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06 Jun 2018
N joined a small team of pioneering workers to serve the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK; also known as North Korea) after hearing about their needs. As the small team did not have leadership on the ground, she did not receive orientation about cross-cultural ministry in the DPRK. She also found that most workers were busily engaged in their own work. She was extremely frustrated by the lack of leadership, training, support and team work. It was not a surprise that she left the field sooner than expected.
B was part of a project team inside a special economic zone. It was a small team, just him and another couple. Soon he was struggling with how the project was being run. Even though he was fluent in the Korean language, he was not prepared for the many occasions when Korean cultural values clashed with biblical values. Unfortunately, the team leader was not responsive to his many attempts to share his struggles. So he left the team.
P was lecturing at a University inside the DPRK. Each semester he stayed inside for some four months. During these four months, all the lecturers were under constant watch. He also had little contact with those outside due to security concerns. Every semester, he kept all his feelings and fears within. Hence when he came out, he was hoping to have someone to listen to his feelings and questions, and to give him counsel regarding his struggles. But no one gave him time, as they were busily engaged in their own ministries. Soon he developed severe depression and had to leave the field.
From a general observation, over the last 20 years there have been a number of Christian workers serving the people in the DPRK. Living and working in a place like the DPRK poses many challenges to the individuals as well as to those who provide member care for them. While many of the workers are still on the field, one has to admit that a significant number have left the field prematurely and many permanently. It is true that some of these attritions are unavoidable. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that, in hindsight, many of these attritions could have been prevented.
For every mission team, the most important resource is people. The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) conducted a survey on missionary attrition from 1992-1994 called the ‘Reducing Missionary Attrition Project’ (ReMAP I). The results were published in a seminal book called Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition.1 This survey was carried out on 23,000 cross-cultural workers from 455 agencies from 14 countries representing all continents. According to the survey, 3.1% of cross-cultural workers returned from the field each year prematurely, permanently, and for preventable reasons.2 This means around 12,000 cross-cultural workers return from the field each year.3 However, the negative impact is not only on the workers who leave. It also spills onto others. This attrition in turn impacts negatively on thousands of family members, friends, and sending and supporting churches in the home and host communities. This is also a huge loss in terms of personnel on the field. It also negatively impacts the particular team and the sending agency.
From a well-known study by Drs Lois and Larry Dodds, we have gained a great deal of understanding of the kind and the amount of stresses faced by cross-cultural workers.4 A typical cross-cultural worker experiences a stress level two times that of what could put a normal person in a hospital within one year! And cross-cultural workers in the first term peak at a stress level three times as much. These stresses are usually multiple, complex, and even unexpected. It is not only 2-3 times worse than living at home, but without the usual support structures. Of course, it varies between individuals and in the same individual at different times. Often, previously resolved issues can re- surface.
The above data and conclusion relate to workers in open-access nations. However, serving the people of the DPRK puts one in one of the most extreme creative access nations (CAN) in the world. By the sovereignty of God, a small door has been opened for foreigners to live and work inside the DPRK since the late 1990s. Despite the fact that they are welcome to make contributions in the areas of humanitarian aid, education, and business, they are living and working in a most challenging environment with long periods of isolation, constant surveillance, and lack of communication with the outside world. There are many more stresses they have to face due to the DPRK’s political ideology, cultural background, social infrastructure, and economic downturn (see Table 1 below).
|Table 1: Stresses as a Foreigner Living in the DPRK|
|*keep watch on one’s speech|
*keep watch on one’s actions
*keep watch on one’s thoughts
*practice Christianity carefully
*restriction of movement
*unreasonable demands for help
*undue pressures to conform
*unexpected delays and frustrations
*pressure to compromise
*building relationships with locals
*feelings of hatred
*lack of communication with the
*relating to Jucheism (self-reliance)
*responding to poverty and suffering
*clash with their historical view
*twisted view of Christianity
*raising children and schooling
*challenge with fund transfer
*idolization of leaders
*poor business environment
*impact of UN/US sanctions
*isolation and loneliness
*lack of Christian fellowship
*cultural conundrums: gift giving,
excessive drinking, chauvinism,
*obtaining residence visa
*housing/permission to stay
*lack of medical care
According to the ReMAP I studies by WEA, lack of adequate member care is one of the main reasons why workers left the field prematurely.5 Member care is thus not an option! We need adequate member care to sustain people on a long-term basis on the field. Long-term impact arises out of long-term presence. Thus, member care is important not because Christian workers necessarily have more or unique stress, but because they are strategic. They are the instruments for sharing the light, the love and the life of Jesus Christ with those who are yet unreached.
The aim of member care is to care for and build up the cross-cultural worker as a total person, so that he or she will be able to live and serve as a spiritually healthy and effective individual. There is thus a combination of pastoral care, Christian counselling, and human resource development.
We must intentionally provide resources that nurture and develop people (cross-cultural workers, support staff, and children) in the process of their joining an organisation, getting them to their place of service, setting them free to make their contributions, supporting them through trials, and bringing them home again at the appropriate times of their lives.
Preventive member care together with interventional member care will hopefully keep members healthy as a person and as a family. This will in turn enable them to serve effectively and productively. As a result, it is hoped that with adequate and appropriate member care, the attrition rate can be further reduced.
Kelly O’Donnell and Dave Pollock published a work on member care in 2002 called Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from Around the World.’6 In this book, they present a best practice model for member care, first published in 2000, which has become a standard for member care for cross-cultural workers (Figure 1). 7
Figure 1: A Best-Practice Model for Member Care by Kelly O’Donnell and David Pollock
In their model, they divide care into five major spheres according to the care providers presented as a series of concentric circles. The first sphere of care is called master care. This is the ‘heart’ of member care. This refers to the cross-cultural worker receiving care from the Lord through his personal relationship with Him. Master care is fundamental to our well-being. It is important to note that our ministry flows out of our relationship with the Lord (2 Pet 1:5-8).8 There is a ripple effect from the centre to the outlying concentric circles.
The second sphere of care comes from self-care and mutual care. Self-care refers to taking care of one’s own life (1 Tim 4:16 NIV). This includes spiritual, intellectual, emotional, physical, and inter-relational health. Mutual care refers to the care we receive from each other in the body of Christ (Rom 15:5, Gal 6:2, 1 Pet 4:10). It could be from the local body of Christ, fellow team members, the wider missionary community, or spiritual mentors (at home or on the field).
The third sphere of care comes from the senders, which include mission agencies, sending and supporting churches, and special homeside support groups for member care.9 From the mission agency’s perspective, it will include all mission personnel related to the worker from recruitment to retirement. We will be focusing on this particular aspect in the rest of this article.
The fourth sphere of care is called specialist care. It relates to the involvement of specialists in providing professional care in different areas of the member’s need, which are beyond the ability of mission personnel. These may include medical care, pastoral counselling, psychological counselling, debriefing, financial planning, team/interpersonal relationships, training, family/TCK care, crisis /contingency care, etc.
The fifth sphere of care is called network care. It relates to connection, consultation, collaboration, and catalyzing between different agencies/networks to help provide and develop strategic and supportive resources for issues related to the wider missionary community. A good example would be that of the World Evangelistic Alliance (WEA) Mission Commission, which has produced much research material on mission-related topics and missionary needs.10 Apart from Too Valuable to Lose, WEA has also published Worth Keeping to look at the wider issue of missionary attrition and how to prevent it.11
Missions have their root in prayer. Missions must have prayer in all of its plans, and prayer must precede, go with, and follow all cross-cultural workers. This is especially so for those serving in the DPRK with their many challenges. The history of missions shows an inextricable link between intercessory prayer and the progress of the gospel. According to the late Robert E. Speer, ‘Deeper than the need for men, deeper than the need for money, deep down at the bottom of our spiritless life is the need for the forgotten secret of prevailing, worldwide prayer.’12
Thus, encouraging the prayer life of the workers, facilitating their communication with personal prayer partners, providing prayer resources to raise up more prayer partners, and forming prayer groups for the DPRK have been a vital part of member support for cross-cultural workers in the DPRK. Prayer helps our workers to depend solely on God for their ministries. It also helps to involve many more in the work in the DPRK through prayer. On the field, this can be seen in regular prayer letters to prayer partners, team prayer meetings, monthly team prayer updates, days of prayer, and community prayer meetings. Up-to-date prayer resources have also been made available regularly to the Christian public to encourage more informed prayers for the DPRK. Since 2005, we have seen the formation of prayer groups for the DPRK in a number of countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Our desire is to see a worldwide prayer movement for the people of the DPRK, and to see the work and workers in the DPRK be covered over and propelled forward by the prayers of many.
J. O. Fraser, missionary to the Lisu people, said, ‘I believe that it will only be known on the last day how much has been accomplished in missionary work by the prayers of earnest believers at home. Solid, lasting missionary work is done on our knees.’13
The work in the DPRK is not for novices. It requires workers with a clear call, spiritual maturity, physical well-being, emotional stability, cross-cultural intelligence, a servant spirit, living an incarnational life, willingness to work in a team, integrity, ability to focus, and above all, resilience.
Hence, good member care begins with the thorough selection of suitable workers. We need workers who are called, skilled, and willing. We recognise that it is the Lord of the harvest who calls, prepares, and sends out his workers (Matt 9:35, 36). In partnership with him, we help the candidate to listen well to the Lord’s guidance, to see how he has been working in their lives and equipping them for meeting the needs in the DPRK, and to reflect on whether there is a good alignment with our organization/team’s vision, mission, belief, and values.
We encourage each applicant to visit the field and go on a short term trip inside the DPRK before they make the decision for long-term service. This allows them to have a realistic idea and healthy expectation about life and work inside the DPRK. They benefit greatly from interacting with field workers and others in the wider community. It also allows us to get to know them and for them to get to know the team and our ministry approach. We also partner with the church in the selection of candidates by seeking feedback from them and involving them in interviews. Through the application process, we seek to ensure that the right person is sent to the right place at the right time for the right ministries.
As mentioned above, physical well-being and emotional stability are necessary, especially when one is living under tremendous stress and is provided with only limited medical services such as inside the DPRK. Hence the candidates are thoroughly screened for physical and psychological health during the application process.
