North Korea: A Nation Built on Rhetoric

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Diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea in 2017 consisted of ten missile launches and an increasingly brash exchange of threats between the nations’ leaders.

From January through July of 2017, North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of weapons tests, launching six intermediate and intercontinental missiles in the span of seven months. In response to the growing undertones of aggression, President Donald Trump made a declaration regarding North Korea’s agitations.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," President Trump warned on August 5, 2017. "They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before."

In the 30 days following President Trump’s statement, North Korea conducted two additional missile tests and tested its largest nuclear bomb to date.

President Trump continued his commentary on the administration’s position on North Korea in his first address before the United Nations on September 19. The President vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it continued to threaten the United States. "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself," he stated.

The inflammatory remarks instigated a published response from the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. “A frightened dog barks louder,” commented Kim. “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”

President Trump issued a bristling retort on Twitter in November 2017. “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’”

For a time, the interchange of blatant mocking and intimidating language between the two leaders of nations with nuclear capabilities seemed as if it would find no diplomatic or peaceful end. The world watched and wondered if the two countries would stumble into war.

While the threat of a nuclear North Korea dominated headlines, what was harder to notice was North Korea’s masterful use of rhetoric to capture the world’s attention and further subjugate its own people. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the North Korean regime.

After the harsh exchanges, the two leaders met on June 12, 2018. President Trump and Kim Jong Un stood only a few feet from one another across a table in Singapore, exchanging pleasantries in front of the world. No sitting United States president had ever even shared a phone call with a North Korean leader. Yet President Trump had agreed to meet face-to-face with Kim - asking for nothing in return but a willing discussion on nuclear arms and peace.

President Trump walked away from the summit stating publicly that Kim Jong Un was a “great leader.” “We fell in love,” the President remarked.

The dramatic turnaround of rhetoric between the United States and North Korean leaders held centerstage in the eyes of the world for good reason. As Vipin Narang, an MIT professor on nuclear proliferation commented on CNBC, “One has to treat this like a soap opera… Every day brings a new, mostly predictable twist.”

Being seen in a meeting with a US President means that any picture or video can be used to say that the two are equal. North Korea trumpeted these meetings as a coming of age for the young North Korean dictator. A mere photo op can speak louder than the words exchanged between the two leaders.

But the power of rhetoric is a tool not only used by North Korea to take centerstage internationally. Rhetoric and the use of mythic fiction has always been a weapon that the North Korean government has employed against its own people.

North Koreans are regularly lied to by their government from birth. Everything from public broadcasts, to television news and school education is shaped to harbor undying loyalty to the Kim regime that has liberated North Korea from the evils of the world. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear “success” is seen as a successful strike against the tyranny of the outside world by an underdog, isolationist nation that has nothing to envy in the world.

As such, the past two years of rhetoric between the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump has revealed that North Korea is capable of manipulating its narrative worldwide. The rhetorical war of words between Kim Jong Un and President Trump was not a volley of insults and threats between the leader of the free world and a dictator. It was, in the eyes of North Koreans, a critical battle of a North Korean champion who refused to back down from a fight.

The summits, the war of words and the fact that North Korea has made few concessions, all bolsters the regime’s argument that they are powerful and not to be trifled with. The result of this is the suffering North Korean people are less likely to revolt. It means that the government can take even stronger measures to control the lives, even thoughts of its people.

Mrs. Jo’s Eulogy

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For a meager price, Mrs. Jo was sold twice in China, first as a farmhand. She was worked so mercilessly that her back went out, making her completely useless to her owners. Then she was sold again.

Mrs. Jo’s life was riddled with oppression but, by her strength of will and faith, refused to be defined by it. Despite being sold twice and being stripped of all her rights, she proved herself as an integral part of our work over the course of the years that we have known her. Mrs. Jo died in March. Her life proved the God-given worth of people from any background or status.

Mrs. Jo fled North Korea immediately following the Great North Korean Famine, which lasted between 1995 and 1998. She watched her husband and three children starve to death. And as the youngest of Mrs. Jo’s boys lay starving and weak in her arms, he asked his mother for one bowl of rice to eat. Mrs. Jo told him that she would sell the shirt off her back and trade it for a final meal for him. He smiled, touched the button on her shirt and died.

Mrs. Jo had no one else.

With nothing left and at the brink of death herself, Mrs. Jo found the strength to walk to the border that separated North Korea and China. She was promised work in China but, like so many others, Mrs. Jo fell victim to the snare of human trafficking. She was subdued and prepped for sale. Mrs. Jo was older and was deemed undesirable to Chinese men looking for young brides. So for a discounted price, she was sold to a pig farmer. But her body gave way after a year on this farm. She was sold to an old Chinese man, but for the rest of her days, Mrs. Jo’s back was painfully, permanently deformed.

