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Kim Jong-il’s surprising legacy of faith

16 February 2021

The former North Korean leader, who would have turned 80 today, allowed millions of his people to starve — but he also unwittingly allowed Christianity to flourish in North Korea, writes Timothy Cho

Mark Fahey/creative commons

An idealised portrait of Kim Jong-il

An idealised portrait of Kim Jong-il

EVEN 16 years after escaping from North Korea, I still remember that Kim Jong-il’s birthday is on 16 February. I expect that every North Korean remembers the Kim family’s birthdays from the brainwashing that we experienced from birth.

Kim Jong-il’s birthday is a national holiday in North Korea, and people are expected to celebrate, for example, by taking flowers to the statues of the Kims. There will be special national concerts, propaganda documentaries, and films about his work shown on TV. Up to the age of 11 or 12, children receive a 1kg sweet package from the government on this day. They are told that they must open it only after thanking the Kim family’s portraits, which are hung on the walls of every house, school, office, and factory.

From a young age, you are taught stories about Kim Jong-il’s birth. It is said that he was born in a small house in Paektu Mountain, North Korea, and a bright star appeared above the house — mirroring the story of Christ’s birth. North Korea has established many kinds of pilgrimage trips for groups to come and visit his birthplace.

In fact, Soviet records have revealed that he was born in Vyatskoye, a small fishing village in Russia. His Russian name was Yuri Irsenovich Kim. His family moved to Korea after the Second World War ended in 1945, when he was about four years old.


A nation turned to cannibalism

THE era of Kim Jong-il’s rule was a traumatic time. Decades of fatally flawed central planning meant that the agricultural system simply could not provide enough food. Up to 3.5 million starved in the famine of the mid-1990s. It was a time when some turned to cannibalism to survive.

Most of those who escape from North Korea will remember the stories that human meat was sold as “special meat”. Every green field and mountain was full of people picking edible plants, or digging for herbal medicine materials to exchange for a few hundred grammes of rice or flour with Chinese traders. People were stealing materials such as copper and aluminium to exchange for food.

open doorsStatues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

People started felling trees in the mountains to create private plots to grow food. The combination of private plots, imports, and smuggled items from China created a black-market system on which millions of people in North Korea now depend to survive.

It was a time when many North Koreans began to question what they had been taught to believe about the Kim family. “Father Kim Il-Sung” was supposed to provide everything they needed — but the “Great Leader” had failed them.


Exodus and opportunity

KIM JONG-IL decided to let people officially travel to China, supposedly to visit their relatives. It enabled them to survive the national famine, however, as they were able to return with food and money.

The visits also opened the eyes of the people of North Korea to the affluent life that they could have in China. In my home town, the first family who escaped to China illegally had first made an officially sanctioned visit to their relatives there. Ironically, that family lived next door to the police chief. My parents were also among the first wave of people who escaped. Hundreds of thousands of people escaped to China illegally.

The visits also started a new era for the underground Church. When secret believers travelled to China, they returned not only with food and money, but also with Bibles and Christian resources. Those who managed to attend Bible schools in China came back as trained church leaders. God also allowed many non-believers to hear the gospel of Jesus for the first time.

As the food crisis gradually improved after 2001, thanks to individual farming, increasing imports, and smuggling from China, North Korea reduced the official visits. But, even to this day, people continue to make the illegal journey across to China, despite the strict border.


History repeats itself?

TODAY, Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to repeat the tragedies of his father’s era. Sadly, though, the Covid-19 pandemic is leading to another period of mass starvation, as border closures to prevent the spread of the virus also block the usual supply of food from outside North Korea. The United Nations estimates that about 40 per cent of North Korean people are in need of urgent food aid.

If North Korea continues to insist on isolation and darkness, many will die. And yet I want to speak the words of Ezekiel 37.9 over my country: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” It is only the Spirit of God that can truly bring life and save us from death.

I pray that God will breathe his life into the people of North Korea, and his Spirit into the leaders of North Korea. God was able to use Kim Jong-il to open doors for the gospel in North Korea, at least for a time. How could God use Kim Jong-un and the other leaders of today, if they would repent and receive his spirit of servant-leadership? Never say, “It’s impossible”; God makes all things possible.

Timothy Cho, who escaped from North Korea, is based in the UK and works for the Christian charity Open Doors

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