Back to the Jerusalem of the East

Like much the world, I was shocked to learn last year who was responsible for last year’s Sony data hack: lowly North Korea. Miffed at the unflattering portrayal it received in the studio’s 2014 comedy The Interview, the hermit kingdom’s leadership directed its hacker corps to exact revenge, and did so with great effect, dumping terabytes of private company data onto the internet. In addition to canceling the theatrical release of the film, the hack got me interested in the world’s most secretive country.

Since then I’ve read several firsthand accounts of life inside the country, written by defectors who’ve managed to escape the regime of Kim Jong Un. The individual stories vary, but their descriptions of the regime are remarkably consistent. They speak of a country under complete ideological control, mentally trapped in a personality cult that idolizes a succession of incompetent leaders. Particularly difficult to read are the defectors’ experiences during the brutal famine of the 1990s that killed millions of North Koreans. Even as they ate boiled leaves, the starving citizens extolled the virtues of the Dear Leader and his generosity in caring for them. I can’t hope to convey the state of the country in a single post, so the curious reader should pick up Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which includes interviews with defectors from different walks of life.

Back to the Jerusalem of the East was an interesting departure from these defector biographies. Rather than providing an insider’s perspective, this book focused on the work of Chinese missionaries following the “Back to Jerusalem” vision. The bulk of their work is done on the Chinese side of the DPRK-China border, where resourceful North Koreans often sneak to steal or buy food to take back home. (If caught by Chinese authorities, the refugees are sent back to North Korea to face brutal punishment, so they usually opt to return home instead of continually risk discovery.) The Back to Jerusalem missionaries provide them with food, shelter, medical assistance, and the Gospel. Many refugees return to the DPRK carrying bibles, often in the form of tiny mp3 players.

Gaining entry into the world’s most anti-Christian country is next to impossible for missionaries, so they rely on North Korean converts to carry out the difficult work of the great commission inside the country’s borders. The stories of persecution they bring out are heartbreaking: Christians being crushed to death by steamrollers, killed for distributing or possessing bibles, and – most often – sent along with their families to be worked to death in one of North Korea’s infamous prison camps.

Throughout the book, the authors apologized for the secrecy necessary to discuss such illicit operations. Naming the missionaries involved could bring an end to their entire life’s work, as the North Korean government is quick to put pressure on its Chinese counterpart to crack down on any support provided to North Korean defectors, religious or otherwise. Back to Jerusalem described several incidents in which well-meaning westerners boldly entered the Hermit Kingdom bearing video cameras or bibles, hoping to force a dialogue with the nation’s secretive inhabitants. Unfortunately, these excursions are never effective, and usually result only in a crackdown on area mission workers.

However, there are better ways to go about helping out. There are many organizations that pour time, money, and manpower into this troubled country and the surrounding regions, and one of them will be at Urbana. Crossing Borders works in the area described by the book, providing shelter and spiritual counseling to those who make it across the border. Many of these are North Korean women who are victims of human trafficking. I’m excited to visit them at the conference, talk to the people who are risking their lives at the very edge of the most persecuted country in the world, and find out what I can do to help.

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Comments

To call the leadership in North Korea "incompetent" (second paragraph), to me, is inaccurate. The North Korean leadership has proven to be very competent in many things, especially maintaining power and influence in a region of economic giants (China, South Korea and Japan). Yes, they are terrible at taking care of their people but to call them incompetent paints them as bumbling fools who know not what they're doing. They know exactly what they're doing. They are cold, calloused tacticians and this is the most chilling thing about them.

Thanks Dan. I'm guilty of over-simplifying a complex issue for a short blog post - definitely agree with you that the leadership is far from incompetent when it comes to maintaining regional control. I'm referring here more to their ability to enact the Juche philosophy and create a nation that is actually self-reliant. Many of their policies that may seem inept to outside observers are most likely meticulously controlled, but it seems to me that the famine of the 1990s was due much more to general incompetence in the face of economic challenges than to a grand scheme to control the people.

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