The campaign against Kim
As the West worries how to handle the increasingly belligerent Kim Jong Un, defectors from North Korea are waging a steady information campaign against the dictator’s brutal regime and personality cult
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Each night, when the sun sets over the Korean Peninsula, South Korea blazes with the glow of millions of lights. In the capital city of Seoul, skyscrapers, streetlights, homes, and bridges gleam, as neon shop signs advertise piles of merchandise and mounds of food to throngs of passersby.
Less than 35 miles north, the peninsula goes dark.
In nighttime satellite images taken by the International Space Station, it’s difficult to distinguish North Korea’s blacked-out landmass from the vast sea to the east. The most reclusive nation on earth is energy-starved—but it’s also hungry for information.
North Korean officials tightly control television broadcasts effusively praising the country’s “dear leader, ” Kim Jong Un, and they restrict or forbid access to the internet. The only legal radios come pre-tuned to government channels, and owners must register devices with the police.
But according to citizens who have fled the country, a growing number of North Koreans are switching on unauthorized radios—devices they’ve rigged or bought on the black market that can pick up signals beyond the country’s darkened borders. They listen to programs tailored to reach them with news about the outside world—and the reality of their own regime.
Perhaps the most effective messengers: North Korean defectors.
Indeed, as North Korean officials pursue the development of nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the continental United States, North Korean defectors race to reach their homeland’s citizens with outside news they think could destabilize the regime.
A radio may be no match for a missile, but it’s clear North Korean leaders fear an informed people. They’re reportedly jamming signals along the borders and tracking contraband cell phones and have reportedly executed citizens for watching banned DVDs.
Among the most-forbidden news: Christian teaching they fear will spread and undermine worship of a regime responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in modern history.
That doesn’t stop defectors and others from spreading news of all kinds—including the good news of the gospel in a land once so filled with Christian influence its capital was called “the Jerusalem of the East.” It’s worth remembering: North Korea wasn’t always so dark.
DURING A LATE-NIGHT BROADCAST from Seoul, the voice of a North Korean defector breaks across a radio transmission: “Brothers and sisters in the North, I hope this time can be a moment of prayer for a miracle that every party member of North Korea … can meet God, not take a further step into the cult of personality.”
In communist North Korea—where dictator Kim Jong Un demands cultish devotion—such sentiments would invite execution.
But radio host Kim Chung-seong of the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) continued, his bold words picked up by a Reuters report: “I am desperately praying that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and all administrators under him kneel down in front of God and repent for their sins, and leave the path of tormenting their people.”
That’s a revolutionary message in a country where dissent can bring imprisonment in the country’s vast gulag of political prisons.
FEBC broadcasts gospel-based programming around the world. Other groups focus exclusively on North Korea. Since 2006, a group of North Korean defectors at Free North Korea Radio have been broadcasting content daily via shortwave transmission. The hourlong programs include news about North Korea and the world and testimonies from North Korean defectors about what the world is really like.
The testimonies counter North Korean propaganda that all Americans are brutal enemies. The program also includes seven to 10 minutes of gospel-based content: portions of sermons from North Korean refugee pastors, passages of Scripture, and praise songs. At Christmas and Easter, the gospel programming expands to at least a full hour.
An hour is a significant block of Christian teaching in North Korea these days. But a century ago Christian messages filled the capital of Pyongyang.
This year marks the 110th anniversary of a revival that swept Pyongyang and surrounding cities in the era before Korea was divided in two. Presbyterian missionary William Blair wrote an eyewitness account in the book The Korean Pentecost, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.
Blair described a prayer meeting that turned intense: “The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne.” Confession of sin and repentance followed prayer meetings, and local churches grew. Three years later, Blair said one of the weakest congregations had grown to 300 members.
Three decades of Christian growth followed. Pyongyang became a headquarters for Presbyterian missionaries of the day, and they established a hospital, a seminary, and other schools. Churches were common.
In the capital square now known for its mammoth military parades, American missionaries once settled into homes. Ruth Bell Graham, the late wife of evangelist Billy Graham, was the daughter of Presbyterian medical missionaries and went to high school in Pyongyang in the 1930s.
The dynamic began changing in 1940 as the dangers of World War II loomed. Many missions withdrew their workers as tensions with Japan grew. By the end of World War II, Japan surrendered, and Allied powers agreed to split Korea. Western leaders would manage the South. Soviet leaders took control of North Korea. Many Christians fled.
In 1945, the Soviet Union declared Kim Il Sung the leader of the communist Korean Workers’ Party in North Korea, and he demanded cultlike allegiance. The persecution of remaining Christians has been severe ever since.
Kim Il Sung (and subsequent regimes, led by son Kim Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un) set up a pseudo-religious system of devotion to the country’s leader: National songs give praise to the three Kim leaders. Citizens are expected to follow 10 guiding principles, and they often confess their sins against the regime in weekly sessions. The North Korean calendar begins with the year 1912: the year the original Kim was born.