On the field, medical support is provided by the field medical advisor. Outside the DPRK, the field medical advisor provides day-to-day medical consultations, referrals to trusted local medical facilities, up-to-date immunisations, two-year medical reviews, medical insurance and evacuation arrangements, as well as health updates (eg SARS, Ebola virus endemic, etc.). While in the DPRK, emergency consultations and help with initiating medical evacuations can be given by the field medical advisor as required.
The field team leader is responsible for the overall welfare of each member, including their psychological needs. To prevent burnout, the leader ensures that the cross-cultural worker has regular days off, holidays, and home assignments. Members are also encouraged to take self-assessment inventories at regular intervals to check on their psychological health status.14 Unfortunately, though not unexpected, there have been a number of workers who have suffered serious physical illnesses such as cancer and psychological illnesses such as depression, and have had to be sent home for long-term treatment. These decisions are made only after consultation with the workers, their homeside medical advisor and centre leaders, their family, and their sending church.
Duane Elmer asked people around the world how they felt about cross-cultural workers. This was their response. ‘Cross-cultural workers could be more effective if they did not think they were better than us.’ In order to be a good cross-cultural servant who understands, accepts, and identifies with the local people, one needs to learn about them, with them, and from them.15
To this end, all new workers must complete the Language, Culture, and Worldview Training (LCW Training) phase before they can be designated to ministry in the DPRK. This identification with the local people and the living out of a life reflecting Christ (incarnational ministry) are crucial in the DPRK where one does not have the freedom to share the gospel. LCW Training is an integrated approach to culture, language, and worldview learning for incarnational ministry. Our vision is to see our members at home in their host culture, effectively relating to and serving alongside their focus people, performing with competence in culture and language. It is hoped that members will not be just surviving, but thriving in the host culture, and be effective and productive in their ministries.
During this phase, they will be supervised by the LCW Training Coordinator, an expanded role from that of the language supervisor, who facilitates learning and provides personal support for each LCW Learner. He coordinates teaching personnel, advises about learning institutes and learning material, conducts meetings for culture learning/case studies/research projects, and provides regular LCW assessment. He or she also meets up with each LCW Learner regularly for support and encouragement, and gives advice on how to improve their learning, including arrangement for language exchange or attendance at local churches/meetings. He also coordinates opportunities for learning the spiritual language.
Members are encouraged to adopt a lifelong learning attitude. After entering the DPRK, members will continue with language, culture, and worldview learning on the ground.
The cross-cultural worker is not a superhero or a lone ranger. No cross-cultural worker can do all the work by himself/herself. Together with others, we each achieve more (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NIV). This is especially so in the DPRK where the challenges and obstacles are overwhelming, and there is much to gain by working with and learning from more experienced workers in a team setting. Hence one of our values is to work as a healthy multicultural team. This includes integration into the team, bonding as a team, and playing one’s part in building a healthy team. Just as one values the team and gives to the team, so one will receive from the team the support one needs in serving in the DPRK.
After attending an international orientation course at our headquarters, new workers arriving on the field will undergo a New Workers’ Orientation Course (NWOC). This field orientation course introduces them to the team’s history, structure, function, members’ commitment, ministry approach, introduction to the DPRK and CN, finance matters, security and communication guidelines, LCW Training, health and stress management, partnership, etc. The new member also signs a team agreement and agrees to give accountability to the team leadership. It is hoped that a better understanding of the team and member’s roles will foster each member’s sense of belonging and commitment to the team.
Bonding with the team takes place through regular team meetings and an annual field conference. There is also the informal interaction with one another during the week and on special occasions. It is most important to establish a team where the members are constantly praying for the team and for one another. The goal is for each member to nurture strong and healthy relationships within the team. This will facilitate the giving and receiving of mutual care. Members are encouraged to use their spiritual and natural gifts to serve the team. It may only involve serving over a short period to meet a specific need for the team or for individual members. It is the team leader’s role to ensure that all members are given opportunities to be involved in serving the team. It is the member’s role to make themselves available to serve the team and one another when needs arise. In this way, a healthy team is formed.
Working in a multicultural team requires much hard work. Language, cultural, and worldview differences can easily give rise to misunderstanding, confusion, and even conflict. However, a well-working multicultural team is a most beautiful and compelling testimony of the power of the gospel to break down the barriers between different ethnic groups.16 It will speak to the hearts of the people in the DPRK to see Caucasians, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese people become Christians and work together as a team for the Lord.
The team leader plays a significant role in providing pastoral care for each member as well as holding the member accountable for his/her life and ministry. Apart from regular team meetings, there should be frequent contact and interaction between the team leader and the member. Thus, there is always an open channel for the member to communicate his/her needs to the leader and for the leader to observe how the member is doing in life and in ministry.
The team leader with the leadership council plays a significant role in guiding the field placement process of post-LCW Training workers. This includes consideration on where to serve, what kind of ministry, and which project/business team to join. This is a consultative process over a number of months at the latter part of the LCW Training phase. The member will take initiative to find out more about what is available and where the needs are. The team leader will then make contact with the potential project team leader to understand the set up and management of the project/missional business, and how the team functions. He also needs to ascertain a good alignment of vision, mission, belief, values, and especially financial values and financial management.
The members should provide a regular report on their ministries, whether it is a project or missional business or education. This is part of the member’s accountability to the team. This will also allow opportunities for the leader to give input and help as the need arises. After each trip inside the DPRK, it will be beneficial for the member to touch base with the leader for updating ministry progress and sharing about experiences while in the DPRK that might have caused concern. For those teaching at universities, it will require a longer time for debriefing to take place after the member has settled back into normal life outside the DPRK after a semester.
Once a year or every two years, there should be a formal review of the member’s life and ministry. The review includes physical well-being, spiritual life, emotional health, intellectual development, family, parent-children relationships, financial support, friendship, LCW Training, ministry effectiveness, home assignment planning, etc. This is to allow the member time to reflect, to share about concerns, to receive advice on how to resolve problems, to set development goals, and to plan for future ministries. This is also part of the member’s accountability to the team.
In rare situations, when the team member is not performing accordingly or refuses to submit to leadership or disagrees with the team’s agreed VMBV or has committed a misconduct, the team should have a clear disciplinary policy and process. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, this may include temporary cessation of ministry, counselling, or in the worst scenario, dismissal if it is a serious misconduct, a criminal offence, or if the disciplinary process is not followed through by the member.
In recent days, we have seen more families with young children living inside the DPRK. A number have now gone back to their own countries to pursue college studies. Missionary Kids (MK) or Third Culture Kids (TCK) are part of the cross-cultural team. A family‘s stay on the field is dependent on how their children are settling and doing on the field. It is a fact that many workers left for home prematurely because their children did not settle well on the field.
Thus attention needs to be given to the needs of the accompanying children. This begins with the application process, where a proper assessment of the children’s psychological well-being should be carried out by professional counsellors. The homeside TCK Advisor will also assess the family dynamics, give advice about the children’s preparation to go to the field, and the planning for their education on the field.
The field TCK Advisor will give special attention to how the children are adjusting to the new environment and the new education arrangement. Special home help may need to be given to the family during the LCW Training phase as the parents will be under a fair amount of stress. The field TCK Advisor will keep in regular contact with the parents about schooling options and the children’s progress. Occasionally, the parents may need special help with children who are struggling with the field environment or with learning difficulties. Provisions should be made for children’s programmes during team meetings, field conferences, and training events so that families can fully participate in these important team activities.
Presently, most parents inside DPRK have chosen to homeschool their children. This is because there are not many options. However, not all parents are capable or confident of homeschooling their children. It is a big challenge to be a good homeschool teacher and a parent at the same time. The field TCK Advisor provides support to the parents and also helps in seeking suitable TCK teachers to come. He/she may also coordinate occasional community school weeks for TCKs and their parents to address the downside of homeschooling. This relates to the children being isolated from other children and the lack of group activity opportunities with other children. Parents who decide to use boarding school in another country will need special help in preparing their child for school and going through the separation from their child.
‘Without money, there is no mission.’ Most cross-cultural workers would prefer to do ministry rather than looking after their finances. Nevertheless, they need to be good stewards of the funds given by their supporters and sending/supporting churches. In the work in the DPRK, most members are involved in projects or missional businesses which require good financial management and faithful reporting to donors or investors. They also need to fulfill stringent legal requirements by both the home country and the DPRK. Thus good financial planning and management services are a great support to cross-cultural workers.
The field financial manager is responsible for overseeing the finance management of the entire field team as well as assisting individual members. His/her roles include annual budgeting, allocation, payment of allowance and expenses, regular reporting, and external auditing. The annual budget for members includes all the expenses needed for the life and ministry of the members and their family, that is, according to the needs. Through the organisation’s intranet, members can look up financial reports anytime, anywhere, showing their fund balances and donation details from around the world. Hence one can thank one’s donors without undue delay.
The field manager oversees the setting up of projects and its financial management and reporting back to the donors. The field manager also gives advice to those involved in missional business about proper use of funds for profitable purpose, compliance of tax laws and of sanctions by UN and individual countries. With the finance manager’s service and support, field members can be released from unnecessary administration and worries about handling finance. They can thus give more fully their time to their ministry.
IT security and communication guidelines are important with work related to the DPRK. Careless mistakes can lead to detention and imprisonment, as well as impact on local people. The team IT Coordinator oversees these areas for the team. He or she ensures that members are aware of the security agreement signed by each member to use encrypted, uncompromised computer, legal, and secured software, secured emails, and to carry out regular back-up. Team members are also expected to follow communication guidelines about the use of mobile phones, social media, newsletters, web, emails, etc.
Special care and vigilance are required for those who travel in and out of the DPRK for work. Often unnecessary attention from the security bureau is the result of unintentional mistakes or blatant ignoring of the security and communication guidelines agreed on by the team. Thus the IT Coordinator updates the team regarding significant changes and keeps reminding the team about security and communication guidelines! Following agreed security and communication guidelines faithfully will protect not only the member per se, but the rest of the team as well as the work involved.
As people are the most important resource for the mission team, it is not surprising that one of our organisational values is life-long learning. Therefore, we intentionally provide members with opportunities to receive training and development so that they can give their very best to the work of the Lord (1 Cor 15:58).
