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FIRST-PERSON: We must not be silent on North Korea

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–I recently had the privilege of speaking in our nation’s capital at a rally sponsored by the North Korean Freedom Coalition. As I often do when given the opportunity, I expressed gratitude to God for the precious freedoms we enjoy in the United States of America. Yet with the blessings of liberty we enjoy, we have a corresponding obligation to speak out when the rights of others are compromised.

As Americans we must accept responsibility for advocating for the beleaguered citizens of North Korea.

No one can deny this dictatorship’s abysmal record on religious freedom and other human rights. It is the world’s most closed country to outsiders. We know for certain of many of the horrors committed in the country; yet we can scarcely imagine the totality of unspeakable atrocities that take place there.

And if we know what’s going on, and we choose to do nothing, then we become morally culpable. We become complicit.

It is estimated that nearly two million North Koreans have starved to death while the government focused on developing its nuclear program and beefing up the military. The North Korean government has imprisoned more than 200,000 citizens for their political and religious views, including 6,000 Christians at one prison camp.

The North Korean government takes great umbrage at the new religious growth spurred by South Korean humanitarian and missionary groups in China. Police and border security units in North Korea are trained to halt the spread of religious ideas and root out clandestine religious activity. Anyone caught engaging in the distribution of religious materials, holding secret religious gatherings, or having ongoing contact with overseas religious groups is subject to severe punishment ranging from imprisonment in labor camps to execution.

There are reports of Christians being executed in the past year. One woman was executed in June 2009 for allegedly distributing Bibles. In the eyes of North Korean officials, this kind of activity is viewed as a state security offense. Her family, including her parents, husband and three children, were reportedly sent to a political prison camp the day after her execution.

Religious prisoners are typically treated even more harshly than other inmates. They are generally given the most dangerous tasks in the labor camps and are victims of constant abuse to force them to renounce their faith. There also are corroborated reports on forced abortions and cases of infanticide in the prison camps.

And 300,000 North Korean refugees, including 3,000 orphans, are living in China. These are innocent North Koreans who in fleeing their homeland have gone from bad to worse, if that is even imaginable.

With the number of North Korean refugees rising in China, the issue of repatriation and general refugee conditions remains a serious international concern. The Chinese government labels these refugees as “illegal” economic migrants and routinely repatriates them, despite the international obligation to offer protection to asylum-seekers and the documented proof that repatriated refugees suffer mistreatment and imprisonment. There is no question that when these individuals are handed over to the North Korean authorities they receive a far less than friendly welcome, including detention, torture and possible execution.

The U.S. government must implement quickly and completely the 2008 North Korea Human Rights Act, which provides the agenda and tools to conduct human rights diplomacy with North Korea. Congress should consider and adopt the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act, which will provide the means to facilitate the adoption of North Korean orphans, focusing on those who do not live in the communist state.

The U.S. State Department must urge China to abide by the international agreements it has signed and not repatriate refugees in its country to North Korea.

If the government of the United States and the government of China fully commit themselves to ending the atrocities that are being perpetrated by the North Korean government on the North Korean people, I am confident they will substantially end sooner rather than later. Yet without such sustained pressure, the ruthless tyrants ruling the nation will continue to exercise their destructive will on the innocent citizens in North Korea.

Suzanne Scholte, who is chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, made the point well at a rally in April in Seoul: “What is happening on the Korean peninsula is the world’s worst human rights tragedy — no people are more suffering, no people are more persecuted and this is a tragedy that has continued for 65 years — longer than the Jewish holocaust, longer than the Soviet gulags, longer than China’s cultural revolution, longer than the Rwanda genocide.”

Freedom is, as our nation’s Declaration of Independence reads, an unalienable right. It is a right bestowed upon all men by God. Each of us was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), deserving respect and protection. Those who deny that liberty violate this basic human right.

Southern Baptists have spoken on this issue. At the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, N.C., Southern Baptists pledged their solidarity with the citizens of North Korea, especially that country’s refugees “who are persecuted for conscience sake.” But we must speak louder.

The United States and every civilized nation in the world must make human rights an inextricable part of their foreign policy, so that economic and military agreements and decisions are never separated from basic human rights.

God is fully aware of the plight of those oppressed by the tyrannical North Korean government. He hears their cries. His protection extends to those who suffer under such brutality and who have no voice (Psalm 72:12-14). And He is cognizant of our activity (or lack thereof) on behalf of the North Korean people and others who suffer in silence in the grip of loathsome despots.

God expects us to do more than just wring our hands in despair; He expects us to raise our voices and sensitize the conscience of America and the world to the abuses that are occurring in North Korea and upon North Korean refugees in China. We cannot be silent. If we are, our reticence speaks volumes about our lack of concern for others, wherever in the world they are struggling to survive.

When the British statesman William Wilberforce stood before the House of Commons in 1791 and presented evidence of the atrocities of the slave trade, he concluded by saying, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”

We know what’s going on in North Korea and that morally obligates us to work to stop it for good.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

    About the Author

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land, D. Phil, is the Executive Editor of the Christian Post, having previously served as president of the ERLC (1988-2013) and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (2013-2021). He also serves as the chairman of the advisory board at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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