Hot and Cold: North Korea’s Shifting Diplomatic Tone in 2018

 A presentation at North Korea’s Mass Games in Pyongyang.

A presentation at North Korea’s Mass Games in Pyongyang.

North Korea acted like a completely different country in 2017. Gone are the hyperbolic threats and missile launches were rapidly replaced by handshakes, hugs and overtures for peace. But this is what is happening on the surface. When you dig deeper, the nation has not changed very much. Let’s examination of the recent news surrounding North Korea may reveal more tension and conflict buried beneath the nation’s seeming diplomatic and peaceful transformation.

Mixed Signals

On the campaign trail this year, President Trump stated that he and Chairman Kim the two “fell in love” during their meeting in June.

Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un have kept a friendly public dialogue despite considerable tensions as their countries continue to negotiate nuclear and peace deals. At the latest meeting between President Trump and South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, President Trump reportedly asked Moon to pass along a friendly message to Kim.

“The message was that President Trump has a very friendly view of Chairman Kim and that he likes him, and so he wishes Chairman Kim would implement the rest of their agreement and that he would make what Chairman Kim wants come true," Moon said Saturday, according to USA Today.

These overtures are in contrast to the widening gap in negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

The North Korean government’s promises to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear complex came with strict conditions. If Washington would first ease its sanctions and sign a peace agreement, deconstruction would begin. North Korea has also expressed frustration toward South Korea’s ongoing small-scale military drills.

The Trump administration has, in response, demanded for North Korea to take the first step of opening up all of its nuclear facilities to weapons inspectors prior to releasing sanctions and signing for peace. Both nations are unwilling to yield to one another’s conditions.

"I think right now, we are absolutely stuck," said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an interview with NPR.

It appears as if Trump will indeed meet with Kim again early in 2019, according to comments made by national security adviser John R. Bolton on December 4. On the contrary, according to the commentary of Robert Carlin, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, North Korea has expressed an unwillingness to participate in a summit “if the US does not take ‘credible measures’ to address North Korean ‘concerns’ in high level talks” with priority and agility.

Weapons Program Continues

North Korea imposed a voluntary moratorium on long-range ballistic missile tests this year as an act of goodwill leading up to the Trump-Kim summit in June. This was a much-welcomed concession as North Korea was active in testing missiles and nuclear weapons in 2017.

But there are indications the country is still moving forward with their nuclear program. Although development at its main test site has halted, the North Korean government has developed more than a dozen other sites. According to commercial satellite images released in November, North Korea has continued and significantly bolstered its ability to launch a nuclear attack. Though this does not technically breach North Korea’s promises, it violates its spirit of its steps towards peace.

Last week, North Korea’s state news agency (KCNA) stated that Kim Jong Un “supervised a newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon test.” The KCNA further noted the Supreme Leader’s excitement in “seeing the power of the tactical weapon” and its ability to “increase the defense capability” of North Korea.

On Monday, December 4, the Daily NK reported that North Korea has directed its navy to take a “Battle Readiness Posture,” which described as a mid-level state of alert for its military forces.

A South Korean Train and North Korean Soldier Cross the Border

Last week, a South Korean train crossed into North Korea for the first time in 10 years. While being a symbolic sign of progress and peace, the train’s mission is also to assess what it would take for North Korea’s rail system to modernize.

In their meeting in April, Kim Jong Un asked President Moon Jae-in for help rebuilding their decrepit rail system, which is in “embarrassing” shape. Moon agreed.

But this is not the first time the South has done an assessment of North Korea’s rail system. In 2007, South Korea studied the North’s rail system in limited scope as a train ran between the countries five times per week. This process continued until relations chilled between the two countries in 2008 and the line was eventually shut down.

As in 2008, talks between the North and South can easily stall and progress could halt. The continuation of such a project hinges on the ongoing nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States.

As the South Korean train made its way into North Korea last week, another North Korean soldier defected through the DMZ to South Korea. Unlike last year’s dramatic escape, no shots were fired at this solder and little is publicly known about him.

This soldier is just one of the tens of millions of North Koreans still silently suffering under the regime’s cruel rule. The food situation in the country has not improved markedly. As these international tensions, conflicts, agreements continue to swing between war and peace, Crossing Borders will continue to help those who flee into China and send our prayers into this dark nation. We might not be able to change the circumstances of the authorities or principalities who delegate and represent nations, but Crossing Borders will continue to serve and work those we can reach. Please pray for us to be in safety, hope and strength.

Brothers for Life

Our first pictures of Sungsik and Jongtae are outside of an old, dilapidated brick building. Both brothers are wearing their orphanage’s uniforms - a light blue and white polo with each silver, plastic button snapped in place. Their clothes, however, once new, are smudged and smeared with wear and tear. Black and brown stains are scattered across their bellies and sleeves.

The two boys stand differently. Sungsik, twelve-years-old in the photo and the elder of the two, stands hunched over, his shoulders shrugged as if he’s standing for the picture in the cold. He looks as if he is about to be struck, scolded, yelled at. His face is unsure, uncertain. Sungsik is uncomfortable.

Jongtae, though a year younger than his older brother, stands in stark contrast. His expression is sternly nonchalant, almost angry. His back is straight and his shoulders stiff. His arms are snapped to his sides like a soldier at roll call. Jongtae’s gaze is distant, beyond the camera. It seems that he could care no less about his picture being taken.