The Training and Development Support is based on the Integrated Life and Ministry Model. Integral development refers to the development of the whole person. We want to help each other grow (1) in our relationship with Christ, (2) in our Christlikeness, (3) in our knowledge and use of God’s Word, (4) in our adapting to the language(s) and culture(s) of the people among whom we work, and (5) in the acquisition and development of those skills that will equip us for ministry and leadership. These 5 areas can be represented as concentric circles with (1) being the core. The natural progression in development is to move from the inner circle to the outer one. Growing in our life with Christ will influence our development in the other areas. Growing in Christlikeness will give us the character traits required to persevere in the other three areas. Growing in our biblical understanding should help us adapt to the culture of the people among whom we work and do our ministry in ways that please God.
All members are encouraged to take up various training and development activities with consent from the team leader. These include personal development programmes, studying e-learning modules on the internet, participating in face-to-face member development programmes (eg teamwork, evangelism, and disciple-making training), skills training (eg specific support role training), and leadership training. After one term of service, members can also apply for a study leave for longer, intensive studies such as a graduate or postgraduate programmes. There is also a central record of all the training activities that a member has undertaken since joining the team. This record will allow for easy reference for future Training and Development planning.
Crises often come unannounced. Our ministry is not free of risks, therefore we must be wise and prepared for those major kinds of problems that can be anticipated. This is especially true for workers in the DPRK, in terms of natural disasters, detention, and medical evacuation. We must not fearfully worry, but have foresight. What is a crisis? It is basically a change in our situation that threatens our ministry (in a broad sense), and it usually requires some kind of action as a response.
What kind of crisis can develop within the sphere of work with and in the DPRK? A collection of situations and threats can cause a major crisis (Table 2). These can be divided into the following 5 categories—environmental risks and natural disasters, political and social events, criminal and related issues, ministry related issues, and personal issues.
Table 2: Situations and threats that can cause a major crisis
1. Environmental Risks/Natural Disasters
3. ‘Criminal’ and related issues
4. Ministry-related issues
5. Personal Issues
Each team must have a Crisis and Contingency Plan at hand, which includes policies and guidelines on how to mitigate and handle crises and communicate about them. The crisis and contingency plan should include the following:
Missionaries have many needs. They need divine help. They also need help, encouragement, and care from others. The sending agency, the sending/supporting churches, and individual supporters need to play their roles in providing sender care. It is only when goers and senders partner together as a united team that the gospel work will go forward and the Lord’s name will be exalted. This is especially true for the work in the DPRK.
Does member care work? According to ReMAP II, in a survey of 37,000 missionaries from 540 agencies, after 10 years, high-retaining agencies (those with good member care) still had 72% of their workers while low-retaining agencies (those with poor member care) only had 40% of their workers.17
However, it must be cautioned that there can be a ‘too much’ of member care. Members can be pampered with too much care. The team can become too much concerned about internal relationships at the expense of their ministry. Members can have unreal expectations of the support services from the agency and the team, while at the same time, fail to see their own commitment and obligation to self-care and to be an active member of the team. This will result in members who are unable to look after themselves, become risk-averse, easily give up, and leave the field prematurely in the face of discouragement, pressures, suffering, and illness.
In addition, it is a fact that, for many, suffering is very much a part of their ministry experience as much as joy and fulfillment. This is especially so in a difficult and demanding field like the DPRK. No matter how much member care is provided or how well crisis and contingency plans are made, we cannot avoid facing risks and experiencing suffering. Hence cross-cultural workers must develop a sound biblical theology for suffering before they go to the field.
07 Jun 2018
Any strategy for evangelizing a society must be based on a deep understanding of that society—its history, culture, assumptions. With such understanding, one is able, through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to develop strategies that are more likely to be effective in bringing the gospel to the people of that society.
I believe that the ideology of North Korea and the manner with which that ideology is conveyed to its citizens has raised enormous and poorly understood barriers to understanding the true nature of the gospel and its message of complete freedom for all men, the message of salvation from sin and fear through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
One aspect of this is the deliberate effort by Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), to counterfeit many Biblical models. He was raised in a Christian home near Pyongyang during the Japanese occupation of Korea. His mother was a devout worker in her church in the village of Chilgol. He also spent time living in the home of a Methodist minister in Manchuria where, as a young man, he played the organ for Sunday School and worship services. Kim Il Sung had a good grasp of many aspects of the Bible.
As he developed the North Korean ideology of Juche, he drew on many Biblical and Christian concepts to create what amounts to a state religion. The name ‘Juche’ is translated as ‘self-reliance.’ This is not individual self-reliance as Westerners would conceive but collective, national self-reliance. In North Korea, one will hear references to ‘our kind of socialism’ and ‘by ourselves, we will do it’. The ideology of Juche is often referred to inside North Korea as ‘Kimilsungism’ (Kimilsung-jui). North Koreans will refer to Kim Il Sung as ‘our god’ (uri shin ida). Kim Il Sung began to establish Juche as the North Korean form of communism, separating it from international communism following the death of Stalin in 1953. In addition to developing his own personality cult (along Stalinist and Maoist lines), his son Kim Jong Il built on this during his father’s lifetime and then as successor following his death.
Some aspects of this mimicry of biblical and Christian concepts are such things as:
Many have commented that, because there are so many aspects of the ideology that appear similar to Christianity, it would be easy to show how these aspects are false and to replace them with the biblical truth. Unfortunately, it is not likely to work that way. What I believe is more likely is that the collapse of the ideology to which generations have made such a deep commitment will bring with it deep cynicism and a difficulty to believe anything.
Ultimately, despite surface similarities, the gospel is completely foreign to the worldview of North Korea in which all North Koreans are inculcated from birth to death. Simply preaching to such people will not communicate biblical truth, even if the preacher is able to point out all the similarities and explain the differences.
The ideology of North Korea has had a profound impact on the nature of the North Korean family. In fact, the family is seen as simply a cog in the machine of the overall structure of North Korean society, where all citizens are assigned roles by the Korean Workers Party. The Party controls where a person lives, where he or she works, and where they go to school. A person’s biological parents serve to bring more workers into the system through birth and then to be the means by which the Great Leader extends his loving care to the individual. Children are turned over to the state to rear from kindergarten on. Actually, many are voluntarily turned over at the age of two or three to nursery schools that begin the process of indoctrination, which continues through college and beyond. Fully one-third of all education in North Korea is devoted to the exploits and family of the Great Leader.
The collective ideology of North Korean Communism assigns the majority of people to live in collective apartment complexes, villages, or farms where they participate in collective work assignments. All citizens belong to inminban, or ‘people’s groups’, that control the comings and goings of the people. In addition, the organizational structure of the society keeps individuals from making individual decisions about most everything. A common slogan in North Korea is, ‘What the Party decides, we do’ (dang-i kyulshim ha-myun, ori-neun hand-da).
The pervasive surveillance of all North Koreans, which starts with the inminban system and includes the several state security systems, has, over the generations, bred a system of deep suspicion and distrust. While people do make close friendships, there is always a risk that any friend will turn one in for actions or beliefs that do not conform. Even within families there is suspicion. Children have been instructed by school teachers to inform on parents. Those who do are rewarded. The consequences of not conforming can be severe, from beatings and bodily torture to incarceration in political labor camps to execution. To escape these consequences, an ubiquitous system of bribery and corruption has arisen. Those with power commonly use that power to acquire wealth and status as well as carry out numerous forms of physical and sexual abuse.
The DPRK claims to be ‘the workers paradise’. Labor is held up as the ultimate good, but not for the sake of caring for one’s self or one’s family; rather, to maintain the collective state and provide for the Leader—the Father of the People.
North Korea has become a society based on fear and power, manipulation, and virtual slave labor. This is considered to be the norm by the vast majority of the populace. It is also a society where love is not understood and biblical structures of family, faith, and caring authority are unknown.
In addition to the above, there are other challenges related to the distinct cultural similarities and differences between North and South Korea. Many in South Korea see the commonality of language and culture and conclude that evangelizing the North will be easy. The reality is quite different. Even the languages of the North and the South have diverged in significant yet subtle ways that make communication difficult. It is easy for either northerner or southerner to assume that there has been good communication between the two, when in actual fact there is great misunderstanding and confusion. Another challenge is the great difference in the lifestyles between the affluent South Koreans and the North Koreans with nothing they can call their own. These challenges will not go away following political change or an opening up of North Korea.
To bring the love of Jesus Christ into such a society will be no easy task.
The following is by Ben Torrey, from the March 2011 issue of Plus Inseng (Plus Inseng is a monthly magazine, originally and once again published under the name of Shinangye (Life of Faith) by the Central Full Gospel Church, Yoido, Seoul). Published in Korean translation.
The concept of the leader being the father of the people in North Korea is not one of simple respect or symbolism. It is much deeper, encompassing all aspects of life. When Kim Jong Il began to exercise power as long ago as 1974, he began the process of elevating respect for and obedience to his father to the level of a religion. At that time, he proclaimed the Ten Principles of Life (modeled on the Ten Commandments) exalting Kim Il Sung and his heirs to this high position. The Ten Principles are as follows:
(For further information on the Ten Principles, see: http://www2.law.columbia.edu/course_00S_L9436_001/North%20Korea%20materials/10%20principles%20of%20juche.html)
As the reader can see, these principles require absolute obedience and that all honor be given to the Great Leader and his successor, Kim Jong Il. These principles, along with other tenets of Kimilsungism, place the leader not only as the supreme ruler but as the supreme father for all the people.Appendix 2: Further Reading
The following are a number of books and resources that will be helpful in deepening an understanding of North Korea and its people.
The following articles and periodical provide a good understanding of the nature of Juche and the organizational structure of North Korean society:
The following web links relate to the surveillance and control system of North Korea:
07 Jun 2018
How can Christian businesses best engage with North Korea? North Korea’s economy has developed over the past several decades to be creative, entrepreneurial, comfortable with legal ambiguity, and dependent on personal relations and high levels of corruption. Christian organizations that are doing business in North Korea will need to take these factors into account and take great care in finding and developing the right North Korean partners for engagement, as well as thinking through the business sectors in which they should become involved.
Many Christian organizations use business as an entry into North Korea for the purpose of engaging with North Koreans, but given how opaque and difficult North Korea is, doing business in the country is often fraught with uncertainty and risk. In this article, I explain how the North Korean economy has developed, how North Koreans do business, and what that means for how Christian organizations might best engage with North Koreans through business activities.
