Several hundred people gathered at Saddleback Church from June 2 to 3 to learn more about a nation known to be one of the most severe violators of human rights and persecutors of Christians: North Korea.
The current situation in the regime, and how activists and Christians could participate in restoring human rights in North Korea, were among the topics discussed at International Christian Concern’s annual conference called The Bridge.
The conference, which was launched in 2016, focuses on the topic of persecution but spotlights different regions each year. In 2016, the conference highlighted persecution in the Middle East.
Though the topics of restoring human rights in North Korea, and bringing about reunification in the Korean peninsula, are often considered overwhelming, speakers at The Bridge conveyed a sense of hope that the borders of the nation will soon be open, and that the gospel would penetrate the country.
“If I can ask you to retain one thing from this conference, it’s to grasp this simple truth: the fall of the North Korean government is not impossible,” said Jeff King, the president of International Christian Concern (ICC). “It’s inevitable.”
“When North Korea falls, it will be very fertile mission ground for the gospel,” said Mervyn Thomas, CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
The conference featured speakers from a variety of sectors, including pastors, defectors, legislators, policy experts, and activists. Notable among them were Francis Chan, author and pastor; Congressman Ed Royce; Joseph Kim, a defector who authored his experiences and was featured in a TED Talk; and Suzanne Scholte, executive director of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. In late May, a policy day also took place in Washington, D.C. in which Senators Ted Cruz and James Lankford were also featured as speakers.
The increase in the number of defectors fleeing North Korea, and news that information from the outside have been penetrating the country more and more, are among some of the signs that speakers pointed to as evidence of an imminent opening of the reclusive country.
Congressman Royce recalled a conversation he had with a North Korean refugee who told him “people [in North Korea] are watching soap operas” and consuming other content from outside.
“The number one thing they want to do is to watch what’s happening in the outside world,” Royce said. “They are seeing what is happening and they see that North Korea is not necessarily the best country. The defector is trying to convey that there is an opportunity there.”
The claim was echoed by defectors who said that they had learned more about the world outside of North Korea through media.
“I saw on TV that the world outside had refrigerators and other things that were so much better than the ones in North Korea,” said one defector. “I began to doubt that North Korea was the best country in the world.”
One defector said she heard the broadcast of Free North Korea Radio while in North Korea, and that all of the voices she had heard in the broadcast were defectors. Her curiosity about whether that was true, and if so, whether these defectors were doing the program voluntarily or by force, drove her to also flee the country and find out for herself.
Until the borders of North Korea are opened, however, speakers said, human rights violations must be addressed, and legislation to promote human rights in North Korea must continue to be advocated for.
Isaac Six, the advocacy director of the ICC, said world leaders and legislators must focus their discussion when it comes to North Korea on the issues of human rights. He added that bills have been introduced to enforce just that: HR 2061 and S 1118. If passed, the measures would require that all talks about North Korea must include discussion about its human rights violations, among other requirements.
World leaders must also increase pressure on China to compel it to stop repatriating North Korean refugees, said Suzanne Scholte.
“What China is doing is illegal, inhumane, and barbaric,” she said. “The moment [refugees] cross that border, they fit the definition of an asylum seeker and have protections. Because it is a crime punishable by death to leave the North Korean regime, they are protected by international law.”
Meanwhile, the conference also featured representatives from non-profits that engage in helping North Korean refugees, such as Crossing Borders, Liberty in North Korea, and Free North Korea Radio.