These days, the country once home to many churches now punishes Christians for unauthorized gatherings. In 2013, reports emerged the regime had executed 80 prisoners by firing squad, including a handful of Christians.
The same year, the Korea Institute for National Unification included reports from North Korean refugees: One defector told the story of a family that had kept its Bible hidden in a magpie nest in a tree at the family’s home. A neighbor cut a branch down, and the hidden Bible fell out. Possession of a Bible can be a capital crime. Three generations of the family disappeared.
Last fall, Christian Solidarity Worldwide described testimony from other defectors: “Christians are reported to have suffered brutal violence. Forms of torture include beatings with fists or implements such as electric rods, wooden pokers, metal poles, water torture through forced submersion, and being used as test subjects for medical training and experimentation.”
Still, underground churches exist, though the number of Christians is difficult to quantify. (Open Doors USA estimates 300,000 Christians out of the country’s 25 million citizens.) Since most assemblies are forbidden, gatherings might include a small family or a married couple who don’t include their children until they are old enough to keep a secret.
Christians aren’t the only North Koreans who suffer. Gulags are filled with other prisoners, including North Koreans sent back after fleeing into China. In other cases, a citizen might be merely suspected of disloyalty and imprisoned with his whole family.
A landmark 2014 report by the United Nations described a litany of atrocities: “beatings, starvation, exposure to cold, various torture techniques, rape, infanticide, and public executions” (see “Fleeing hell,” March 22, 2014).
Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea identifies the most common cycle of death at prison camps: forced labor and malnutrition. Prisoners are expected to meet a work quota in the labor camps. If they fail, guards reduce their food. That leads to less production and more starvation. Many people die.
The regime indoctrinates North Koreans from an early age to adore “The Eternal Leader” and his two sons, including the current dictator. (A Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about life in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, was a WORLD Book of the Year runner-up in 2012.) Still, some North Koreans grow disillusioned and try to flee. Leaving the country without government permission is illegal.
Others flee looking for supplies. This was especially true during a massive famine in the 1990s that killed as many as 3 million North Koreans. Some fled to China looking for help.
But Chinese officials aren’t known for helping North Koreans. Instead, the government often helps North Korean agents track down and repatriate escapees. For most, it means a prison sentence. For some, it’s a death sentence.
When North Koreans flee into the north, they usually cross the Tumen River into China. Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Escape from North Korea (a WORLD Book of the Year in 2013), says some defectors say they learned to look for a building with a cross on it. Christians living in China have become known as an indispensable source of help for those who cross to escape.
It’s often a life-changing encounter. Many defectors have become Christians. For the average escapee, “It’s usually the first time in his life he’s encountered somebody who is helping him out of the goodness of his heart,” says Kirkpatrick. “And it has a profound effect on these people.”
MANY DEFECTORS DON’T SPEAK OUT, fearing retaliation by the regime against family members remaining in North Korea. Others fear North Korean agents will target them in South Korea. An estimated 30,000 North Korean refugees live in South Korea. (A few thousand live in other countries. About 200 live in the United States.)
But for some defectors, speaking out becomes a way of life. One defector at Free North Korea Radio (FNKR) says she escaped after hearing about the radio broadcast while living in North Korea.
The broadcasts include information gleaned from covert stringers inside the country—a remarkable source of information the station can use to inform North Koreans what’s happening in their own country.
Suzanne Scholte, president of the D.C.-based Defense Forum Foundation, works closely with the defectors, and her group augments the radio broadcast with segments from the United States.
In an interview on the segment “Coming to America,” a North Korean refugee spoke of living in the United States after being taught to hate the country: “I was really surprised by the kindness of Americans. I was deeply moved by that.”
The program has also solicited messages from U.S. congressmen. During a segment earlier this year, a transcript showed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sent this message: “Your courage and fortitude puts the Kim regime and its oppressive ideology to shame, and history will condemn the unspeakable horror you have endured.”
A handful of other groups broadcast into North Korea, including the U.S.-funded Voice of America. Scholte says FNKR received a grant for its expenses during the Bush administration but lost the funding under President Barack Obama.
It was a blow, and it reduced the amount of broadcast time they could afford from five hours to one, but Scholte says it was also a blessing: After they lost the grant, they started raising money and began running gospel programming. They hope to add more.
When it comes to content, Scholte says she thinks it’s particularly powerful when North Koreans hear from defectors: “If you’re going to risk your life listening to a foreign radio broadcast, you should make sure you’re listening to people that you trust.”
Other defectors have used an array of methods to get information into the country. Park Sang-hak of Fighters for a Free North Korea is one of several people that launch balloons containing leaflets of information across the border.
In April, one of his balloon launches carried the news report that Kim Jong Un had ordered the killing of his half brother. (Kim Jong Nam died after two women in a Kuala Lumpur airport smeared his face with a deadly chemical.)
In June, Park launched balloons carrying 300,000 leaflets about the recent death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who was sent home in a coma after a year of imprisonment in North Korea. Supporters say the balloon launches can be especially helpful in areas of the country without access to radios. Some groups have included Bible verses or other Christian content.
