A couple of years ago, while writing for an organization that serves persecuted Christians, I had the opportunity to sit in a boat and stare at the bare, mountainous expanse of North Korea's border with China.
By this time my colleagues and I had been steeped in horrific first-hand accounts from those who had lived in the nation nicknamed “the hermit kingdom.” We’d heard of Christians beaten, tortured and imprisoned. Of starving families eating grass and frogs to survive. Of church leaders publicly executed for their loyalty to Christ over “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, whose sudden death Saturday of a reported heart attack has put North Korea back in the headlines.
I came to the shoreline expecting it would somehow speak to the horrors inside.
This was the scene: armed soldiers on patrol, their capped heads appearing in a watchtower, but who paid little attention to our traveling group. One or two trucks carting unknown cargo up the dusty roads. And a few civilians - a woman washing clothes in the water and a fisherman in a riverboat. But rather than look at us alarmingly they … waved at us.
Aside from the barbed wire fence, this was not the sinister landscape I had pictured. Even the hills, their ragged peaks lit by afternoon sun, had a calm splendor.
But the refugees we met with, prayed with and listened to gave us a brutal picture that belied any tranquility in my binocular view. And this true picture is the disturbing reality I envision today - in this season - as the world faces the implications of instability in a cloistered nation with nuclear ambitions.
I also think of recent reports of North Korea threatening to take action against South Korea for allowing giant Christmas trees to be set up near the contested border area. North Korea sees the trees as “psychological warfare,” a method of converting its people to Christianity.
Some consider the displays an as unnecessary act of antagonism. Others consider it a demonstration of religious freedom. Either way, they attest to the North Korean regime’s alarming hostility toward all those who threaten its authority.
The news prompted me to catch up on prayer updates and revisit articles that underscore the hardship of North Korean life by giving a picture of Christmas in this country. As expected, all is neither calm nor bright. Many will see the season in a cell or labor camp. Those on the outside could be arrested or even killed if caught acknowledging the Christian holiday.
Still, there are those who celebrate Christmas behind the barbed wire, unaccompanied by pageantry or feast. I try to picture them, prisoners in their own country, reading about the Nativity aloud in a climate of repression and fear. Their narratives of suffering seem out of sync with the quiet scene as we imagine it.
But we know not all was calm and bright on the night of our Savior’s birth, either. Such a reality speaks to the whole story of Christ’s coming. I think in particular of Matthew 2:2-13 - of Herod’s murderous jealousy, of Mary and Joseph as refugees in flight to Egypt to keep their son safe. I then think of the young boys back in Bethlehem - the first to die in the name of Jesus. How soon after the manger comes massacre; how soon a mother’s rejoicing becomes mourning.
And oh, how similar the cries of grief coming from God’s people in North Korea today.
In the bleakness of North Korea, where even Christmas trees at the border are deemed a threat, the urgent need for God incarnate, God with us, is made achingly real.
In our comfortable homes garnished with tinsel and holly, it’s easy to diminish the hardship outside - or, even more, the barbed darkness of our own hearts. But it is this very reason Christ came: to reconcile us with the Father, to respond to our cries for mercy and to bring us estranged creatures back home.
I remember especially the North Korean underground evangelists I met, those who escaped but who keep going back, compelled by Christ, to share His love and grace. “Lord, have mercy,” I say with them, wowed by the mercy He has already shown.
And this Christmas, may you, too, join with our North Korean family in crying out, with great hope: “Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus, Come!”
(Photo of North Korean border courtesy of The Voice of the Martyrs.)