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Did Trump and Kim’s Summit Help North Korean Christians?

Experts analyze the impact on persecuted believers after the two polemic leaders walk away without a deal.
Did Trump and Kim’s Summit Help North Korean Christians?
Image: Linh Pham / Stringer / Getty

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump referred to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as “his friend.”

At extreme odds a year ago, the two leaders met this week in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a new agreement possibly on the table. This time, Trump made friendly overtures to Kim—even going so far as to say he believed the leader had not been directly responsible for the death of an American student. But when the summit ended on Thursday, Trump walked away after the US refused to agree to North Korea’s demand that all sanctions be lifted off the country.

For years, North Korea has been one of the world’s worst countries to be a Christian; Open Doors has ranked it No. 1 for nearly the past two decades. Dozens of volunteers and employees from the many Christian nonprofits that serve North Koreans—believers and unbelievers alike—have had increasing difficulty serving the beleaguered population.

CT asked six experts from the Lausanne Movement’s North Korea Committee, which held consultations before and after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, to weigh in. Did Trump and Kim’s summit help North Korean Christians? Their answers appear below, arranged from no to yes.

Ben Torrey, director, the Fourth River Project:

My hope is that, as a result of the Hanoi Summit, the existing regional travel restriction that is preventing US citizens from traveling to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will be lifted allowing Christian NGOs and humanitarian workers to enter the country. These workers are doing a great deal to help the ordinary people of the DPRK in the name of Jesus Christ. The US-imposed travel restriction interferes seriously with that mission.

I do not think the summit will have any direct benefit to North Korean Christians. In fact, it may make things more difficult as the North Korean authorities crack down even more in an effort to prevent people from using the summit as a basis for protests or other actions in the country. To the extent that it does take us one more small step further toward a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, it can be seen as possibly having a long-term positive effect.

It is important to keep engaging North Korea in whatever way is possible, never forgetting the severe human rights and religious liberty issues. This is a long-term process that must be bathed in prayer. Pray more than ever before for God to work in and through all these things as well as to protect his people and those who are innocent.

Joy Yoon, author of Discovering Joy: Ten Years in North Korea:

Any outcome of the summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un and the impact it will have on Christians living and working in North Korea is yet to be seen. However, whenever two opposing parties have the willingness to turn and head toward one another, we believe it is a positive step toward reconciliation. This ministry of reconciliation has been given to us through Christ, who not counting men’s sins against them, has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). Therefore, reconciliation between the US and North Korea is a significant step toward positive engagement, including Christian engagement, in North Korea. Our hope is that these efforts for reconciliation continue on the Korean Peninsula, and we believe this will open up new opportunities for more meaningful engagement in the future.

Justin V. Hastings, professor of international relations and comparative politics, University of Sydney:

I can see a scenario where, over the long term, the summit leads to a better US–North Korea relationship. In that situation, in bilateral dialogues, the US could take up the treatment of individual North Korean Christians.

North Korea is not engaging the US because it wants to open up. It is engaging because it wants at least some sanctions lifted so that it can keep from being forced to change and keep the regime in power. As a result, it’s unlikely that the summit will directly help with Christian engagement with North Korea, particularly since overt Christian influence in North Korea is one of the North Korean regime’s fears. However, if the US–North Korea relationship warms to the point that some sanctions are lifted, we could see a situation where North Korea welcomes in investment and humanitarian aid from Christian organizations, and the US government-associated red tape is relaxed. With enough relaxing of sanctions, there are certain areas of the economy where North Korea could be a better engagement partner.

Christians should be ready to engage with North Korea if and when change happens and should be preparing to do it from some country other than China. At some point, if the US government comes to a point where it wants to encourage North Korean non-nuclear economic development with the help of US humanitarian aid and investment, it will have to lift the US citizen travel ban. With enough progress, some sanctions could be lifted, and North Korea could turn toward the US rather than China.

A “Seoul-based researcher on North Korean affairs,” who requested anonymity:

Christians are persecuted mercilessly in North Korea, despite the presence of several state-sanctioned churches in the capital, Pyongyang. Underground churches in the North are known to have been subject to raids by the authorities and the members punished severely. The regime's control over its people depends heavily on its ability to incite fear and enforce the loyalty of the people to one “deity” only—the regime’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Any genuine transformation in the treatment of Christians in the country is unlikely to happen without a risky change in the regime’s approach to governance or, indeed, a complete change in the regime itself to a new government that allows freedom of religion.

It is important that dialogue between the US, North Korea, and South Korea remains open and positive. Only through dialogue can we improve the likelihood that certain engagement activities will resume. The US travel ban preventing citizens from traveling to North Korea has been detrimental to a range of important work being done by Christians in education and other humanitarian work on the ground. Seeing this ban lifted would be an important step forward. We don't want to return to the verbal hostilities of 2017.

Christians who have experience working inside North Korea hold some of the best knowledge and expertise on how to work with the regime effectively, in ways that deliver relief to ordinary people. The continuing positive mood between the US, North Korea, and South Korea is our best hope at ensuring this work can expand. Exposing the North Korean people to outsiders who are working to provide aid is a discreet but impactful means of transforming hearts and minds in ways that might lead to the country's opening in the future.

Jamie Kim, chair of the Lausanne Movement’s North Korea Committee:

Even though a deal was not reached at this summit, further dialogs will result in Christian engagement in North Korea. We must remember that a year ago, there were rumors of a preemptive strike against North Korea. As economic and cultural exchanges open the door to North Korea, Christian business people and entrepreneurs can go to empower the people with business, development, and social enterprise. As prejudice and ignorance are broken down with meaningful people-to-people contact, there is potential for forgiveness, reconciliation, and sharing of lives. With 70 years of name-calling and demonizing, it is important for Christians to lead the way toward bridge building.

Christians have led the way toward bridge building in the last 20-plus years, and the summit can potentially open the border between North and South Korea. While many of the Western NGOs and businesses have abandoned North Korea, it is the Christians who have stayed the ground. In spite of misunderstanding and even persecution by others in the West, Christians have persevered in building relationships with the people of North Korea.

On the other hand, we must remember that politics is not the complete story. Christians must seek the Lord’s mercy and justice to prevail on the Korean Peninsula. We must pray for justice to prevail so that the people of North Korea can have the freedom to worship God. We just pray for mercy so that the leadership of North Korea will have a change of heart.

What also needs to happen next is to train Christian professionals to prepare for the work inside North Korea. It is not easy living and working in North Korea. The regime and the leadership have not changed yet. Although the country desires to open and to allow foreign investment and people to open the market, it will not be easy for its leadership to change. As a result, there needs to be education and equipping of people to be effective inside North Korea. Not only professionally, but it will be important to train people culturally and spiritually to survive and thrive inside.

David Ro, the Lausanne Movement’s East Asia regional director:

President Trump is a tough, shrewd business negotiator, and for him to walk away is just a tactic to get a better deal later. I foresee a better deal coming with the US slowly lifting sanctions and North Korea dismantling their nuclear weapons. Most are expecting immediate results, but it will take many more rounds. The US and China are about to sign a trade deal, which would come first before any North Korea agreement.

In the long run, Trump’s North Korea strategy will affect the Christians in North Korea, but there will not be any results in the near future or the next few years. Most important is the trajectory has been set toward a direction of engagement and peace. Human rights abuses will continue to be addressed with advancement and retreats just as with China. It will be a long road ahead, but at least now there is more optimism of a US–North Korea deal than ever before.

[ This article is also available in 한국어. ]

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