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From yesterday's Sunday Times (UK):
In interviews for this article over many months, western policymakers, Chinese experts, North Korean exiles and human rights activists built up a picture of a tightly knit clan leadership in Pyongyang that is on the verge of collapse.
Some of those interviewed believe the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, has already lost his personal authority to a clique of generals and party cadres. Without any public announcement, governments from Tokyo to Washington are preparing for a change of regime.
The death of Kim’s favourite mistress last summer, a security clampdown on foreign aid workers and a reported assassination attempt in Austria last November against the leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, have all heightened the sense of disintegration.
Word has spread like wildfire of the Christian underground that helps fugitives to reach South Korea. People who lived in silent fear now dare to speak about escape. The regime has almost given up trying to stop them going, although it can savagely punish those caught and sent back.
“Everybody knows there is a way out,” said a woman, who for obvious reasons cannot be identified but who spoke in front of several witnesses.
“They know there is a Christian network to put them in contact with the underground, to break into embassies in Beijing or to get into Vietnam. They know, but you have to pay a lot of money to middlemen who have the Christian contacts.”
Her knowledge was remarkable. North Korean newspapers are stifled by state control. Televisions receive only one channel which is devoted to the Dear Leader’s deeds. Radios are fixed to a single frequency. For most citizens the internet is just a word.
Yet North Koreans confirmed that they knew that escapers to China should look for buildings displaying a Christian cross and should ask among Korean speakers for people who knew the word of Jesus.
In recent decades South Korea has become the world's second-largest source for Christian missionaries, and South Korean Christians have played a very important role in relations between the two halves of the nation, from working for human rights in North Korea, to alerting the world to the terrible hunger that stalks North Korea, to helping smuggle tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of refugees out of North Korea to the South via China.
Reading this story reminded me of a book I read about a year ago entitled The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, a memoir by Kang Chol-Hwan, who had survived ten years in the Yodok labor camp, and who had, following his release, ultimately escaped to China and from there to South Korea. At one point he describes the impact of South Korean Christian radio programming on those people, like himself, who defied the official ban on tuning in to South Korean broadcasts.
"We liked listening to the Christian programs on the Korean Broadcasting System. The message of love and respect for one's fellow man was sweet as honey to us. It was so different from what we were used to hearing. In North Korea the state-run radio and television, newspapers, teachers, and even comic strips only tried to fill us with hate-for the imperialists, the class enemies, the traitors and who knows what else...We hungered for a discourse to break the monopoly of lies. In North Korea, all reality is filtered through a single mind-set. Listening to the radio gave us the words we needed to express our dissatisfaction. Every program, each new discovery, helped us tear a little freer from the enveloping web of deception." (p. 185)
If the North Korean regime does ultimate start to collapse the work of Christian organizations will prove to have been absolutely instrumental. Even if it staggers on into the future, it is vitally important to support those who are working for positive change in North Korea: those who work with refugees, against hunger, and towards reconciliation.