemnation to build nuclear weapons, while 2 million people died from starvation. However, he stuck unswervingly to theJuche(self-reliance) ideology introduced by his late father, and propagated thesongun(army first) principle.


Kim Jong-il's father was Kim Il-sung, called 'The Great Leader' and DPRK's founder.


DPRK had been preparing for another hereditary succession. In September 2010, Kim Jong-il declared his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. Kim Jong-un, at 27 or 28 years of age, is a virtual unknown to the world and even to his countrymen. Within seven months of Kim Jong-il's death, he was given the highest position in the army, the party and the government, and was regarded as the 'Supreme Leader' of the nation. The media has spared no effort in creating a personality cult around him, as it did for his father and grandfather. The question on everyone's mind is, "Does a new leader mean that North Korea will change and become more open?" The dilemma facing the leader is how to maintain the power of the Kim dynasty and the ruling Workers' Party, while at the same time resolve the drastic economic and food shortage problems which have besieged the nation for the last 20 years.


Understanding DPRK

To understand DPRK, we need to understand theJucheideology and its historical roots. For thousands of years, the Korean Peninsula has been the battleground for other nations in their expansion, either from the maritime base (such as Japan, the USA and the UK) or from the continental base (such as China, Mongolia and Russia). From this there has developed a deep sense of victimisation, an unbroken spirit of nationalism and a strong psyche to be independent from the oppressive rule of foreign nations. There is a famous Korean proverb that describes the Korean peninsula as 'a shrimp among four whales' (China, Russia, Japan and the USA). Today, these four nations plus DPRK and South Korea make up the 'Six-Party Talks on Denuclearisation'.


Kim Il-sung propagated theJucheideology as something different from Communism, which he had received earlier from Mao and Lenin. He skilfully reformatted the roots of 'Communism' into 'Jucheism'. The belief in the supremacy of human effort and creativity to make man's own history, and the belief in the supremacy of the pure Korean race, has shaped DPRK's direction since the 1950s. This includes dictatorial leadership, worship of leaders, dynastic succession, oppression of all religion, total isolation from the outside world, and fear of attacks and control by other nations, leading to the country amassing the fourth largest army in the world and the desire to develop nuclear weapons.


A glimpse of DPRK against the true picture

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Rason Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the north-east of DPRK, near Russia. It has a population of 170,000, which is 0.7% of the country's 24 million people. It is said that the population living there are specially chosen, just like those who live in the capital, Pyongyang. This SEZ was established in 1991 to attract foreign investment. Due to lack of infrastructure and restrictions on foreign companies, it has not taken off.


However, through China's involvement over the last two or three years, things are rapidly changing. China sees North Korea as an economic partner, with cheap labour, rare earth minerals and an ice-free seaport in Rason. China's motivation is to develop its own economically stagnant Jilin Province. Currently, over 80% of foreign businesses in Rason are run by Chinese people. The Chinese have built a road from the China-DPRK border to Rason city. There are hotels run by Chinese for the rapidly growing number of Chinese tourists. We visited the only market in Rason and saw that most of the products on sale were imported from China.


Nevertheless, there was a feeling of stepping back in time: shabby buildings with their dull grey colour reminded me of scenes in China in the 1960s and 70s. Only a few roads in the city are properly surfaced. People walk everywhere, although some are fortunate enough to have a bicycle. Our hotel - the best in Rason - provided hot water and electricity for only a few hours a day. Outside the city boundary, farm work is done by hand, as there is little machinery. These are glimpses of Rason, which, despite being so basic, is the most developed region the DPRK government wants to show to tourists.


What then is the real picture in the rest of the country? In the central area, which in 2012 suffered its worst drought in 60 years, millions of people were reported to be starving and dependent on external food aid. Some have said that 'NK' stands for 'Never Know'. We will never know the true situation of this tragedy until we are allowed free access to visit and survey these areas.


A night-time picture of North Korea taken from outer space is most revealing. There are four brightly-lit countries: Japan to the east, South Korea to the south, China to the west, and Russia to the north. In the middle there is a black hole. This is North Korea. Every night, 24 million people live in darkness because of the lack of electricity. Sadder still, they are living in more than physical darkness. There is a lack of food, clean water, electricity, heating and medicines. As a result of a chronic food shortage since the early 1990s, many people, desperately looking for food, have been entering north-east China. Unfortunately, these refugees are treated as criminals by both the Chinese and North Korean authorities. They are inhumanely treated and returned to DPRK.


The Church and Believers

As with the country itself, little is known about the church and the life of believers. For the tenth year, DPRK has been rated by Open Doors as the most hostile country in the world in which to live as a Christian(http://www.opendoorsuk.org/resources/persecution/north_korea.php). Since 1948, all religion has been heavily repressed. Many Christians have died and some 100,000* Christians are in labour camps. In these camps, Christians are particularly discriminated against, suffering severe physical and psychological punishment. Christians meet in secret, in open fields, attics and caves. Often, they can only meet one-to-one to avoid the attention of neighbours and security officers.


However, the church in DPRK has a godly heritage. Pyongyang was once known as the 'Jerusalem of the East' because of the great revival there in 1907. By God's grace, the underground church (300,000*) has not only survived but is also growing. Many believers are actively witnessing to their families, close relatives and neighbours by their transformed lives in the midst of their desperate situation. (*Operation World, Jason Mandryk, 2010, page 507)


Is God at work in DPRK?

Give thanks that not only is God in DPRK, but that He is also actively at work on behalf of the people - the Chosun people, as they call themselves. Indeed, God has not forgotten them. He remembers them as a people who are precious in His sight. This often neglected people are the object of God's love. God has been and continues to be at work even in the midst of their tragedy.


God has demonstrated His sovereignty by opening North Korea to outside help, awakening the hearts of North Korean people against the teaching ofJucheand giving them a renewed hunger for His Word. The number of North Korean refugees to north-east China and then on to South Korea and other nations has increased, and many refugees have become Christians because of the experience of Christian love along the way. A global prayer movement for North Korea has been raised, mobilising Christians around the world to reach out to North Koreans, and preserving the North Korean Church. Are you part of this yet?


What should be our response?

It is thrilling that God has a part for us to play in His mission to the nations - including DPRK. The question is: "How can we fulfil our part?"


1.         Open our eyes to understand the needs of the people in North Korea. You can learn more about North Korea's situation through books, websites, news and prayer bulletins.

2.         Open our minds to be informed of various ways of reaching out to North Korean people. There are now many opportunities for Christian professionals to be involved.

3.         Lift up our hands in intercessory prayer for North Korea. There are resources that will help you pray meaningfully for North Korea.

4.         Reach out in love to welcome the 600 North Korean refugees who have sought asylum in the UK. You can share God's love by helping them physically, socially and spiritually.

5.         Step out in action by supporting humanitarian projects and development work. You can also support long-term workers or go on a short-term trip yourself.

6.         Give your life to prepare yourself as a long-term worker for the neglected people of North Korea. Join others in a growing multicultural team focused on reaching North Korea.



The North Korean people are living in darkness. Jesus Christ has come as the Light of the World to shine into such a situation (Luke 1:79). Will you let God use you to make a difference to the unreached and neglected people in North Korea? You can be Christ's light to them.





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