Occupy North Korea: Time for the Exodus to Galvanize Democratization
Massive socio-political change in North Korea, one of the world's most repressive and belligerent regimes, presents considerable challenges. In his book, Korea after Kim Jong-Il, Marcus Noland states that the regime "internally possesses a monopoly on social organization combined with an astonishing capacity for coercion." As Jennifer Lind and Daniel Byman note in International Security:
[T]he regime has relied on time-honored tools of authoritarian control that prevent mass revolution or coups d'état. These tools help to explain the regime's seemingly puzzling resilience, and they suggest it will continue to withstand poverty, famine, and even the growing penetration of outside information.
Perhaps the most brutally efficient among the regime's long list of egregious abuses is its network of political penal labor camps. These concentration camps house an estimated 200,000 inmates, where three generations of a political prisoner's family face forced labor under starvation-level rations, torture, and public execution. And we have witnessed these atrocities for decades through corroborating defector testimony, indescribable scars, and satellite imagery readily available through Google Earth.
In the face of brutality and insurmountable odds, men and women have found inspiration in biblical narratives, most notably the Exodus narrative. Religion has often served as a powerful civil-society institution for liberty and justice, provided the foundation for social cohesion, defined moral agency, and helped to drive social change in conditions that offered zero assurance for a reasonable chance of success. In short, people proleptically actualize a concrete utopia that religion sometimes offers.
One historical analogy for contemporary North Korea may be nineteenth-century radical Abolitionism -- the African-American appropriation of Christianity with particular emphasis on the Exodus narrative as well as the Hebrew prophets and the Christian gospels -- in opposition to chattel slavery. Christianity among slaves had the humblest of beginnings in enforced illiteracy; impositions of pro-slavery interpretations of scripture and quietistic evangelicalism; and other horrific forms of social engineering such as forced labor, systematic rape, public torture and beatings, and families torn apart on the auction block. Particularly through the African traditions of storytelling and musical spirituals as well as through creative countervention tools such as secretly worshiping in "hush harbors," the African-American appropriation of Christianity eventually spread.
And perhaps the most representative of radical sentiments that arose was found in David Walker's Appeal (1829). In essence, Walker de-mythologized the socio-religiously warranted notion that slaves were subhuman, called on African-Americans to unite in asserting their God-given humanity, and called for the destruction of the American South if slavery continued, alluding to the God of Moses and the exodus from Egyptian slavery. Furthermore, even with various fugitive slave laws, abductions, and infiltration of networks, literature such as Walker's Appeal helped to build Christianity as a civil-society institution that inspired anti-slavery action with religious intensity, and consequently helped in part to advance the democratization of America. Through the Exodus narrative, many were convinced that the enslaved were a people of God and that God would be on the side of the liberation of the enslaved.
One can draw many parallels between North Korea and American chattel slavery, particularly in their respective state security apparatuses. First off, North Korea's hostility towards religion seems like a mirror-image of the many slave-owners who cracked down on religion for fear that it would incite slave rebellion or languidness. Another example is China's policy of hunting down and forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees in direct contravention to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, to which China is a signatory. Some have termed the network of activists that has sprung up to aid these refugees a modern underground railroad.
But I am much more interested in the key differences that present opportunities for North Koreans to build a religious societal institution that demands freedom. First, the regime boasts a 99% literacy rate with a special focus on childhood indoctrination of the regime's juche ideology and deified cults of personality, the regime's structural ideologies. Second, my encounters with refugees in the field and with those resettled in South Korea suggest that many come into contact with South Korean missionaries and activists with a Protestant-evangelical theological background, meaning that there may be some degree of biblical literacy among North Koreans along the Chinese-North Korean border.
So, if the Exodus narrative could find a North Korean appropriation through literature similar to Walker's Appeal, it may offer a counter-narrative that not only de-mythologizes the regime's ideologies, but also inspires courage to demand equality, justice, and liberty in the face of the regime's repressive nature. The Exodus narrative can provide the ideological and social underpinnings for the democratization of North Korea. With financial and technological support from the outside world, there is little reason to doubt that North Koreans could creatively develop their own "hush harbors" (in Northeast China and along the border) and eventually foment organized grassroots discontent of the regime. For once, God could be on their side.
It is important to note that it is impossible to predict what specific outcomes would come as a result of promoting a religious narrative. At best, it could inspire men and women to achieve their highest aspirations. Conversely, it could dilute a sense of reality to the point of the Pentecostal fundamentalism of "missionary" Robert Park. But there are factors that can encourage the development of the former. For starters, we can learn and take inspiration from historical analogies, as opposed to seeking to create mimetic images. For example, there is Abolitionism, as well as the numerous appropriations the Exodus narrative has found in Korean contexts -- most notably during the early-nineteenth-century Japanese occupation of the peninsula.
Second, we can professionally train missionaries operating in the field. It seems to me that rather than tailoring Christianity to North Koreans, many South Korean missionaries impose their particularized first-world faith onto a wholly different context. Consequently, missionaries can perhaps be trained to promote the aforementioned literature; to introduce the fundamental principles of Christianity; and to pastorally form communities, through liturgy and counseling, based on a religious narrative most relevant to a repressive context. As a result, alternative religious communities may likely be in direct opposition to the mythic pretensions of the dominant social order of juche and cults of personality.
Third, we can properly fund and technologically equip missionaries. It is important that missionaries receive adequate compensation for the personal risks they take -- abduction and assassination by Chinese and North Korean officials -- while aiding and transporting North Korean refugees to safe countries. Furthermore, funding would also discourage missionaries from taking any type of brokerage fee or conducting any other coercive/exploitative practices.
Next, we can extrapolate lessons from the Arab Spring and explore new media, such as physically and electronically available graphic novels of a North Korean Exodus narrative.
Finally, South Korean and American churches, especially Korean-American churches, can be the fundraising and organizational base for a North Korean freedom movement.
To this end, the Exodus narrative may inspire South Korean and Korean American Christians to perhaps be more dedicated to the Judeo-Christian principle of loving and caring for those who have been dealt a bad hand in life -- not only for a shared language, heritage, and ethnicity, but more so for a common humanity. If only seminaries that train religious leaders would integrate contemporary crises into their curricula, if only churches substantially volunteered to sponsor or host North Korean refugees and sex trafficking victims in China, if only religious leaders would effectively inspire and organize regional rallies to raise awareness, fundraise, and recruit for service -- in short, if only Christians in general would demonstrate their faith, then perhaps many would recognize the integrity and credibility of that faith. South Korean and American churches could be the venue for massive social change in North Korea.
Rather than clinging to a hope for an imminent collapse of the North Korean regime, we must plan and act on the probable contingency that the regime will survive, notwithstanding cross-border traffic, limited marketization-economic liberalization, succession-coup-collapse, regime change, and other speculative fantasies. In the next fifty years, millions more will probably die of utterly preventable disease, famine, torture, and execution.
We must at least try to dramatically alter the social context of North Korea itself -- we owe surviving North Koreans that much. Like anti-slavery action, realizing freedom in North Korea will mean that our generation must take up the radical charge of demanding and working for change now. It would require the support from both religious and secular actors -- social visionaries such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and perhaps hundreds if not thousands of nameless men and women in the field risking their lives for God and country to build communities formed by the Exodus narrative. As President Abraham Lincoln put it, "[t]o sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men [and women]." For a better tomorrow for all Koreans and for all humanity, let us hope that we will no longer remain silent.
The writer is a recent graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the former research & policy officer of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an international NGO devoted to human rights in North Korea and the protection of North Korean refugees worldwide. His writings have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, The Korea Times, and American Thinker.