“If you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death,
those who go staggering to the slaughter;
if you say, ‘Look, we did not know this’-
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it?
And will he not repay all according to their deeds?” Proverbs 24:11-12
It has been a daily struggle for me to believe, not whether God exists, but whether God is present in North Korea. What follows is an account of how I got involved in the North Korean human rights movement, why I want to give up, and why I fight.
How I got involved
When I visited the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, I frequently observed people shaking their heads and whispering with conviction, “Never again.” It is this conviction that gave birth to Chosunjournal.com, which is an experiment to see if a virtual holocaust museum for North Korea set in real-time can actually help decrease the number of victims and increase the number of heroes that will be commemorated in the future museum made of brick and stone.
So in addition to issuing daily news reports of ongoing atrocities, we raise funds to rescue N. Korean orphans into safe countries through underground railroads. We network rescuers, refugees, government officials, and the media. We host survivors of N. Korean gulags to share their testimonies at college campuses and churches. And we organize protests at Chinese embassies; lobby for the passage of resolutions that assist persecuted N. Korean refugees; and petition officials to grant leniency to those that are caught seeking asylum.
But an elementary fear of God, evoked by Proverbs 24:11-12, has also played a part in compelling me to become the first curator of North Korea’s online memorial museum. For it was only by this passage that I realized “Never again” was not merely conscience but God Himself speaking.
Why I want to give up
The memory of Elie Wiesel’s Moishe the Beetle in Night haunts me. I daily testify of routine baby killings and hunted refugees as an exercise in futility. I never guessed that the Chosun Journal would join the legacy of prophets of old who “make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes” (Isaiah 6:10). On July 8, 2001, our editorial stated: “Thus we must do away with the idle notion that people do not care because they do not know. That is a convenient lie. Indeed people do not want to know because they do not want to care.” Three years and millions of visitors later, Chosun Journal has merely helped more and more people get used to knowing about the ongoing atrocities in North Korea.
Recently I met a prominent NK human rights activist who remarked, “Christianity is just a crutch for weak-minded people.” Only if that were true. Instead for most churchgoers in free countries, is it not their version of Christianity itself that has crippled their minds, paralyzing their involvement in the world’s suffering because all that spiritually matters is going to heaven when they die?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented the lack of political involvement of Germany’s churches in opposing Hitler. Martin Luther King, Jr. rebuked the white clergymen who professed sympathy but would not get involved politically in abolishing segregation. Isn’t this Christianity today? It is so tiring talking with faithful defenders of a fire-insurance gospel. It is so frustrating singing praise songs with people who deny Christianity’s fundamental confession “Jesus is Lord” (1). Can these bones live? O Lord God, thou knowest.
I began serving in the cause with a strong belief in the God who “hears the desire of the afflicted” (Psalm 10:17). As each year passes, I become more and more mindful of the gap of 400 years between when the Israelites first suffered brutal enslavement in Egypt and when God heard their cry and liberated them. I am now growingly resigned to tens of thousands of Koreans never being able to meet their separated children, parents, and siblings across the border. I am now growingly embittered over the fact that tens of thousands of Christians will get involved in helping a freed North Korea, tens of thousands of needlessly starved children later. It genuinely saddens me knowing that the North Koreans will likely enter their promised land only after this “me” generation of South Korean and Korean-Americans has passed away.
Why I stay in the fight
Since God’s in-breaking reign was inaugurated on the earth through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Matt 12:28; 11:12; Mk 4:21), God’s reign – manifested in justice (Is 42:1) and peace (Is 2:4) – can today even now be discerned in creation’s social (Gal 3:28), political (Is 14:5), economic (Acts 2:45), as well as spiritual (Rom 4:25) spheres. It is precisely because this is my gospel that I stay in the fight. I can discern even in North Korea today proof of what God is doing and will consummate when Jesus comes again.
So when Chosunjournal helps rescue four North Korean orphans, I savor it as a foretaste of God’s promised deliverance. When ministers in China suffer threats of arrest and assassination for sheltering N. Koreans, I see a reaffirmation of the power of the cross – healing through solidarity. When thousands of churches, from England and South Africa to the Philippines and Denmark, tearfully lift up prayers for North Korea, I discern the firstfruits of the promised redemption of the world in their spiritual groans (Rom 8:22). When the United Nations is mobilized to condemn Pyongyang for “systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights”, I see it as a preview of God’s coming vindication for millions of silent victims. When I meet and pray with the remnant of the “Jerusalem of the East”, I am reassured that God’s kingdom will indeed consist of “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7:9). When I see South Korean churches arrange housing, education, and employment for North Korean defectors, I hear a resounding amen to the truth of the gospel that Christ has indeed made the “two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). If the gulags, biological experiments, and mass starvations are proofs of God’s absence, these are evidences of God’s in-breaking presence. Yes, it’s Friday; and Sunday is coming.
I can persevere because I view everything that happens today from the foot of Jesus’ cross. Only by being there, through the power of the Holy Spirit, do I experience the hope that allows one to perceive God doing glorious work even in the most depraved places. Only by being there, not lost in the taunts and the tortures of the ruthless guards, but able to be fully there to hear and believe in the cry, “It is finished”, do I perceive God’s present achieving of redemption of the whole world that was achieved on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. I can sense God’s work of redemption in a plight like that of North Korea here and now, and thereby know that I do not fight like a man who beats the air (1 Cor 9:23-27). I do not even fight to win but so that I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. For what must be fought today we know was already defeated 2,000 years ago, and what must be done today, we only do in remembrance of Him.
(1) “The world is the world and the Church is the Church, and yet the Word of God must go forth from the Church into all the world, proclaiming that the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is. Herein lies the ‘political’ character of the Church.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM, 1959), p. 314.