The North Korean economy as it stands now is a product of 25 years of adaptation by North Koreans, both government officials and private citizens, to terrible circumstances. After North Korea was cut off from Soviet and Chinese aid at the end of the Cold War, electricity and agricultural production collapsed. In the face of famine and the government itself ceasing to function in many respects, North Koreans at all levels of society either starved or began providing for themselves. Average North Koreans (usually women) began to buy and sell goods in private markets. State company officials set their employees to work making money for the company, and went into business themselves. Government officials allowed all this technically illegal activity to happen to enrich themselves, and because people under their purview would otherwise starve. The central government itself also gave licenses to state companies to buy and sell goods abroad, including not only weapons and drugs, but also more prosaic items like clothes and specialty foods.
By 2005, the severity of the famine had lessened, and the government felt more comfortable in its position. It began attempting to re-impose control, at first by limiting access and availability of private markets, and then in 2009, by re-denominating the North Korean won, effectively wiping out the savings of many North Koreans who had made money on their own. Yet all these attempts to roll back the clock came to naught—North Korea’s economy had fundamentally changed.
With Kim Jong-un’s rise since 2011, the government has returned to a grudging acceptance of the hybrid economy. While the Kim Jong-un era has been characterized by intense political instability—recurrent purges at the top of the state, continual replacement of officials at the bottom, and an increasingly bellicose and adversarial relationship with China and the US as the country develops its nuclear weapons and missile programs—North Korea’s economy has been surprisingly stable. Pyongyang has seen a building boom, food prices have been relatively stable, North Korea has apparently been able to fund a large trade deficit with China year after year, and the North Korean economy has even grown (albeit at a very slow rate) even as the United Nations Security Council has imposed increasingly punitive sanctions. Kim Jong-un appears to be ‘paying’ for political instability and a tightening of repression with relative economic stability, at least for his elite supporters in Pyongyang.
The current economic landscape has a variety of players. At the bottom, with the least influence or connections to power, are private small businesses, doing business either in won or in hard currency. At the top are the central state companies that are charged with bringing in income and goods for the central government. Slightly removed from the center are the other state companies that have licenses to go into business for themselves, as long as they send money back to the government. In the middle are hybrid businesses, which are formally owned by the government, but are in reality managed by private business people, who buy official status in exchange for paying government officials a fee and giving them a cut of the profits. The economy thus functions like a food chain, with Kim Jong-un and his core supporters extracting income from companies and government officials, with government officials extracting bribes and rents from businesses, and, at the bottom, individual North Koreans, in exchange for looking the other way.
The peculiarities of the North Korean economy mean that North Koreans have developed unique business practices. First, North Korean business people are comfortable with ambiguity. Legality and illegality are not necessarily the right way to measure whether a business practice is legitimate. While private ownership remains technically illegal, and many of the activities in which business people engage—such as obtaining trading permits through bribes and crossing the border in many circumstances—are against the law, the government tolerates the existence of private companies and private enterprise because officials, and through the food chain, the central government itself, get a cut of the profits in exchange for looking the other way. Maintaining illegality also allows the government to crack down on business and officials (for ‘corruption’) at any time it chooses. The economy, in essence, runs on hypocrisy and the lie that North Korea is still a centralized command economy.
Similarly, ownership and official status are not always clear – many privately-run companies are formally state-owned companies, and private citizens can buy official status. Even whether different government officials have the right to exploit resources or sell goods is often unclear to the officials themselves. Because of the ambiguous nature of business in North Korea, business is also a series of relationships—between buyers and sellers, between businessmen and their protecting/exploiting officials, between officials and their superiors, and the like—rather than an open market. Business people survive by cultivating these relationships over time in an effort to ensure that they have continued access to suppliers, customers, resources, and (given the illegal nature of much of what they do) their freedom.
Second, North Koreans are entrepreneurial. They are extremely good at finding and exploiting market niches (from personal experience, for example, North Koreans are willing to run restaurants advertising dog meat in northeastern China when others are more discreet) and are adaptable in how they do business. North Koreans do business as if their survival depends on it, because it often does. They are willing to (and indeed, have to) operate in an uncertain, high-risk business environment where failure, either in the form of business failure or a government purge or crackdown, can mean imprisonment or death. As a result, they can be ruthless and pragmatic in their business dealings, despite the political indoctrination emanating from the government.
From the perspective of a Christian organization thinking about doing business in North Korea, this environment has many risks. Aside from the general hostility of the North Korean government to Christians, organizations must deal with corruption and bribery challenges, as well as an inefficient (and hungry) workforce and infrastructure problems: roads and rails are in terrible shape, the electricity supply is inconsistent, and communications both within North Korea and between North Korea and the outside world are difficult. United Nations and US sanctions against North Korea make transferring money into and out of the country difficult, and US and South Korean organizations in particular have to be careful not to run afoul of sanctions (including the US travel ban). Within North Korea, the actual laws on investment are often irrelevant, dispute resolution mechanisms are essentially nonexistent, assets that are stuck in North Korea are liable to expropriation, the risk that a change in the political climate will endanger operations is high, and under Kim Jong-un, there has been a rapid turnover of North Korean officials.
Chinese businesses have come up with a number of strategies to deal with these problems and with the North Korean economy in general, many of which may be useful for Christian organizations as they think about how to engage North Korea. The primary strategy for Chinese businesses is not to invest in North Korea at all, but to focus on import and export trade with North Korean partners at the border. In this way, they leave nothing in North Korea for the government to expropriate, and do not have to enter North Korea at all in many circumstances.
Minimizing contact with North Koreans is likely to be at odds with Christian organizations’ desire to engage with North Korea, and so it would make sense to make some investment in North Korea. If they do, it is important to do research before, and, through engaging their networks, find the right industries where there are opportunities for business. Based on the experiences of Chinese businesses, Christian organizations are likely to want to go into businesses where North Korean partners are dependent on them, and where their continued presence in North Korea is required. One Chinese firm we talked to, for instance, imported sophisticated construction equipment into North Korea, confident that his North Korean partners would not have the expertise to run it themselves. Another ran an auto-repair business that used Chinese employees and required constant imports of auto parts from China.
If engaging in manufacturing, Christian organizations may also want to consider industries that do not require particularly efficient processes, consistent electricity supply, or huge capital outlays. Low value-added manufacturing is one such example—one of our Chinese contacts made wigs in Rason. Finally, it may behoove organizations to go into organizations that take advantage of and help alleviate the North Korean economy’s dysfunction. Hybrid companies within North Korea, for instance, provide much of the intercity transportation (such as long-distance buses and trucks and financial services such as loans and money transfers). Many businesses with ties in multiple parts of North Korea can also take advantage of different local prices by buying goods in one part of the country and selling them in another. 
It is also important to find the right business partner inside North Korea: one who is trustworthy (if possible), and with an official position with enough influence to clear away bureaucratic barriers, acquire a consistent supply of resources such as electricity and water, and avoid being purged. In all cases, building up extensive networks with North Korean officials will help organizations to weather political storms, find new opportunities for engagement, and guarantee contracts. Ideally, these partnerships are long-term, with partners who can connect with other officials and clear political hurdles. One Chinese businessman, for example, helped his business partner’s career in the North Korean military, and the partner in turn was in a position to help him later. Building networks of multiple partners in strategic positions allows organizations to go to different officials for different needs, and alleviates the risk that any one partner will be purged. In building these relationships, Christian organizations should also be prepared to provide these partners with food and supplies, as well as arrange for their own electricity and raw materials if necessary.
The ambiguity of North Korean business and the lack of meaningful difference between legality and illegality mean that in many cases, organizations should think missionally about bribes and corruption. Chinese businesses generally found that while bribes (or more accurately, gifts for business partners) were useful for building relationships, they did not actually solve problems in North Korea. Rather, the relationship with the partner itself helped to smooth business and guarantee contracts, and building up relationships can be done in other ways. The Chinese businessman involved in auto repair, for instance, had little reason to pay bribes because he repaired the cars of important officials for free, and could use the services he provided to the officials as a way to build his networks and give his partners a reason to keep him in the country. He also used the auto repair business as a loss leader to build up and find opportunities for other, more profitable ventures.
These are some strategies that have helped businesses survive in North Korea in the past, but there is always going to be a substantial amount of risk, and Christian businesses should take that into account. Given their missional focus, Christian businesses are uniquely placed to engage with North Koreans in this environment. While there are substantial challenges in dealing with the North Korean economy, the creativity and drive with which North Koreans have taken to using business to survive mean that there are also many opportunities.
07 Jun 2018
I am suggesting a strategy for evangelizing North Korea. I believe that intentional communities established by South Korean Christians and other Christians going to live in collectivist North Korea will be an effective means to evangelize the people. This article explains why. It also includes thoughts on how to begin preparing now, even though for South Korean citizens, North Korea is currently closed to this possibility.
North Korea is a state governed by a man who stands in the place of God for his people. The present ruler is the third in succession from the founder, Kim Il Sung. It is also a state founded on communist, socialist, and collectivist ideologies. The official ideology of Juche (national self reliance), also referred to domestically as ‘Kimilsungism’, decrees that the citizens have no personal property, live communally, and be dedicated to serving and defending the leader. These ideas are drilled into all citizens from kindergarten up.
In such a nation, how can one share the good news of the gospel in a manner that will be heard and understood? How can the love and freedom of Jesus Christ be conveyed to a people who have little understanding and virtually no experience of either?
I would like to suggest that Christian community can provide an answer.
‘For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.’ (Matthew 18:20, NASB)
When God’s people come together in the name of Jesus Christ, he is there; his body is present. It is the church.
When his people live together in love, joy, and commitment to one another, people sit up and take notice. We see this clearly evidenced in the first Christian community in Jerusalem.