A more high-tech approach: Some groups smuggle in DVDs and USB drives loaded with Hollywood movies or South Korean soap operas. The media give North Koreans an opportunity to see life in a different country. And they can access it on Chinese-made media players, which aren’t illegal to own. (The owners could be in danger if authorities discovered contraband material, though.)
One defector, Jung Gwang Il, has said he was amazed when he watched a copy of the movie Titanic: He was struck by a portrayal of someone dying for love—not just for the “dear leader.”
Jung escaped North Korea in 2003 after spending three years in the country’s political prisons. Authorities had accused him of spying for South Korea. He says guards tortured him for nine months, and he worked in a brutal camp where prisoners looked like walking skeletons.
Some died during the grueling work of gathering logs in the winter. Guards forced prisoners to stack the bodies in a shed next to a latrine. In the spring, the frozen bodies thawed, and the guards forced prisoners to bury the decayed remains.
After his release from prison, and his escape from North Korea, Jung started the group “No Chain.” The organization uses drones and other methods to get information into the country—often USBs filled with television shows and movies. Last year, the group’s “Stealth Gospel” project took 32 North Korean songs praising the regime and turned them into Christian praise songs.
DEFECTORS AREN’T THE ONLY ONES USING MEDIA. The North Korean government reportedly began broadcasting encrypted messages of its own into South Korea last summer.
The messages broadcast over shortwave radio early in the morning contained references to a series of page numbers, and added, “I’m giving review works in elementary information technology lessons of the remote education university for No. 27 expedition agents.” The message repeated.
North Korea used the method during the Cold War to send coded messages to spies in South Korea. It’s unclear if the broadcasts are seeking to communicate with spies now or if it’s a form of psychological warfare intended to spook South Koreans.
Meanwhile, Greg Scarlatoiu says the northern regime has been tightening its grip at home. About half as many North Koreans are escaping as the number successfully fleeing before Kim Jong Un took power six years ago. Using satellite imagery and defector testimony, Scarlatoiu’s group has documented the expansion of at least two prison camps.
And the Kim regime has purged or executed senior officials suspected of any hint of dissent. Scarlatoiu notes the typical method of execution is anti-aircraft machine guns: “Bodies are pulverized and turned into a pink mist.”
In a phone interview from South Korea, Scarlatoiu said that while Kim Jong Un escalates tensions with intercontinental ballistic missile tests, South Koreans seem concerned, but not alarmed: “They’ve been living under this permanent and overwhelming threat of the sheer mass and proximity of the North Korean military for so many decades.”
Still, he noted, the danger is great: North Korea has 1.2 million men in uniform, with 80 percent forward-deployed, ready to strike South Korea with little notice, Scarlatoiu said. And beyond the looming threat of nuclear missiles that could reach millions of people in Seoul or Tokyo, the regime is also thought to have stockpiles of chemical weapons and artillery.
As U.S. officials deliberate how to respond to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear threats, the options are fraught. But allowing North Korea to develop the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon seems untenable. A non-nuclear test missile the regime shot into the sky on July 28 appeared to be capable of reaching much of the United States, experts said.
Still, a U.S. surgical strike against North Korea’s weapons program could evoke a devastating response from the regime that would especially imperil North Koreans, South Koreans, and Japanese in the region—as well as 28,000 U.S. troops on bases in South Korea and thousands more in Japan.
Diplomacy is still on the table, along with sanctions that squeeze the regime and efforts to get China to exert more pressure on North Korea. But it’s unclear how far these measures will go. One thing does seem clear, as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently acknowledged: “If this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
IN THE MEANTIME, North Korean defectors like Grace Jo worry about the everyday tragedies North Korean escapees continue to face. Now an American citizen, Jo was born in North Korea during the famine years of the 1990s.
She escaped to China with her mother and sister when she was 7. Her father died in a North Korean prison after escaping to find more food for the starving family. Two brothers and her grandmother died of starvation. An older sister left looking for food and never returned. They suspect she was sold into human trafficking along the border.
On her first escape into China, Jo’s most vivid memory was seeing a dog sniffing the white rice and pork soup a family had put out for it. She was literally starving: “I thought, ‘What is this place?’”
Jo, her mother, and her remaining sister were caught and sent back to North Korea twice. Her mother endured beatings and mental torture. On their last escape attempt, a Christian pastor helped them find safety. The sisters became Christians, and the mother followed some years later. In 2008, they came to the United States, and Jo entered high school. One of the history lessons she had never learned about: the Holocaust.
Jo was stricken by the images. This is what some of her people had looked like: packed into overcrowded prisons and starving. Though outsiders can’t physically see the suffering in North Korea now, Jo hopes they won’t forget it exists.
She and her sister now work to help North Korean refugees trying to settle in the United States, and she pleads with the U.S. government to pressure China not to send North Koreans back across the border: “It’s the same as killing people.”
If the lights in North Korea do come on through regime change in the future, Scarlatoiu thinks the world will be shocked by what it sees. His group and others have documented many abuses, but he says, “I think we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
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