My father was born in North Korea, into a Christian family. Most people in his home town were Christians. Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, used to be called the ‘Jerusalem of the East’. Today, North Korea is one of the most closed and secretive nations in the world, labelled as part of an ‘axis of evil’ by US president George W Bush, and is ranked as the most oppressive place in the world for Christians on the World Watch List. So, what went wrong?
In 1945, at the end of World War II, 35 years of Japanese colonial occupation was brought to an end. The northern part of the Korean peninsula was controlled by the Soviet Union, and the southern part by the United States (the countries were allies at this time). This division was created for the sake of a smooth transition of sovereignty and was never designed to be permanent. And yet, 72 years later, Korea remains divided.
In the intervening period, the Korean War (1950–53) claimed four million lives, mostly civilian. I remember my mother recounting the horror of the war when I was young, and its dread was imprinted deeply on my heart. One of my recurring nightmares was one of war. Division and war left the people of the Korean peninsula traumatised, including children like myself whose experience of it was second-hand.
Living with the enemy
Growing up we were frequently taught to see North Korea as an enemy. At school and through news media, the country was depicted as a satanic militia that posed a constant threat to us, the good people of South Korea. We were trained to watch out for and to report any suspicious people who might be North Korean spies, who could be identified by their muddy shoes (having just come down from the mountain), their awkward accents and expressions (due to limited socialisation with people of the South), and their lack of common knowledge (such as an ignorance of the bus fare). It should not come as a surprise to learn that we would often paint North Koreans as goblins with horns in our school art class.
And the news only served to strengthen these images; of a country that would not stop shooting rockets, experimenting with nuclear warheads, and threatening the peace of South Korea. How could you explain such behaviour as anything other than evil?
As tensions have increased again this year — with fresh threats to South Korea, and an escalating war of words between North Korea and President Trump — the stock market in South Korea has remained unaffected. Does this signal a recognition that North Korea doesn’t really want to wage another war? And if so, why continue to act like an unruly teenager?
Bordered on two sides by sea, North Korea also shares national borders with China, Russia and South Korea, with Japan — a strong US ally — further to the south. Naturally, North Korea is concerned for its long-term sovereignty, and dictator Kim Jong-un has concerns for his own future. Having believed there is no other option available to him, Kim continues to develop nuclear weaponry and capabilities.
A Christian response
As Christians, how do we respond? Is tolerance all that counts? Or should we also arm ourselves and push a military agenda? Whilst the risk of catastrophic war is too great, the temptation to do nothing seems even riskier.
Five years ago, members of IVF Korea senior staff went on a bus tour along the China-North Korea border for a week. Across the Yalu River we were able to see North Korea and its people; we were able to hear them laugh and talk.
During a river cruise one day, the ferry stopped in front of a small boat carrying two North Korean men. As the ferry approached, the men stopped talking and looked at us. We stood facing each other in an awkward silence for a minute or two. Though we basically speak the same language, nobody dared greet them, or say anything to them.
Shortly afterwards the ferry continued on its journey. The silence of those minutes, though in reality only a short moment in time, felt like the longest I had experienced in my life. At that very moment, I could feel how wrong our division was. This artificial separation of the same people cannot be right. Since then, the unification of our two nations — or at least the freedom of cross-border visits — has become something I pray for regularly.
Praying for unity
Our separation is a result of politics, and politics does not seem to be effective in solving this problem. We confess that God is the Lord of history and of nations. The course of history can shift dramatically once God acts, and we see numerous examples of this in human history.
And so we turn to our sovereign God, as his children. We pray that he would equip his people, and prepare them for the possibility of a united nation on the Korean peninsula.
One day, I want to visit my father’s home town in North Korea. I want to meet my cousins and relatives. I pray that God would enable my dream to come true!
Jongho Kim, General Secretary, IVF Korea