‘They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:41-47, NASB)
What I envision when I suggest Christian community as being an effective way to evangelize North Korea is many groups of Christians, each group sponsored by a South Korean church, settling in the North. These would be groups of 10 to 20 individuals of varying ages, with various skills and experiences from all backgrounds, all sharing a commitment to the Lord, to one another, and, most of all, to being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in that land—being the church in place. They would go in together, settling in one location and creating a life together there. They would share their resources and their time with one another. They would live together. This would not be a short-term endeavor but a commitment to staying in that location together over the long term. They would support themselves collectively in whatever way was appropriate, from farming to providing services and teaching or doing light manufacturing depending on the skills in the community. They would be supported by a sponsoring church in South Korea through prayer and encouragement. The question of providing financial support is very sensitive and requires great wisdom. If the members of the community exhibit anything that the people around them might construe as a wealthy lifestyle, it could erect insurmountable barriers between them. Also giving money to the people of the area can be very damaging. Money has, in the history of missions, proven to be extremely corrupting, bringing about the destruction of many good ministries. In fact, St Paul raised money for the Mother Church in Jerusalem from the mission field, among the poorest of the new believers (cf. Rom 15:26 and 2 Cor 8:1-9). At the same time, money can be used with great care and wisdom to provide constructive help in ways such as providing micro loans, initial capital for a small business, or the like. This requires a great deal of careful thought, discernment, prayer, and wisdom.
I do not see these groups going in to organize churches, erect worship buildings, establish schools, or other similar endeavors, but rather simply going in to live together, to simply be.
As they live together, being a productive part of the neighborhood, they would be able to transfer skills and knowledge to the people around them. They would demonstrate the love of Christ in ways that could never be conveyed by words alone. They would also be able to show that it is possible to live and work together without suspicion and fear. They would give new meaning to the concepts of community and labor. Community would become not an ideological communist tool of the leadership but a manifestation of the love of God. Labor would become not a means to build the state but an expression of love for those around by being productive, not being a burden, but rather, by providing for self and others.
This example of communal life would communicate deeply to the people of North Korea in terms that are accessible to them. Precisely because of that, it would convey the amazing and radical nature of the gospel. The people of North Korea would see men and women living not in fear of one another but in love and joy. They would see people laboring not to meet state targets but as those who truly want to build up their community and the society, not being coerced but serving voluntarily.
As the people living near the community observe them, benefit from their labors, and interact with them, we anticipate that they will begin to wonder who these people really are and why they have come. They will begin to ask questions. At this point, the members can begin to share their own faith and stories. At this point, spoken messages will communicate.
Over time, we would expect the people of the area and the community to interact with increased friendship. We envision them seeking to join in the worship and wanting to understand more about the faith that motivates the community. This would lead to an organic and natural establishment of North Korean worshiping bodies, to establishing the church once again in North Korea.
The community must also be prepared to guide new North Korean believers with great humility, wisdom, and loving gentleness, and to be flexible enough to accept possible new patterns for church life and structure. North Koreans should be raised up and discipled in leadership to lead their own churches. It would be good to do this without burdening them with extensive educational and training requirements based on contemporary South Korean Christianity, but to seek together to discover new patterns that are both fundamentally biblical and particularly meaningful in that new context.
In order for groups to establish communities in North Korea, they must prepare beforehand. It will take time for people to prepare for their communal life in the North. It will take time to think and pray through the many aspects of the new life together in that new land. It will take time to learn the language and culture of the North. Here are some things that can be done now.
Living together in community is not easy. We, at Jesus Abbey, have learned over the past 52 years that the intimate involvement in each other’s life, day in and day out without let up, breaks down a person’s defenses, leading them to expose their inner selves. This is often quite traumatic. People tend to have a hidden self which they are loathe to share publicly. Living in community over time exposes that hidden self. In addition to this strong emotional stress, there are other stress factors having to do with sharing responsibilities and work loads, authority structures, expectations of one another, and so on. Our experience shows clearly that success in living together as an intentional community requires a strong commitment to the common purpose of the community, to prayer, and to complete dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.
It would be important to begin the process of common life together in South Korea, putting it into practice by living and working together. There are many ways this could be done. One is to rent a group of apartments together in one building, then meet together, sharing resources, meals, prayer and work, taking on special projects together, etc. Another is to build a small farming village where all work and worship together. It could be a group living together in one large building or a collection of buildings on one piece of land. Many different patterns for community life can already be found in the South Korean Christian community movement. Many of these communities, including Jesus Abbey, are part of a Christian community association.
I have referred in several places to the significant differences between North and South Korea. These differences include fundamental assumptions, culture, and even language. For a group of South Koreans or overseas Koreans to live together in North Korea and to communicate effectively, it will be important for them to learn all they can. This requires study and research.
Groups preparing to go into North Korea can share the effort of learning through reading and research, through participating in existing programs, and by inviting experts to come and speak.
Perhaps the most effective way to learn is also a way the group can begin the process now of sharing the love of Christ with North Koreans. That is to befriend North Korean resettlers in the South, to invite them to live together in the community. Direct involvement in the lives of North Koreans who have fled the North and come to live in the South can bring rich blessings to everyone involved. Those who hope to go into the North will learn about the culture, worldview, and language of the North, while those from the North, who frequently feel at a great loss in the South, experiencing prejudice, rejection, and loneliness, will become part of a loving and caring community. Many hope to return to share the gospel with friends and family left behind. Include them in the plans. Learn from their experience and wisdom.
It is my sincere prayer that thousands of South Koreans will answer this call to community, to being the hands and feet of Jesus in the North, and that they will begin preparing for this now.Further Reading
The following resources that will be helpful in thinking about community and evangelism:
The Korean Community Church Association (Hankuk Kongdongchae Kyowhoi Hyubeui-whoi)
Community Leadership Training Center (Kongdongchae Jidoryuk Hoonryun Won)
The Korean Community Church Association includes many of the various Christian intentional communities in Korea. These communities have a wide variety of purposes and lifestyles. Anyone in Korea interested in forming a community would gain a great deal of knowledge and insight through the communities in the association.
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl (Willliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge UK, 1999)
This is an excellent discussion of hospitality and the power of open and welcoming communal life to bring about reconciliation and healing.
07 Jun 2018
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [the Son], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: The old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20a)
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a)
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
The mission of God in our fallen, broken world is reconciliation. Sacred Scripture witnesses that God’s mission of reconciliation is holistic, including relationships with God, self, others, and creation. This mission has never changed from the Fall to the new creation in Christ, to its fulfilment in the coming of Jesus in the eschaton. God’s reconciling mission involves the very in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, as realized through Jesus’ incarnation, His life and ministry and preaching, and through His death and resurrection.
God’s initiative of reconciliation through Christ transforms believers into God’s new creation. With all of creation, we await our final and perfect transformation in the end of time. At that time, when Jesus returns, God’s mission will be complete. People of every nation, tribe, and language, gathered as one, will worship the Lamb, the tree of life and its leaves shall be for the healing of the nations, and the new heavens and earth shall make the reign of God a reality with all things reconciled to God (Romans 8:18-39, Revelation 7:9-17; 21-22:5).
Reconciliation is God’s initiative, restoring a broken world to God’s intentions by reconciling “to himself all things” through Christ (Colossians 1:19) including the relationship between people and God, between people and with God’s created earth. Christians participate with God’s mission by being transformed into ambassadors of reconciliation.
In response to all this, the believer is called to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation. This includes obeying Jesus’ command to humbly make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20), teaching them to follow the example of Jesus who suffered for a suffering world. The church is called to be a living sign of the one body of Christ, an agent of hope and holistic reconciliation in our broken and fragmented world.
A serious impediment to God’s mission of reconciliation in our time is not only the reality of destructive divisions and conflicts around the world, but quite often the church being caught up in these conflicts — places where the blood of ethnicity, tribe, racialism, sexism, caste, social class, or nationalism seems to flow stronger than the waters of baptism and our confession of Christ.
While the church’s suffering faith is evident in many conflicts, the guilt of Christians in intensifying the world’s brokenness is seriously damaging our witness to the gospel. The church’s captivity is both direct and indirect, whether actively furthering destruction and division, remaining silent or neutral in the face of it, or promoting a defective gospel. This is true of recent and current contexts including legalized apartheid (South Africa), “ethnic cleansing” (the Balkans), genocide (Rwanda), histories of racism and ethnocentrism (USA), terror and killing of civilian populations and bitter, unresolved social divisions (ranging from “sectarianism” in Northern Ireland, to Dalit “untouchables” and caste in India, to the plight of Aboriginal peoples in Australia, to the Korean peninsula, to Palestinians and Israelis). Christians are often bitterly divided on both sides.
This troubled situation calls for prayer, discernment, and repentance, and a critical reexamination of the very meaning of mission, evangelism, discipleship and even church in relation to God’s reconciling mission. This is particularly urgent given cases where vast areas of revivals and church planting have become vast killing fields (such as Rwanda 1994), with Christians slaughtering neighbours and even other Christians.
Yet even in the worst conflicts, signs of the quest for reconciliation can be detected in the church. Christians have shaped many of the world’s most hopeful breakthroughs for reconciliation. In becoming agents of biblically holistic reconciliation, we must learn to name and confess the sins of the past and present and encourage others to do the same, be willing to forgive, and live in new ways of repentance and costly peacemaking. Above all, Christians must be people of hope; hope in God’s victory in Christ and that, over time, reconciliation can break in, because this is God’s mission.
God created humanity in God’s image, for natural union and wholeness of life with God, one another, and God’s material creation. The Fall shattered this union, resulting in the estrangement seen in Cain’s murder of Abel. While destructive conflict is rooted in this rupture, it cannot be explained solely in terms of wicked human hearts. Powerful historical and social forces, unjust systems, and “spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12) are also part of the world’s brokenness. The transmission of the gospel and the ministry of the church do not run in a pure, separate historical stream, but are carried on inside of and tainted by the world’s poisoned, muddy histories. All the agents of brokenness must be discerned and confronted—personal, social, and spiritual.
In our shrinking and increasingly pluralistic and globalized world, manifestations of social division are intensifying. Destructive conflicts crying out for reconciliation include both open conflict and “quieter” conditions of persistent injustice, division, and separation. Four interrelated dimensions of historical social conflicts must be engaged: the past and its trauma; how that past is named and remembered; how the present is described and engaged; and how the future is imagined.
