The Celebrations of Kim Jong Il’s Birthday
February 16 marks the birthday of Kim Jong-il, the second of the Kim family to rule over North Korea. He became the Supreme Leader after his father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994. Kim Jong-il’s rule was an era of a tragedy. Millions of people died of starvation and there was a mass influx of refugees escaping to China in the 1990s. And yet, God was able to work through this time, reaching those who escaped to China with the gospel.
Here, North Korean escapee Timothy Cho explains how Kim Jong-il’s birthday is marked in North Korea, what impact his rule had on the country, and how North Korea under Kim Jong-il compares with North Korea today.
“Even sixteen years after escaping from North Korea, I still remember that Kim Jong-il’s birthday is on February 16. I expect every North Korean remembers the Kim family’s birthdays from the brainwashing that we have experienced from birth.
Kim Jong-il’s birthday is a national holiday in North Korea, and people are expected to celebrate, for example, by taking flowers to the statues of the Kims. There will be special national concerts, propaganda documentaries and films about his work shown on TV. Up to the age of 11 or 12 , children receive a 1kg sweet package from the government on this day – but teachers tell students that they must only open it after thanking the Kim family’s portraits, which are hung on the walls of every house, school, office and factory.
From a young age, children are taught myths about Kim Jong-il’s birth. It is said that he was born in a small house in Paektu Mountain in North Korea, and a bright star appeared above the house – mirroring the story of Jesus’ birth. North Korea has established many kinds of pilgrimage trips for groups to come and visit his birthplace.
But Soviet records have revealed that he was actually born in Vyatskoye, a small fishing village in Russia. His Russian name was Yuri Irsenovich Kim. His family moved to Korea after World War Two ended in 1945, when Kim Jong-il was around four years old.
A time of trauma
The era of Kim Jong-il’s rule remains a great trauma for all North Korean people. Decades of fatally flawed central planning meant that the agricultural system in North Korea simply couldn’t provide enough food for everyone. Millions of people starved. Most North Korean escapees will remember the stories of human meat being sold as ‘special meat’. Every green field and mountain was full of people picking edible plants, or digging for herbal medicine materials to exchange for a few hundred grams of rice or flour with Chinese traders. People were stealing valuable material such as copper and aluminium to exchange for food.
People started to realise the socialist system was no longer functioning to feed them. They started cutting down trees in the mountains to create private plots for growing food for their survival. The combination of private plots, imports and smuggled items from China created the black market system that millions of people in North Korea now depend on for their survival.
This was also a time when many North Koreans began to question what they had been taught to believe about the Kim family. ‘Father Kim Il-Sung’ was supposed to provide everything they needed – but the ‘Great Leader’ had failed them.
Mass exodus an opportunity for the church
During this period, Kim Jong-Il decided to let people officially travel to China, supposedly to visit their relatives, but this also enabled them to survive the national famine as they were able to bring back food and money.
However, this also opened the eyes of the people of North Korea of the affluent life they could have in China. In my hometown, the first family who escaped to China illegally had first made an officially sanctioned visit to their relatives in China. Ironically, that family lived next door to the police chief! My parents were also among the first wave of escapees. Hundreds of thousands of people escaped to China illegally.
This started a new era for the underground church. When secret believers travelled to China, they returned not only with food and money, but also Bibles and Christian resources. Those who managed to attend Bible schools in China came back as trained church leaders. God also allowed many non-believers to hear the gospel of Jesus for the first time in China.
However, as the food crisis gradually improved after 2001, thanks to individual farming, increasing imports and smuggling from China, North Korea reduced people’s official visits to their relatives in China. But people like me continue to make the illegal journey across the border even to this day, despite the strict controls at the border between North Korea and China.
History repeating itself?
Today, Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to repeat the tragedies of his father’s era. But the covid-19 pandemic is leading to another period of mass starvation, with border closures to prevent the spread of covid-19 also blocking the usual supply of food from outside North Korea. The UN estimates that around 40 per cent of North Korean people are in need of urgent food aid.
If North Korea continues to insist on isolation and darkness, many will die. And yet, I want to speak the words of Ezekiel 37:9 over my country: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” It is only the spirit of God that can truly bring life and save us from death.
I pray that God will breathe His life into the people of North Korea, and His spirit into the leaders of North Korea. God was able to use Kim Jong-il to open doors for the gospel in North Korea, at least for a time. How could God use Kim Jong-un and the other leaders of today, if they would receive His spirit of servant-leadership, and protect their people from starvation, injustice, and persecution?
Please continue to pray:
- For protection of the secret believers in North Korea
- That God would breathe his life into North Korea
- For the preparation of servant leaders who acknowledge that the fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom
- For the Kim family and other leaders, that they will recognise and feel the pain of the North Korean people and act to save them from starvation.
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