Mrs. Jo met Crossing Borders missionaries in China in 2012. They counseled her, brought her into an underground community with other North Korean refugees. It transformed her life.

Due to her back and ailing health, Mrs. Jo could not travel. Nonetheless, she began an outreach to other North Korean women in Crossing Borders’ network via long-distance phone calls in 2015. She became a mother to them, nurturing them with hope and faith. Her testimony blessed so many, both North Korean refugees and Crossing Borders staff. She did so much with so little and was joyful in the face of suffering.

Mrs. Jo’s body was cremated and her bones were buried. No death certificate was signed for her in China. She was never acknowledged as a person there. But we believe that she is somewhere better. We believe that she is in glory, her face is bright, shining as the sun. All of the wrongs done to her are made right and all of the tears she shed are wiped away.

Mrs. Jo was a prisoner with no ID and no personal rights. Her body was broken beyond repair. She was poor. She was barely able to walk. Her body was ravaged by harsh starvation, labor and illness. Her children died in a senseless famine. But the effect of the lives she touched will go on long past her life here on earth.

Anna Source of Strength: A North Korean refugee’s tale of hardship and hope

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In our previous post, Where Will Anna Go?, Crossing Borders wrote about the strife in the life of “Anna,” a North Korean refugee. Anna faced what seemed an endless torrent of misfortune. Depression flooded her life and pulled her into depths of despair.

But as Anna lost all bearings, as she drowned in a cruel and unending weight of work that offered no solace, an invisible hand plucked Anna from seas of dismay. Her weeping was stopped by the warm embrace of unwarranted kindness. A community of sympathy and encouragement gathered around her. She realized for the first time that she was not alone. She was being watched over. As her faith revealed to her, she had always been watched over. Even in the cruelest isolation and pain. She was promised life, not in spite of despair, but even under its cruelest waves.

Anna’s fervent prayers for her missing children continued. Their loss weighed heavily upon her heart, even with the newfound joy in her own life. And with Anna’s prayers, a miracle occurred in a country with over 200,000 displaced North Koreans and almost 1.4 billion people.

In 2016, after 14 years of separation, Anna heard rumors that her second daughter, “Kate” lived in a distant village. Without hesitation, Anna went out to see the face of her lost daughter. By great grace, Anna found her. We cannot imagine the power of their reunion. After much reconciliation, Anna found a place in her daughter’s life. Despite the rift that had formed between them in over a decade spent apart, Anna and her daughter became a family again.

But Anna’s heart broke almost immediately again.

Kate made a desperate attempt to escape to South Korea and succeeded. But overwhelmed and defeated by the pressures of living in the modern world of South Korea, Kate returned to China broken and defeated.

Kate began to suffer from crippling anxiety and a parasitic illness in 2018. Anna, terrified, turned to her community of refugee women. Together, they desperately prayed for Kate. In response to Kate’s debilitating sickness, Crossing Borders staff found medication to help Kate, to relieve some of her symptoms. Our staff also searched and discovered doctors who could cure her condition. With medical attention, the decision came down to whether Kate would have to undergo serious surgery – an expensive surgery that Anna could never afford.

“They had put her fate in my hands.”

Anna reflected on the moment the doctors had placed the only option to help her suffering daughter at her feet. Her eyes were wide, helpless. But Anna, who had once described her life as a pit of despair broke into a smile as she reflected on this horrifying moment for any mother. For the first time in her life, she knew where to turn. “I prayed.”

Anna’s own summary of the story is astoundingly simple. “Our God answered.”

Anna’s family pooled their resources together. They found the money. And Anna’s daughter is alive and well.

But hope is not only a response to duress. With hope, we can seek greater things we had never dreamed of before. It is the firm ground under our feet when we fall, the helping hand that calls us to run with faith. With the great hope she discovered, Anna sought more.

At the end of 2018, Anna left her village to seek out safety and the possibility of a life in South Korea. Once more, she will be traveling vast distances on foot in hopes for a better life. This road is much longer than her trek to China over 16 years ago. It will not be hundreds of miles, but thousands. Anna will face challenges, obstacles, dangers along the way. The terrors stand tall.

But Crossing Borders staff holds fast to the same hope we shared with Anna. The fears are still present. But boldness is where faith is found. Anna, who had once felt so helpless, afraid, abandoned and unable has stepped out to face perhaps one of the most dangerous journeys in the modern world. Please pray for Anna to be safe, to remain steadfast.

“We came into this world with empty hands and we leave with empty hands. We do not know where to go in life. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We live without knowing tomorrow…While we are alive, let’s live sincerely and with pure hearts putting faith and trust in God and following Him.”
- Anna in 2018