In these photos, Sungsik and Jongtae are about to be adopted into Crossing Borders’ group home.

 Sungsik and Jongtae at our first meeting.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our first meeting.

We don’t know Sungsik or Jongtae’s real birthdays. Their parents never bothered to register their information with us or the government. Our best estimates have been sometime in January of 2003 and 2004. The boys are not sure either. According to the boys, they were raised by an uncle when infants and left to a caring but poor orphanage by the time our missionaries came to find them. No relatives or family have ever come looking for either Sungsik or Jongtae.

Neither of the boys remember their father’s face. He was a Chinese man arrested for illegally selling opioids. He is currently still serving his sentence and has not been heard from. Sungsik and Jongtae’s mother, a North Korean refugee who was sold to their father, was also arrested. The consequence of her crime was more severe. She was sent back to North Korea, where it is impossible to learn of her whereabouts or condition. It is possible that neither Sungsik or Jongtae will ever even know if their mother was allowed to live when she returned to her country.

Through the years, our staff have learned a great deal about Sungsik and Jongtae.

Sungsik is quiet, shy, but intelligent and attentive. He is smaller than his younger brother but fiercely caring and loving. He is patient, but often lacks the boldness to reprimand or correct his sibling. He is pale and thin, loves to play volleyball and competes in his middle school’s intramural competitions.

We discovered that Jongtae had a urinary tract infection when he first arrived at our group home. It must have been an incredibly painful experience for him, as our staff only learned of this sickness when he urinated blood. Thanks to a volunteer doctor sent from the United States by Crossing Borders and several visits to local medical facilities, Jongtae was healed and is now very healthy.

Jongtae, much darker than his older brother, is the stronger and louder of the two. He can often be moody and is easily upset. When asked about his life or likes and dislikes, his answer is most often a scornful but playful “Wǒ bù zhīdào!” or “I don’t know!” Jongtae can be bright and silly, but abrasive. He, too, enjoys playing sports with his brother and listening to music.

Sungsik is now 16-years-old, his brother Jongtae is 15. The two of them are taller, healthy and still growing. In their group home, they are fed, attend school, and spend time with other boys their age. The boys bicker often, poke and prod at one another and argue. But together, they know that the only family they have is one another.

We want to continue to provide Sungsik and Jongtae a home. Our organization exists to serve children like them as they fight to become educated, mature young men. With compassion and care, we want to help Sungsik and Jongtae sustain their family.

Crossing Borders works to support many children like Sungsik and Jongtae. Many half-North Korean children are still lost and alone, without anyone to help them. Please help us to reach more.

 Sungsik and Jongtae at our retreat for North Korean children.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our retreat for North Korean children.

By the Numbers

 North Korean women gathering for a seminar at our annual retreat for refugees.

North Korean women gathering for a seminar at our annual retreat for refugees.

The Crossing Borders team at our 2018 retreat for refugee women was overwhelmed as they registered our attendees. Each North Korean woman and child who arrived had to be given a name tag, a pen, a notebook and assigned to a room. But rooms at the small motel in the countryside were filling rapidly, and the name tags, pens and notebooks were running low.

Amidst the talking, singing, laughing voices, the team members hurried to and fro in the bustling motel lobby and its rooms. Every once in a while, one of them would look around at the sheer number of the women and children pouring in through the entrance, astounded.

In 2016, Crossing Borders began an annual retreat for North Korean refugee women and their children in China. Its goal to build a community that the North Korean women in hiding could call their own.

The project began very small but our hopes were high. The retreat was to be held every year in a quiet, isolated motel in rural China. The staff was minimal. Twelve women and 10 children attended the retreat in 2016. In 2017, 16 women and 13 children came to join the team in sharing, praying, and counseling.

All of the women in attendance, at one time in their lives, had fled into this foreign country. Almost every one of them were sold on the black market. Several had been physically and psychologically tortured in North Korea’s infamous prison camps. They shared about their traumatic memories, their ongoing hurts, sorrows that seemed to have no end in a world that persecuted them, hated them.

But in this small community, many of the women found a small but significant solace. They could share the unseen scars of their experiences. They could offer encouragement and strength for one another. They could pray desperately together.

Each year, as the annual retreat ended, the Crossing Borders team was thankful that they had the opportunity to provide a small, safe place to share and to pray. But what we did not realize was that we had begun the roots of something much greater than a yearly gathering. We had planted a community.

It is true that the group of 22 refugee women and children following our retreats in 2016 and 2017 was small. But it was also one that remained faithful - even after the retreat had ended.

Women in this community began to share with each other and with their neighbors, not out of necessity but with open and willing hearts. Women like Lois, who we wrote about in our 2017 Annual Report, began to understand that a place of safety did not only provide her comfort, but the strength and motivation to share the compassion she received. The little graces they had received were paid forward and multiplied. Even the North Korean children taught their friends how to sing and dance to the songs they had learned at our retreats.

The community grew.

When our team arrived in China this year for our annual retreat, they were greeted by 36 North Korean refugee women and 40 of their children. Their audience had grown threefold. Friends of friends, neighbors, every North Korean refugee within reach had been shared to. Together, our team and the women and children did not only endure the hardship and persecution they faced. Instead, they thrived.