The world waits anxiously as the leadership transition unfolds in North Korea. It’s premature to suppose that the death of Kim Jong-il guarantees improvement or hope for the oppressed people of that totalitarian nation. Uncertainty and regime change inside a violent leadership culture could result in tragic consequences for ordinary citizens.
In a recent column for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof gave us a glimpse into the world of North Korea. He describes “The Loudspeaker,” a radio mounted on the wall of every North Korean home that randomly vomits propaganda on North Koreans. “In his first golf outing,” it shrieks, “Comrade Kim Jong-il shoots five holes-in-one!” The speaker recounts robotic answers to questions from two North Korean schoolgirls and the horrific story of a husband asking and receiving permission to execute his wife, who raised questions about Kim Jong-il’s womanizing.
By now, we’ve probably all seen the video and photos of North Korean citizens weeping and tearing at their clothes and hair in agony at news of their infallible leader’s death. We ask what could possess people who suffer under such harsh conditions, such deep poverty, such rank abuse to mourn the death of their oppressor. But this is nothing new.
There were similar levels of unimaginable cruelty in Germany during the Third Reich, as well as in China under Mao and the Soviet Union under Stalin. The 20th century learned the lessons of the industrial revolution and created vast government machines of oppression. Ordinary citizens terrorized their friends and neighbors, buying into propaganda that told them such cruelty served of the invincible demi-gods who led their state.
Unfortunately, the collapse of North Korea would not be the end of totalitarianism. Many other nations, such as Cuba, hover near the border of this description. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt has said, “It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.” Dictators and despots will continue to learn from their predecessors and build bureaucratic machines of terror and oppression.
But only for a time.
Oppression Will Cease
The fact remains that a day is coming when in Jesus’ name, “all oppression will cease.” Even the oppression of totalitarians in North Korea.
North Korea is a glaring reminder of the brokenness of the world and the great evil that we are capable of carrying out. Machinized terror, systematic oppression, gulags, prison camps, and propaganda are all the product of a God-given imagination running horribly awry. Under the weight of that corrupted imagination the world groans in weariness. North Korea’s rulers have drained the resources of a starving nation, pouring every dollar they could into the military, which stands as both a tool of oppression against their people and as bared fangs to the world that looks on in disgust. Yet that power is somehow cosmically undone by the birth of a child in a stable in Bethlehem.
As Placide de Cappeau de Roquemaure phrased it so brilliantly in his hymn “O Holy Night”:
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
As yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Sin’s entrance sent the world careening towards destruction, creating a rift between heaven and earth that required sacrifices, temples, and veils to protect us from the furious heat of God’s holiness. The Christ child’s entrance into the world set the two on a collision course once again, with the promise that the babe in the straw would reconcile them all, destroying death and sin in the process.
Cannot Defeat the Gospel
I can’t help but think of Herod as we imagine North Korea at Christmas. The isolation of their people and the brutal persecution of Christians is like the murderous response of that other king when he heard of the birth of the Messiah. Like the later attempts by Roman emperors—-indeed, all those made by despots throughout history—-every attempt to crush the gospel has and will continue to fail. Christians in North Korea need our prayers and whatever help we can provide.
Jesus taught us to pray “on earth as in heaven,” inviting us to look at the world through the hope-filled promise of reconciliation. It’s through those eyes that we should look to North Korea, or Iran, or any other populace suffering under the crushing thumb of dictators. There is nothing so liberating as the news that we have a better King and an eternal hope. In spite of their screeching protestations, every tyrant’s days are numbered. A King was born in Bethlehem who will one day bring justice and peace.
Merry Christmas, North Korea. We love you and we’re praying for you. May the wondrous announcement of the birth of the One True King take root in your people, spreading a fearless hope in your hearts as you face the uncertain days ahead.