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President Trump announced yesterday that he will meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore. His statement came after three Americans were released from more than a year in captivity and returned to the US.
The three were greeted early Thursday morning by President Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence, and his wife, Karen Pence. What do we know about the men? How is their story relevant to us today?
What we know about the men
Kim Hak Song was apparently arrested as he was preparing to leave North Korea on May 6, 2017. He had been working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) for several weeks. The Korean Central News Agency reported his arrest for “hostile acts” but offered no further details.
Tony Kim was also a teacher at PUST. The university’s chancellor stated that Kim was involved in extracurricular activities such as volunteering at an orphanage.
PUST is North Korea’s first private university. It is operated mostly by evangelical Christian schools and chiefly employs Christian staff. However, PUST representatives have said that the arrests of Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song were “not connected in any way” with the university’s work.
Kim Dong Chul was arrested in October 2015 on charges of espionage and other undisclosed crimes. He delivered a public confession and apology in which he said he had been spying on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements.”
The three men were taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for further evaluation and rest.
One man’s experience in North Korea
Masaji Ishikawa is the author of A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea. His story has been called “the standard work on the hell of North Korea.” I read it with great sadness but with resolve to pray harder for those suffering so horrifically in the country he escaped.
Ishikawa’s father was from North Korea, while his mother was Japanese. Their family was living in Japan, but his father wanted to return to his homeland, believing they would find a better life there.
The country called itself a “paradise on earth.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Upon arriving in North Korea, they were assigned to a group of five families, with a leader who reported everything about them to the secret police. His father’s income was nowhere near enough to support a family of six, so they faced constant deprivation and even starvation.
Ishikawa notes: “The most important thing was how faithful you were to the Great Leader [Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader]. Teachers and every other adult I knew tried to brainwash us into becoming slavish members of their pseudo-religious cult.”
Why didn’t the people revolt? Ishikawa explains: “North Koreans didn’t have anything to compare their country with because they’d never experienced everything else. Even when Kim Il-sung did something particularly brutal or horrific, no one raised an eyebrow. . . . Without any other information at their disposal, young North Koreans simply fell for the propaganda.”
What was life like for him? Health care was supposed to be free, but the people had to bribe doctors with alcohol or cigarettes to receive attention. His mother foraged in the forest to find grass and herbs she could feed her family.
Starvation was epidemic: “Starving people wandered around hopelessly, while others simply lay in the street. Soon there were corpses too, lying out in the open, unclaimed and left to rot. Women. Old people. Kids.” He even heard stories of cannibalism.
Ishikawa risked his life to flee. After a harrowing journey, he finally made his way back to Japan. Here is his reflection on his years in North Korea: “Now I have just one thing left. My only true possession. I’m sorry to say that it’s bitterness. Bitterness at the cruelty of life.”
My prayer list for North Korea
For sixteen years, North Korea has been ranked the “most oppressive place in the world for Christians.” And yet, an estimated 36 percent of the population–around nine million people–are believers.
Up to seventy thousand of them are in concentration camps; more than 75 percent do not survive. Defectors have spoken of Christians being crushed by steamrollers, used to test biological weapons, or hung on a cross over a fire.
Christians must keep their faith secret even from other family members since the government rewards those who betray believers. But their numbers are growing, and their faith is strong. As one expert says, “They know only God is powerful enough to break through the darkness of the most oppressive regime on earth.”
We should rejoice in the safe return of the three Americans while praying for the millions who are victims of this cruel regime. Here’s my prayer list for North Korea:
• Kim Jong Un to make Jesus his Lord.
• His leaders to hear the gospel and come to faith.
• Success in the upcoming summit with removal of nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.
• North Korean Christians to be protected and enabled to worship freely.
• The country to experience freedom and prosperity.
• A great spiritual movement in North Korea.
A spiritual awakening that began in South Korea sixty years ago is continuing to impact nations around the world. Let’s pray for this awakening to encompass North Korea as well.
Jesus promised: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Please join me in praying for true freedom in North Korea to the glory of God.