South Korea (Compassion/MNN) — North Korea has sat atop the Open Doors World Watch List as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians for 13 years.
Last year, a report from the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world and regularly violates human rights en masse.
Dictator Kim Jong-Un’s adherence to juche, or the deification of the leader, allows for little tolerance for any other faith. Anyone discovered engaging in unauthorized religious activity is subject to arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture, and/or execution. Last year, he purged 10,000 North Koreans, including some Christians.
Given the country’s hostility toward them, it would be near unimaginable that a ministry like Compassion International would be preparing for the eventuality of work there. Compassion’s Russ Debenport says the passion and heart of Compassion Korea for the children of North Korea got their attention first. Then, it was the changes in the geo-political and socio-economic front that led to movement and planning.
One of the big things that happened was Myanmar opening up. Three years ago, says Debenport, nobody could have predicted the changes that have happened there. It became obvious it was time to act.
Last month, 1100 church leaders from across South Korea came together for the North Korea Ministry Summit. It was hosted by Compassion Korea in partnership with Compassion Global Advocacy. “One of the purposes of the Summit was to raise awareness of the situation and the needs of children in North Korea. Number two was to begin to prepare and equip the churches of Korea to be ready and to give them practical tools that they can use when the day arises so that they can go impact children in the North.”
Topics covered during the two-day summit included: holistic child development and curriculum, theological foundations of poverty alleviation, effective church and community partnership, and research on the state of children in North Korea. Their holistic approach comes about from a long-view resolve. “The environment for children is an environment of distrust,” explains Debenport. “If you have an entire culture that’s built on distrust of your neighbor, then it can be very difficult to come in and teach people and engage people for their development.” The problem is, that with enough time, distrust goes deep. “It’s going to take many generations for them to really come out of the oppression that they’ve experienced for the last 60 years. There are generations that have come and gone in North Korea now, that have been under this military dictatorship. We do have to think long-term, and we ARE thinking long-term.”
It starts with readiness. “Our plan is to have 200 churches ready to partner with us by 2017. We just felt that Compassion needs to be ready.” What happens if North Korea ISN’T ready by 2017? “We want to wait well, and we want to wait as a team of people who are ready and fully prepared.” For those who are thinking “North Korea will never be open,” Debenport has this to say: “Sometimes, over time, our expectations over what God can do become diminished, and we forget how powerful God is in moving entire nations to change.”
Korea is where Compassion International began over 60 years ago. With a long history of partnership with the Korean Church, their Gospel readiness is as multi-generational as years of suspicion. Debenport is quick to add that the seed may have gone dormant, but it was never dead. In speaking with a group of child defectors, he was stunned to learn that “they understand a little bit about Jesus Christ, because of their parents and grandparents who have held onto their faith, even though they’ve had to do that in secret.”
Compassion is taking a pro-active approach because God “hears the needs and the cries and the prayers of the children of North Korea, even if those children may not know how to pray,” which means the time could come at any moment. “Pray alongside the people of North Korea–those who know how to pray and those who don’t–so that a day can come soon that we can more freely move in and out, and whatever the scenario looks like, that we’re ready to love our neighbors.”
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