70 and 17

Statue of Kim Il Sung in North Korea.

Statue of Kim Il Sung in North Korea.

America has seen the coming and going of thirteen Presidents in the past 70 years. Truman. Eisenhower. Kennedy. Johnson. Nixon. Ford. Carter. Reagan. H.W. Bush. Clinton. Bush. Obama. Trump. On the contrary, in North Korea, there has been one family for over seven decades.

The Kim Family’s rule over North Korea - a dictatorship that crossed its 70th anniversary in September 2018, is the longest standing communist government in the world besides the government of Vietnam, which was fully unified in 1976, 28 years after the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). The DPRK, established in September 1948 under the premiership of Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung was the longest dictator to keep his rule in world history besides Fidel Castro.

The founding of North Korea’s dictatorship followed one of the most painful eras of Korean history. From 1905 through 1945, the Japanese Empire extended its authority over the Korean Peninsula as a legal protectorate. The imperial military and police rule was a foreign occupation seared into the national memory of the Koreas. The forty years of Japanese colonialism were filled with calculated policies of violent oppression and painful cultural indoctrination.

It is unsurprising that following World War II, Premier Kim Il Sung’s campaign to rebuild the glory of Korea under the banner of nationalism was incredibly successful. Today he still holds as North Korea’s “Eternal President.” His cunning use of propaganda and misinformation to re-educate his people was founded on a national philosophy of “juche,” or “self-reliance.” It is still the predominant worldview of the North Korean people.

But after flooding and famine, harsh food shortages and economic collapse ravaged North Korea following the 1960s, the nation, unable to hold its infrastructure in place, played to the favor of the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist Party to remain in power. To this day, the North Korean government has little to no ability to sustain its people and is propped up by the thread of support it receives from China as 80% of its exports go across its northern border and 90% of its imports are from the same nation.

History books in North Korea teach that Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il was born on Mount Paekdu, the highest peak of the Korean peninsula, his birth coincided with the blessing of a swallow, a double rainbow, and a new star in the night sky. Heralded with such messianic imagery of the “Great Successor,” Kim Jong Il took the position of General Secretary in 1994 following the death of this father.

However, it was also under the rule of Kim Jong Il that North Korea experienced the worst famine in modern history as an unknown number of individuals, ranging up to 3.5 million people, starved to death. The North Korean government’s oversight of the famine was a nightmare. While a nation of people wasted away, the policies of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il did not turn to the needs of his people. Instead, it is said that the nation’s Supreme Leader spent up to 20% of the nation’s budget on personal luxury goods during his time in office while increasing his aggressive campaign to increase North Korea’s military might.

Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, the North Korean government has overseen a total of 30 missile launches in less than a decade and four nuclear tests as the nation’s leader is rumored to spend up to $600 million for personal luxury goods per year. However, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, is also a groundbreaker of the Kim family. Coupled with his threatening display on the world stage throughout 2017 came new steps of diplomacy and peacemaking with western nations and on the Korean Peninsula in 2018.

But as Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un prepares to meet US President Trump at the end of February in Vietnam, it is important to remember that his dictatorial rule is only the latest in the line of North Korean leaders. About half of the nation’s population is still hungry or starving. Over 70 percent of North Koreans who fled to China are women and 80 percent of those women are victims of human trafficking.

This year, Crossing Borders reaches its 17th year of our work. As we look to the bleak past, we strive - not only to hope for more but to work for a better future for the North Korean people. The power of the North Korean government, national and international rulers do not fall under our authority. But we know we can change the lives of those who fall victim to the crushing abuse of the world. It is Crossing Borders’ mission to hold fast to faith and to care for North Korean refugees in our network. We will continue to reach out to North Koreans with compassion and strength - no matter the principalities or powers that rule over North Korea in the years to come.

Caught Between Conflicts: Missionaries and Refugees


The work of Crossing Borders is fraught with risk. Though our efforts have continued uninterrupted for 16 years, we’ve operated with the knowledge that at any moment, the Chinese government could effectively halt our operations. But despite the inherent pressures of our mission field, we find ourselves full of hope.

On January 4th, closely following the 40th anniversary of bilateral Chinese-American relations, the US State Department issued an advisory placing China on status of “increased caution” for travelling Americans. The advisory warned US citizens that Chinese officials may arrest or detain any Americans visiting China in the country without being charged with a crime. China is using these arrests “to compel U.S. citizens to participate in Chinese government investigations, to lure individuals back to China from abroad, and to aid Chinese authorities in resolving civil disputes in favor of Chinese parties.”

The release of the advisory is the result of the ongoing tensions between the Chinese and American governments. The government travel advisory for the 2.3 million Americans who visit China each year is likely driven by ongoing trade negotiations with China, as well as the recent detention of three Canadian nationals. It is both a politically and economically motivated warning issued by a American officials closely watching Chinese diplomacy. The two nations’ combative rhetoric has been expanding steadily.

Caught in the crossfire are Crossing Borders’ American missionaries who travel into China to serve North Korean refugees and their children. If arrested or detained, they would be casualties of a much larger conflict that has little to do with Crossing Borders’ work. But Crossing Borders has long been aware of the difficulties of working in China, especially as an American organization. Both of our founding members have experienced danger to their lives. Members of our Chinese field staff have reported being under the watchful eye of authorities, sitting through accusatory interrogations or receiving threats of arrest. As the American and Chinese governments take turns placing a greater strain upon their relationship overseas, US missionaries grow concerned.

Christianity, has been strongly rejected and harshly enforced by Chinese authorities for the past year. Our missionaries have recently reported that religious holidays such as Christmas have been banned in certain major cities. Heightened frustration between the American and Chinese governments have only given our staff more reason to worry about arrest, detainment or expulsion in China. With right cause, we feel powerless and caught in the middle of a much bigger conflict.

Over 200,000 North Korean refugees who are in hiding throughout China experience much greater pressures. Many refugees - who have experienced terror and abuse at the hands of authorities - are aware of how little control they have over their circumstances. Hungry and impoverished, they could never control the scale of historic and international tensions that have driven them into desperate circumstances. Many live in fear.

But Crossing Borders’ message for both the field staff we employ and the North Korean people in our care is one of hope. We do not share our hopes despite being at the mercy of greater powers, but because of such mercies. We do not believe our difficult circumstances are signs of despair. We trust in that we have been given a mission to share kindness, love, and peace despite the tribulation or persecution we may experience. Our calling proves truer and stronger in trials and is our anchor in all circumstances.

In safety and danger please stand with us in prayer. Whatever trials lay ahead in the coming year, Crossing Borders hopes to forge onward holding to our testimonies of deep compassion and great endurance.

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 examine 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.