In terms of the past and its trauma, destructive social conflicts and realities do not drop like meteors from the sky. Behind each trauma are infective histories, particular social, economic, spiritual, institutional and political factors and powers, and the reality that the oppressed of yesterday often become the new oppressors, repeating cycles of destruction. Reconciliation is not forgetting the past. Yet naming and remembering the past well is difficult. Sharing a history in every social division are offenders and offended, passive bystanders and active peacemakers, with lines between them rarely agreed upon and alienated groups and the Christians within them holding tightly to conflicting versions of truth. In response to God’s love and justice, however, Christians are called to fearlessly seek and name the truth of what has happened, guided by repentance and forgiveness. This must involve seeking shared truth across divided lines. Deformed ways of remembering the past include denial, social amnesia, a spirit of unforgiveness and uncritical affirmation of one’s own group and its history.
In the present where we live, haunted memories, the unresolved past, and continuing trauma have a cumulative effect. These forces can so pervade a culture, a people, that they are passed on from generation to generation — perpetuating distrust, fear, bitterness, exclusion, retribution, and the politics and economics which often exploits these realities. Persistent unjust balances of societal power are also a consequence of the unresolved past and present. In the face of all this, divided groups easily resign themselves to separate and alienated communities, jostling for power. If militarism enters as an option of providing some with personal security while neglecting human security for all, conflicts rise to devastating levels.
Against these forces of the past and present, alienated groups cannot even imagine a future of friendship, solidarity or common life. Instead, they accept and live with permanent categories of another group as aliens, strangers or enemies: “black” and “white;” Hutu and Tutsi; clean and “untouchable;” South and North Korean; and “terrorist” and “terrorized.” Fragmentation becomes normal, acceptable and even inevitable.
When Christians are passive bystanders and refuse to become constructive agents of reconciliation amidst such divisions and destructive conflicts, we are guilty of withholding love to a neighbour, the love of God is not manifested in our lives, and we give life to a defective gospel.
Numerous ideologies of escape steer Christians away from reconciliation and must be named and rejected by the church. These include:
Against these ideologies of escape, the church must formulate theological alternatives that encourage authentic reconciliation.
Regarding other situations, when sweeping revivals and rapid church growth occur, Christians must restrain from triumphalism. In too many cases, Christians have been implicated in destructive conflict which has overtaken vast areas of revival and church planting. The church has failed to be self-critical or discerning enough, or to adequately answer “How did this happen, and where did Christians fail?”
In addition, Christians cannot be neutral in a time of social crisis. Too often we are silent about destructive conditions occurring around us, or in our world. Any dichotomy between the evangelistic and the prophetic is false. Along with leading believers into personal holiness, the church is charged to have a prophetic social presence. The church must learn to speak the truth to powers. This calls us to “discern the will of God” concerning societal powers and governing authorities that have immense influence over the lives of Christians, over our nonChristian neighbours and over destructive conflicts and societal realities.
The capacity to be a prophetic church is being seriously eroded by three stances. A religious pluralist stance promotes social transformation without personal conversion, losing the uniqueness and lordship of Christ. A quietist stance ignores social evil, is silent when people suffer persecution, and preaches the sufficiency of individual salvation without social transformation, losing public social witness. An assimilationist stance misuses the Bible to support the status quo of social or political exclusion, or weds Christian interests with particular governing authorities, losing all prophetic distance.
In addition, the church often shares in the sin of comfortable neutrality, the complacency of those who find themselves on the side of social privilege and fail to work vigorously to transform the status quo. This is at least true of those who tend to preside over the levers of theological power and influence. Thus the theology of the church is often in support of the status quo, or asks very few critical questions, losing all prophetic voice and domesticating the gospel.
Yet God’s forgiveness in Christ makes possible the church’s faithful confrontation of past and present trauma and injustices. As communities of Christians learn to model confession, forgiveness and costly peacemaking in lives marked by joy, we proclaim a new future and offer a vision of hope to a broken world.
Amidst the world’s profound brokenness, God’s peace in the risen Christ is now powerfully at work, seeking to reconcile humanity to God’s intended purposes for union with God, one another, and the material creation, resulting in the flourishing of all. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture witnesses to God’s total mission “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:15-20). The fullness of reconciliation is friendship with God in Jesus Christ, witnessed to in Christ’s two-fold command to love God and neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40). Christ has prepared the way for reconciliation by abolishing the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, making of the two one new humanity, establishing peace (Ephesians 2:11-18). Reconciliation is a sign of God’s presence in the world, of the kingdom of God drawing near.
The wholeness that God seeks to bring to all areas of brokenness is captured by the rich Scriptural notion of shalom. This is shalom as rooted within the full biblical story and not in any nationalistic or politically partisan sense. From the original wholeness of God’s creation, broken by the Fall, to God’s response to initiate restoration through covenant, to Christ tearing down the Jew-Gentile barrier, shalom proclaims peace as God’s peace in distinction to the world’s:
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (John 14:27). Shalom as God’s peace envisions the wholeness, well-being and flourishing of all people and the rest of creation both individually and corporately in their interrelatedness with God and with each other. Shalom as God’s peace encompasses all dimensions of human life, including the spiritual, physical, cognitive, emotional, social, societal and economic. Shalom pursues mercy, truth, justice and peacefulness through both personal conversion in Christ and social transformation.
Because God created all persons in God’s image, reconciliation also proclaims God’s love for every human being. One crucial implication is that Christians must stand against any destructive or dehumanizing barriers built up by one person or group of people against another, whether they are Christian or not.
One theological implication of the above three paragraphs is this: God’s mission of holistic reconciliation is the overall context for evangelism and making disciples. Reconciliation with God is essential and Christians must be agents of that restoration. However, to stress evangelism without also being agents of holistic reconciliation betrays the full truth of the gospel and the mission of God.
In view of all this, Christians are called to faithfully embody God’s total reconciling mission. Through new life given in Christ, the Holy Spirit’s power, the church’s faithful teaching, and on-going Christian practices, people can be deeply transformed toward loving God, neighbour and enemies. Only in this radical journey of conversion can Christians develop the skills to resist destructive conflicts and live out a way of being which, over time, can heal and reconcile.
The church’s ministry of reconciliation flows from a call to being a reconciled community.
Christ prayed for the visible unity of the church, and intimately connected Christian unity to Christ being known as the One sent from God: “I pray . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-23).
We are led by Christ crucified to fully engage painful historical conditions and by the risen Christ to explode walls and barriers and build new forms of common life.
The church’s ministry should also be profoundly shaped by the truth that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Christian discipleship is led by the crucified Christ to fully engage the painful historical conditions of separation, animosity, and destruction in the earthly realm, refusing “cheap grace” and shallow resolutions. Christian discipleship is also led by the risen Christ to live in ways which explode old walls and barriers and build hopeful new forms of Christian community and just society between divided peoples.
Reconciliation and the quest for justice go hand in hand. There cannot be reconciliation if sin is not named, judged publicly and condemned. In the face of oppression, to reject vengeance is a double injustice — to the afflicted and to God’s wrath against evil. What is crucial is how we appropriate vengeance: “Do not take revenge…but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). In Jesus’ death, God judged all sins, abuses and atrocities. God’s forgiveness in Christ “while we were yet sinners” guides our pursuit of justice toward healing. One mark of holistic reconciliation is a commitment to pursuing justice that is primarily restorative rather than retributive, keeping open the hope for future common life between enemies and alienated peoples.
At the same time, we must heed Scripture’s exhortation that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” It is crucial to recognize an unseen, heavenly dimension to the quest for reconciliation in the world, a struggle against certain destructive forces and their ideologies, against “rulers,” “powers of this dark world,” “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:10-18). This calls for a deep life of prayer and discernment “in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18) at the centre of Christian ministry amidst destructive conflict and proclaims that reconciliation is ultimately a matter of God’s power and victory.
Difference itself, or differences, are not necessarily the problem calling for reconciliation. In many ways, diversity of peoples and cultures is a gift, such as another language opening up a new world to us, or another culture as a gift to enrich us. Often the problem is how the will to dominate exploits the differences. While God’s mission of reconciliation does not obliterate human diversity, it does seek to bring friendship with God and neighbour in a way which transforms human cultures. We must carefully and locally discern where the gospel affirms culture, where it opposes, and where it encourages transformation. Christians are called to lives of hospitality, to open themselves to the stranger, the alien, the outcast, and the enemy. Such openness radically changes one’s relationship to one’s culture, and how one engages cultures in transforming ways. The pursuit of reconciliation is an ongoing struggle. This quest should not be expected to end conflict in this world, but rather to transform it. True reconciliation and shalom is only in the eschaton, when all things are reconciled in Christ. While full reconciliation does not happen in this life, there is hope of substantial healing.
Every act seeking reconciliation, no matter how small, matters greatly to God. The scope of reconciliation runs from healing in one person’s life, to two individuals overcoming animosities, to nations and long-divided peoples seeking to do so.
This work of becoming peacemakers between divided peoples is not secondary or optional, but is central to Christian mission along with planting churches and making disciples. Indeed, this costly work and the persecution it may bring bears witness to some who are otherwise unable to hear the gospel, and is at the core of making disciples who “obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
This peacemaking work must be theologically grounded. In our emerging world, some are seeking a common ground of universality to provide meaning for “one world.” Scripture testifies that God in Jesus Christ alone is the centre of hope for the world’s peace, and also that all of humanity is created in God’s image. Following Jesus’ definition of our neighbour (Luke 10:25-37), Christians are called to seek truthful engagement, peacefulness and just community with all people — especially strangers, enemies, the poor and those considered outcasts both ethnically and religiously.
At the same time, there is a qualitative difference between how reconciliation can be pursued outside versus inside community with Christ. The Lordship of Christ claims the whole lives of persons and alienated groups, something no other authority including the state can demand. Christ offers forgiveness and healing which no legal effort or human attempt can effect and calls His disciples to a repentance and joy which is radical. Christ calls for far more than admitting guilt, but deep contrition, and a costliness and depth to healing broken relationships that goes far beyond tolerance or peaceful coexistence.
This witness begins at home. For the church to make peace, she herself must embody God’s peace as a living sign of God’s reconciled community. Baptism identifies believers as one church family, the body of Christ. Within their families, local churches, and the larger Christian family and our tragic divisions, Christians are called to a special witness of fidelity, sacrificial love, boundary crossing, and common prayer, seeking to heal conflicts following our Lord’s words in Matthew 18:15-20. Wherever Christian leaders will not pray together and seek reconciliation, the church’s mission is seriously harmed.
