It is 11:09PM in Pyongyang, and somewhere a little child is crying—the cold stroke of a fist across her face pens a story of anguish, and no human quill could rise to the occasion of describing the depths of dark despair in her heart. The brutality visited upon her could be for any reason; but in a prison-state where government is god, her crime was most likely being born to a treasonous parent. In any instance, treason could be the mere failure to keep dust off a portrait of the Dear Leader. This image of a little girl or boy being arbitrarily savaged by an official with power to spare may at this point be a mere fiction in my imagination. While the face stamped in my imagination may bear no resemblance to the face of any historical North Korean girl, the ubiquity of this reality is unremarkable in a society that is already dead.
Last night I wept as I sat in Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto. While I’ve wept at films before, tears have likely not flown so consistently down my face as they did before a screen revealing the horrors routinely experience by a North Korean family. This past weekend was the first annual North Korean Human Rights Film Festival in Toronto, and I managed, with friends, to take in the horrible film The Crossing (trailer). I say it was horrible, but do not mistake my meaning. By this I do not mean it was cinematically inferior, or that the acting was bad. It was horrible—O that there was a word that really conveyed what my heart feels!—because its fictionalized family depicted a reality that is all too real in the hermit state that sits between its southern cousin and Chinese enabler. The film is about a man, a former soccer hero, a miner, and a father. It is about his wife, pregnant, faithful, loving, and sick. It is about their son, cute, naïve, with the courage of his old man. It is a story about how a state could own a family and brutalize it for its own sick pleasure. Sadly, it is a story that we in the West are oblivious, to our own shame.
When his wife contracts tuberculosis because of malnutrition, Yang-soo makes a harrowing trek to China to find her medication. He leaves, not to escape, not to defect, but to save his family. His full intention is to return. He is no political dissident, that is, unless putting your family before the Kim dynasty is seditious. As he flees, he represents the experiences of hundreds of North Koreans before him who risked everything for their freedom. But the only freedom in his eyes was to see his wife get well.
I have two children: Jack who is almost three, and Molly who is almost one. About a month after Jack was born, I went to see the film-rendered version of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road; a similar story about a father who strives to protect his son in light of horrible deprivation and evil. Watching this film as a recent father hit me a gut level that I didn’t expect. Watching The Crossing last night hit me. However, unlike my experience with The Road, I didn’t see myself as the protective Yang-soon and little Joon as Jack. Rather, I felt the guilt of being a father who parents his son in the freedom of the West, while families like Joon’s are bound. When the father finally made it to China, not realizing that his wife was now dead, and his son in a labour camp, I had the overwhelming desire to hug my son who was sleeping soundly in our Toronto apartment. I wanted to hug him because I could. A political refugee in China cannot hug his son hidden by sinister North Korean mists.
The story does not end well. As I watched, my own emotional state wanted the father and son to unite. But I knew that this would not convey the reality; all too often father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife remain severed; a bullet to the head keeps them ever apart. When The Crossing ended as it did, although it was devastating, it was true—and that is why everyone needs to watch this film. That is why every Westerner needs to watch this film and others like it. We need to be hit with the chilling reality of the destruction caused by Stalin’s prototypical state.
This morning I sit in a favourite coffee house sipping an Americano while my wife and children are at a Vacation Bible Camp learning about a group of heros who stood against a totalitarian regime. A man once stood amongst lions and was not devoured. What freedom we enjoy in the West. My son can learn to love sedition first-hand, and our government does not cart me away. West Toronto Baptist Church can boldly emblazon the name “Daniel” across the front of their building; their pastor can preach about the Apostle Paul—another great anti-totalitarian who stared down a Caesar—without fearing spies in the back pew. We can all worship the true Caesar, the true Lord, the One that brings down rulers and manifests freedom in his very person. Not a killer, but the Saviour of millions. Jesus is beyond political cliché, all adjectives affixed to his name are deserved—he is “dear” in the very dearest sense of the word, and those who are called by his name call him dear freely and with true love.
The Crossing has a subtext of theodicy that was never answered in the film. The father screams at a South Korean pastor, and throws his bible to the floor in anguish. Young Joon has heard about life after death and hopes that heaven has cool rain, thus far his only refreshing to come to a pallid landscape, but does not live to experience redemption. I am glad that theodicy was not answered; the pastor merely wept at the table. Why? Because most in the West, if the statistics are true, aren’t even asking the question “Why God?” about North Korea. This film is not for North Koreans, it is for those of us who care too much about our favourite café’s that serve good Americanos. May the plight—again, to search for a word that really conveys what my heart feels!—of the North Koreans become a burden for all of us.
After the film, a young man named Jake stood in front of the screen with rolling credits, mic in hand. He read, in chopped, but sonorous English of his life story, all twenty-odd years of it. He and his sister escaped from North Korea to China where his mother had gone before them. His father is still there, and Jake has not heard from him in four years. We applauded Jake when he finished his last word and took his seat at the front of the theatre. And I thought, what can be done? My only response, as I trekked across the lush Toronto landscape, to sleeping children, and my own faithful, loving wife, was to cry out to the One who brings down governments. “Jesus, bring about the miracle of providence, that Jake and his father would one day be reunited.” Prayer is a most, indeed the most, potent weapon. And yet I fear I must do more. We all must do more. Please, take the time to familiarize yourself with the atrocity that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—a misnomer of the grossest degree. Pray for them. And freely offer your services, in whatever way you can, to work toward freedom for a people who do not know the true definition of the word.