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03/18/2022 South Korea (International Christian Concern) – Last week, South Korea’s opposition candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, won the presidential election indicating an incoming shift in life on the peninsula. The Korean Democratic Party lost by a narrow margin, putting the newly formed coalition party en route to the helm of the nation this May.

Korean politics have undergone a significant amount of turbulence over the last decade following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in December 2016. Following this debacle, the Democratic party won the presidency and reverted the South’s engagement with the region to a less domineering era. The Moon government, while remaining a key US partner in the region, took a less antagonistic approach to its regional neighbors and winding back South Korea’s willingness to upset countries like China and North Korea – until now.

The Northern Neighbor

Currently led by the third heir of the Kim Dynasty, Kim Jong-un, the authoritarian regime upholds its aggressive dictatorship in the face of international pressures for peace. While North Korea’s ambitions of acquiring a successful nuclear missile are well known across the world, many are still unaware of the harsh treatment its residents face within. The country aggressively prosecutes anyone deemed to be working against the interests of the state and its leadership. Citizens of North Korea are not permitted to know about the world outside of the hermit nation, with few exceptions for those who can visit China. Life is heavily controlled in the country, with harsh punishments for anyone who steps outside of them. For Christians, actions as simple as praying, talking about the Bible, and sharing one’s faith can lead to beatings, imprisonment, forced labor, and even execution.

Under the Moon Government

While international pressure has long pressed for change in North Korea, the Moon government attempted to seek a more diplomatic relationship. The Moon government backed a goodwill policy termed the Sunshine Policy, which encouraged economic support and increased engagement between the two countries in exchange for no armed escalation between the parties. This brought a period of progress, as the rival states held two inter-Korean summits in 2018. This also led to a series of summits between the North and the United States. While this policy has put a number of tangible successes on the table, the increased stress on avoiding provocation has made calling out the abuses across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) much more complicated.

While the Sunshine Policy provided some major moments in the inter-peninsular relationship, human rights groups have once again begun to express concern about a decreasing will to hold North Korea accountable and alleging that they had caved under North Korea’s demands.

For decades, defector groups and Christian organizations have sent anti-tyranny leaflets, radios, bibles, and other items over the tightly guarded border via balloons or in bottles on border rivers, all of which are banned in the North. The North Korean government regularly threatened retaliation against South Korea for the propaganda balloons floating over the DMZ. In response to these “provocations,” North Korea has threatened to abandon several of the inter-Korean successes if they continued – these include the liaison office set up in 2018 and the cross-border cooperation project at the Kaesong Industrial Park. In response, the South Korean government passed a number of measures to reduce the tension, including the “leaflet ban” in 2020. This law outlawed the delivery of printed materials, goods, and other items across the heavily fortified border to North Korea. Many Christian organizations sending bibles fell victim to these laws, effectively cutting off the flow of hope from the south.

A Coming Shift?

Unlike the outgoing government, the country’s incoming president has presented himself as a much more brash personality, intending to reassert some of the South’s more conservative tendencies. One of which is his attitude toward North Korea. While he has indicated that diplomacy will always remain open on the peninsula, he has promised to teach the “rude boy” [Kim Jong Un] some manners – for some, this message resonated. Exit polls had shown that South Korea’s older generation had favored the now President-elect, likely correlating with the older generation’s experience living through multiple orientations toward their aggressive northern neighbor.

The incoming president has also indicated his interest in the redeployment of US nuclear forces to the peninsula, as well as additional missile defense systems. Both bring enormous controversy. While the Moon government sought to tread lightly in the region, the president-elect seems less concerned about the region’s anxieties. This particularly applies to China, and its rising prominence.

Continuing the Work in North Korea

While it is ultimately too early to tell, this cavalier attitude may offer opportunities for greater assertiveness with South Korea’s neighbors, which the former government wasn’t willing to risk. Many have even alleged that the previous government was also unwilling to upset China, which also plays a hostile role in the region in regard to human rights. This hesitancy is demonstrated within its current refugee policies and the case of the Mayflower Church, which has remained in limbo in South Korea after fleeing China in 2019. The church’s applications for refugee status have all been denied, leaving many to fear that the outgoing Korean government was hesitant to send a message critical of China’s expanding persecution of religious minorities.

This election is front of mind for many, including many Christian groups like ICC, as they continue to explore ways to support those being persecuted in North Korea. In the past, ICC has partnered with several assistance and outreach organizations in the past and continues to partner with Seoul-based Free North Korea Radio (FNKR) to provide the message of hope daily. Currently, FNKR broadcasts two hours every day, including 30 minutes of gospel programming, in order to spread hope to the people of North Korea.

Under this incoming leadership, South Korea’s willingness to challenge North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric may increase the ability to hold them more accountable as the situation for Christians continues to grow direr. While we hope for a future of accountability, this change may at least open new doors to spread hope on the peninsula.

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