Biblical reconciliation also leads Christians beyond church circles to vigorously analyze, engage and influence our local communities, nations and world as witnesses for reconciliation and just community. Without sacrificing our Christian convictions, we should seek to partner creatively with people of good will to promote peace, including with people of other faiths. At the heart of the church’s public engagement is a prophetic responsibility to call political authorities to account. Governing authorities are subject to the sovereign Lord for their conduct in ensuring just order and peaceful relations.
Certain legal, governmental and national efforts can bring a cessation of hostilities and public pursuit of truth and just practices that the church alone cannot bring and for which the church should advocate. Christian partnership with such efforts can even elevate their outcomes in profound ways (as with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s). Yet involvement with governmental efforts should not become the primary end or determinative sphere of the church’s reconciling mission. They must be approached carefully, critically, and provisionally. The church must never compromise its identity or prophetic voice.
Reconciliation is a long and costly process. Reconciliation is not a one-time event, or a linear journey of progress, but addresses multiple causes and relations that intermingle. Christians are called to be intentional and energetic in pursuing reconciliation, to go out of their way to love their neighbour who is difficult to love.
This costly journey requires hope, nurtured in practices where we listen to God in worship, Scripture reading, and prayer. As we open to the pain of a broken world, we hear God’s word that ultimately, in the eschaton, all things will be reconciled in Christ. In the meantime, we do our part. It is this hope that keeps the process moving forward.
In biblical understanding, no one party in a historic conflict — whether majority or minority, powerful or powerless, aggressor or afflicted — has the greater burden to take the first step toward reconciliation. The initiative for reconciliation begins wherever people find the courage to “lose themselves” and take ownership of pain: to no longer deny the conditions of trauma, to embrace the predicament of division, and to join the struggle for transformation by discovering the human face of the “other.”
Too often, we ask forgiveness of God without asking forgiveness of people. Following the example of Jesus’ love for enemies and forgiveness for undeserving sinners, Christians are unconditionally called to seek within themselves for and to actively offer both heartfelt confession and genuine forgiveness. We do this without promise that our action will be received or reciprocated, or that justice will occur. Establishing a social atmosphere of relative safety and security is crucial for such actions to become widely possible, especially for those who have been marginalized.
While confession or forgiveness can come from one direction, reconciliation between divided peoples requires a risky, mutual journey of intentional relationship-building in which all groups are transformed and called to costly sacrifices. Reconcilers may be seen as traitors by their own people, and often become a bridge painfully walked on by both sides.
Both perpetrators of destructive conflict and bystanders who remain safely silent and privileged are called to accept responsibility for the condition of those wounded and afflicted. Their confession and sorrow opens a conversation about the conflict and its genuineness is often tested in a willingness to take actions of reparation to counter the consequences of harm. One further barrier to reconciliation is the residue of unresolved bitterness toward people and groups who have offended us. There is a need to face the residue and pain inflicted upon us as first steps toward reconciliation. Such courage cannot be forced. Yet many of history’s most powerful reconciliation movements have been birthed among Christians of the historically marginalized and afflicted who proclaim Christ’s triumph over evil, speak truth without demonizing the other side, pray for and engage their persecutors, seek forgiveness and work for a future of just community and common life across the lines of division.
Only God knows what true reconciliation looks like, and the fullness when a countless multitude from every people and language will worship before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9-10). Since reconciliation is an ongoing quest, the challenge is to point out where we are and to mark signs of hope. As reconciliation efforts move forward, conflict and resistance may often increase. Yet indications of reconciliation can become the very signs of God’s kingdom breaking into this world. Christians should eagerly seek these indications of hope, from the church living the alternative, to practices of faithfulness, to changes in society.
The church itself ought to be a key indication of hope, a living alternative, infusing and challenging the social sphere with a more radical vision of God’s reconciliation. Examples of the church visibly living the alternative include: across long-divided lines, Christians form holy friendships, offer hospitality, share meals, pray and read Scripture together, celebrate holy communion, mutually confess and forgive, and forge common mission; unlearn habits of superiority, inferiority and separation; celebrate together, and praise and worship God while engaging the world’s pain and working towards shalom; free Christian institutions of discrimination and unjust use of resources; show remarkable joy amidst difficult work; marry across ethnic boundaries and divided lines, with blended families becoming a sign of a new community. At the heart of the church’s alternative witness is the birth and perseverance of blended congregations where historically separated peoples share deep, common life.
Christians understand faithfulness as shaped by the cross, as a costly discipleship that re-defines effectiveness. Faithful practices of social engagement, even if they seem to result in no visible change, are also profound indications of hope amidst destructive conflicts. Examples are when Christians forgive persecutors; prophetically challenge unjust situations; aid afflicted neighbours; absorb evil without passing it on; witness to Christ amidst hostilities; offer hospitality across divides; continue seeking peace even when called traitors; suffer, or even die, rather than participate in destruction.
The church should also eagerly work for indications of reconciliation in society. These include: enemy leaders enter dialogue, violence stops, persecution is reduced, or hostilities cease; crimes and destruction by all sides are brought to light in a context of restorative justice; loved ones and the larger society learn the fate of victims; deeper truth around a painful shared history is appropriately and communally remembered; a state of tolerance is achieved where estranged groups agree to live peaceably; more just societal structures and practices emerge; children of hostile groups begin to go to school and play together; inter-marriage increases across historic lines of separation; neighbourhoods become blended communities of shared, peaceful life.
The alienation of divided peoples and the suffering of the afflicted cries out from our world’s brokenness, from both open, destructive conflicts and the more hidden conflicts. These conditions call the church to listen to the pain and to God, to lament the divisions, to repent and forgive where necessary, and to be transformed as agents of healing, Christian witness and positive change. Thus we invite Christians everywhere to carefully consider the following recommendations:
Five key concepts in the paper are understood as follows:
Reconciliation: Reconciliation is God’s initiative, seeking “to reconcile to himself all things” through Christ (Colossians 1:19). Reconciliation is grounded in God restoring the world to God’s intentions, the process of restoring the brokenness between people and God, within people, between people and with God’s created earth. Reconciliation between people is a mutual journey, requiring reciprocal participation. It includes a willingness to acknowledge wrongs done, extend forgiveness, and make restorative changes that help build trust so that truth and mercy, justice and peace dwell together.
God’s mission: The Christian faith embraces reconciliation as the mission of God in our fallen and broken world, accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ and entrusted to the church through people who participate by being transformed into ambassadors of reconciliation in a broken world.
Destructive Conflict: Conflict is a condition of our broken world after the Fall and can become either constructive or destructive. Conflict is a disagreement between two or more parties — whether persons, institutions, people groups and communities, or nations — that is rooted in incompatible goals, positions, views, needs or behaviours. Through either open destruction or quiet persistence of practices and structures, conflict becomes destructive by seriously damaging or dividing people and communities, thus prohibiting them from being neighbours who love one another. Destructive conflict thus becomes a condition of severely broken relationships between people, which becomes embodied and perpetuated historically, personally and institutionally and employs instruments such as actions, words, ideologies, policies, systems, or weapons to cause physical, psychological, or social damage or division which furthers the world’s brokenness. The consequences of destructive conflict range from severely damaged emotions and memories, to socially alienated people groups, to the inability of groups to flourish physically, socially, economically and spiritually, to death of people and destruction of societies and of God’s material creation.
Shalom: Shalom is a theological concept rooted in Scripture. The biblical witness speaks of shalom as a state of wholeness, well being, peacefulness and flourishing of all that God has created in all of its dimensions and all of its relationships. Shalom includes right relationships of human beings with God, within themselves, with one another and with the created world. Shalom is always rooted in justice and holiness.
Restorative Justice: Restorative justice is used in this paper as defined by Desmond Tutu in No Future Without Forgiveness, ”the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victims and the perpetrators, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offence.”
20 Oct 2004
In the past year, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula has shifted from bad to worse. North Korea not only tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential range to hit major U.S. cities, but it conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017. Each North Korean missile and nuclear test is met with additional calls for tighter sanctions against North Korea and isolation of the regime. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have lobbed words at each other in a dangerous spiral of escalatory rhetoric. Under such conditions, one might conclude that this is the worst time for engagement with North Korea, whether this includes state-led diplomatic engagement between government officials, or civil society centered people-to- people engagement between non-state actors. In fact, on September 1, 2017 the U.S. government instituted a de facto travel ban on Americans by invalidating U.S. passports “for travel to, in, or through North Korea.” The traveler needs to apply for a special validations passport, issued primarily to Red Cross workers and the press, for “compelling humanitarian considerations” or for other travel in “the national interest.”
Contrary to popular beliefs, this essay makes a case for why people-to-people engagement still matters, and how it might help us think about diplomatic engagement with North Korea. There are both moral and political reasons to continue people-to-people engagement with North Koreans, despite current restrictions issued by the U.S. government against travel to North Korea. Drawing a distinction between the North Korean people and its regime, ordinary North Koreans tend to bear the costs of the regime’s isolationist and autocratic policies. North Korea’s per capita GDP in 2015 was $1,700. Basic political freedoms, including the freedom of movement, assembly, or speech are severely restricted. Nevertheless, everyday life goes on in North Korea, and signs of an emerging market economy suggest economic improvements in major cities, including Pyongyang. However, the regime’s policies still lead to constant food shortages, malnutrition, and chronic illnesses.
Stripping aside politics, the moral case for continuing people-to-people engagement is straightforward: to help improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans. Civil society actors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in such people-to-people engagement in North Korea are often motivated by a sense of mission that their work not only improves lives, but also fosters a sense of greater understanding between North Korea and the rest of the world. Examples of people-to-people engagement may include humanitarian assistance, such as the delivery of food aid and emergency supplies during periods of flooding and famine. It also takes the form of longer term, capacity-building projects. Projects and activities might include drilling wells, establishing greenhouses, providing technical assistance in the areas of agriculture and forestry, or operating tuberculosis and other health clinics. To a lesser extent, business operations with the goal of improving capacity and service, or meeting the everyday needs of North Koreans, also fall under the category of people-to-people engagement. Such business ventures have included the establishment of a noodle factory and the development of a logistics and transportation company to provide local bus service.
Several Christian and other faith-based organizations have made the case for pursuing people-to-people engagement including NGOs such as the Eugene Bell Foundation, Christian Friends Korea, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision. Having cultivated long-standing partnerships in North Korea, and driven by a sense of higher purpose, some faith-based groups have managed to sustain operations for over two decades in North Korea.
For Christians, there is a higher calling, a sense of obligation to Christ’s command to love our neighbors, and even our enemies, which comes into play. People-to- people engagement is much more than simply dropping bags of food aid or delivering medicine into North Korea. In addition to addressing real world problems, it calls on individuals and groups to build relationships and trust where mutual understanding may be absent. Actions often speak louder than words, and the work of several faith-based organizations has helped North Koreans trust outsiders (and vice-versa), despite these groups being conspicuously Christian and even coming from places such as the maligned, imperial (in the eyes of North Koreans) United States.
There are both moral and political objections against people-to-people engagement with the two objections often conflated. Critics argue that such engagement indirectly benefits the regime. Even if aid or development assistance is properly monitored and delivered to its intended targets (i.e. vulnerable populations and ordinary North Koreans), outside assistance enables the regime to redirect scarce resources needed to feed its people towards expanding its military capabilities. A fundamental point of disagreement among secular and faith-based groups alike working to improve human conditions in North Korea is whether outside assistance, including support from people-to-people engagement, ultimately props up the regime, thereby prolonging suffering among North Koreans.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan stated, “A hungry child knows no politics.” This suggests our response to need and suffering should rise above politics. International politics, unfortunately, tends to be driven by the “is” rather than the “ought.” However, just as there are moral and political objections against engagement initiatives, there are also justifications on moral and political grounds for taking action.
People-to-people engagement provides a low cost means for outsiders to generate positive relationships with North Koreans. Outsiders, some who have engaged with North Korean counterparts since the famine of the 1990s, have perhaps the best grasp of North Korean norms, culture, thinking, and knowledge of daily life. Meanwhile, people- to-people engagement offers North Koreans a channel for receiving information related to markets, business and legal practices, and capacity-building principles which may spur greater curiosity and a hunger for knowledge beyond what the state can provide. By fostering better communication and understanding between North Koreans and the outside world, people-to-people engagement may be laying the groundwork for potential transition, whether that be the gradual opening of North Korea through reforms, or future reunification.
Finally, the current nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula warrants keeping open any channels of dialogue which offer an off-ramp away from armed conflict. The Trump administration has sent mixed signals regarding North Korea, ranging from threats of annihilation to suggesting the possibility of direct talks with its leader [which are now being planned for May,2018]. This has created confusion among both domestic and foreign audiences. However, in practice, the official policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” can be read as tightening sanctions but leaving a door open for engagement.
Although engagement here refers primarily to diplomatic engagement, it can and should include people-to-people engagement. It is unclear whether successful lower levels of engagement can translate into higher forms of engagement in North Korea. However, in the absence of diplomacy, people-to-people engagement is one of the few means of contact between Americans and North Koreans. Moreover, the longer-term effects may be positive if attitudes of local cadres and provincial leaders towards Americans begin to shift. Finally, by encouraging low levels of engagement, the Trump administration can provide a diplomatic opening for the South Korean government to continue pursuing its desired strategy of inter-Korean engagement, even as Seoul and Washington continue to apply pressure on the North Korean regime. For instance, South Korea recently approved $8 million dollars of aid to the World Food Program and UNICEF directed towards providing nutrition to children and pregnant women, and vaccinations and treatment for diseases. While the timing of such goodwill gestures may be questioned given North Korea’s continued expansion of its missile and nuclear program, and with critics labeling such actions as “appeasement,” such gestures do signal to the regime that the path to engagement and dialogue still remains open.
Hard-nosed realists assume that the surest bet to survival includes maximizing a nation’s military capabilities. This has been the path adopted by the North Korean regime, and at times exercised by the U.S. in the latest security standoff on the Korean Peninsula. However, realism, as a foreign policy guide, also calls for pragmatism and prudence in foreign policy. I do not suggest an end to economic sanctions or the removal of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, all which serve an important purpose for deterrence, reassurance, and credibility in a region fraught by wider geopolitical and historical tensions. However, the current balance of sticks (that is coercion) and carrots (diplomatic engagement) has clearly not reduced tensions on the Peninsula. To provide an exit strategy from the current path of escalation and to avert an impending crisis, it may be more prudent to reshuffle the ratio of sticks to carrots to include more carrots (that is engagement) to persuade Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.
This article was originally published in the May-June 2018 issue of Mission Frontiers and is used with permission.
01 Jun 2018
03 Jun 2018
In light of the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, the Trump administration has temporarily banned Americans from traveling to North Korea, and Congress is considering a permanent ban. Representative Joe Wilson (South Carolina), the co-sponsor of the North Korea Travel Control Act declared, “Tourist travel to North Korea does nothing but provide funds to a tyrannical regime—that will in turn be used to develop weapons to threaten the United States and our allies.”
We very much understand the concerns regarding Americans detained in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). We acknowledge the inherent dangers and complications of international tourism to the DPRK, and urge would-be tourists to exercise prudence and to follow all applicable laws. At the same time, we wish to inform our representatives of the many positive things happening in North Korea which are directly related to tourism, and our motivation for providing such services.
One of us (Paul) has been involved with humanitarian work in North Korea since 2007. Paul has personally made 17 trips into North Korea, a country of more than 25 million people. One capacity is as an NGO worker for a water project, which drills wells in villages to access clean water. The second is leading tour groups. Paul has been doing so since 2012 and does the work not for any material gain, but to help improve the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea is not yet open to the point where foreigners can visit on their own terms. Tourists are not going to be able to land in Pyongyang, rent a car and drive around at their leisure. Tours take place under controlled circumstances; hence groups have official guides, are not allowed to wander off the beaten path and a preset itinerary is often strictly (yet not always) adhered to. The good news is, in our experience, tourists are given more latitude every year and North Korea is in the slow process of opening their doors.
When visiting, foreigners only get to see pieces of the entire picture. Please understand, however, that this picture is constantly changing. We might not be able to connect with everyone we see, but we connect with many. Today, North Koreans cannot easily travel outside. On tours, we are able to see and enter into their culture, but the door swings both ways, as they meet us and encounter ours. We get a glimpse into each other’s lives. For every foreigner who visits North Korea, bringing their culture and ideas, it not only helps local North Koreans get a better picture of the outside world but also opens their country even further. This is the kind of positive engagement no official strategy is currently taking advantage of. Nonetheless, it is happening on the ground and, we believe, making a significant difference.
Today we are also able to do a surprising amount of direct engagement, not only through regular tourism but also sports cultural exchanges. Paul specializes in this type of engagement and headed a project that officially introduced surfing to the country in 2014. Our group made subsequent surfing cultural exchange trips in 2015 and 2016. We also engage locals (esp. kids) with skiing/snowboarding and skateboarding.
Our experience is that this kind of engagement has absolutely made a positive impact in how North Koreans relate to not only foreigners in general but specifically to Americans. Every wave, every smile, every hand shake, every kid we get on a surfboard or skateboard, every person we get on skis or a snowboard, every conversation, every high-five is beneficial in breaking down barriers which exist between North Korea and the rest of the world. A YouTube video of a recent trip attracted more than 290,000 views worldwide.1
It is always gratifying when tour group members find opportunities to engage. Maybe it’s a local guy riding a bike down the street in Pyongyang or Wonsan and someone from my group tries to high-five them. It might be awkward for the guy but, more often than not, the North Korean local tries to return the high-five. One of our groups held a ping-pong tournament with local North Korea surf camp participants. After the tournament finished, we were getting ready to leave and the lady who took care of the room came in to straighten things up. The man who runs our surf camps saw an opportunity to bless this lady, so he asked one of our guides to translate for him. He then thanked the lady for taking care of the room and told her what a great time we had and how much we appreciated her job. He then picked up a vase of plastic flowers from a table, flowers which belonged to the room she took care of and presented them to her.
The cleaning lady began to tear up. Why? Because a foreigner’s expression of love and thankfulness touched her heart. She was not “elite.” She was simply a middle age North Korean lady, who was able to engage with a group of tourists.
We wish to inform our Representatives that things are slowly opening up and every year there are more opportunities for engagement. People visiting North Korea should be seen as helping to assist this process. According to North Korean tour guides, not counting Chinese, approximately five thousand international tourists visit the country annually. To quote Daniel Jasper from American Friends Service Committee, “there is no substitute for the firsthand experience and insights that come from regular interaction and communication.” Even though traveling to North Korea carries risks, those are minimized if we operate within their legal rules and boundaries. The DPRK government gives us very strict parameters in which we must operate, and I stress this in my briefings to potential tourists. Since 2012, our tour groups have been blessed to interact with thousands of local people, and we have never left anyone behind.
In his travels to North Korea, Paul has observed countless checkpoints where local citizens are literally asked, “Comrade, papers please!” For most North Koreans, freedom of travel is not something they enjoy as they are required to obtain government permission to travel even to the next town. Our Representatives are proposing legislation which would impose a travel ban on American citizens. We understand their good intentions, but freedom of travel is a bedrock American value and Americans have traditionally maintained it despite the dangers.
We have only scratched the surface but there is a lot going on in the country which should be supported by the U.S. government as well as the international community. Restricting the travel rights of Americans only serves to keep North Korea in its isolated state as well as violate our freedoms.
We—NGO workers and volunteers who have devoted our lives to the people of North Korea—deeply feel the shock and pain of Otto’s tragic death. We grieve for the loss of the young man and pray for the Warmbier family. At the same time, we feel that Otto would have shared our goals and beliefs— that the long, difficult road of helping North Korea open up ultimately benefits both the people there and the world community.
By all accounts, Otto was a kind-hearted, warm soul, eager to make friends in new places. We have many tourists like Otto, who genuinely wish to make a positive, personal impact. We hope that relevant stakeholders learn from the inexplicable tragedy and make all efforts to ensure that international tourists travel safely and follow local guidelines.
We cherish Otto’s memory and trust that the people of North Korea would someday do the same. We believe that our Representatives can best honor his memory by letting us continue the work of peacefully opening up North Korea.
This article was originally published in the May-June 2018 issue of Mission Frontiers and is used with permission.
01 Jun 2018