Trump's problem with North Korea is not nuclear weapons

As news emerges that North Korea has rejected diplomacy with the U.S., it’s apparent that Kim Jong Un is choosing a course that will drive his country deeper into devastating poverty. But headlines that focus on the country’s pending economic crisis—or even their insistence on developing nuclear weapons—miss the real problem.

Yes, at least 50 percent of North Koreans live in extreme poverty: homes are still heated by antiquated technology like fireplaces or briquettes, many lack flush toilets, and most have access to electricity for just a few hours per day.

And yet, despite those chilling facts that sound as if I am describing 1925, this is not the primary issue driving North Korea’s hardships. The cause of nearly every challenge the country faces can instead be traced back to Kim Jong Un’s oppressive practices that sequester his people from the rest of the world—geographically and ideologically.

In North Korea, Christians, and any people of faith, must remain hidden. Christians who are caught attempting to serve the spiritual needs of their struggling communities are punished with imprisonment, labor camp sentences and even death.

Forced isolation—televisions set to receive only government stations, radios with no off switches hard-wired to one government-run station, outside radio signals jammed by the regime, extreme internet censorship, and a lack of satellites and available phones—has long drained the country of intellectual and philosophical wealth that nations need to survive and thrive.

North Koreans are required by law to prominently display and pay reverence to portraits of Kim Jong Un and his ancestors. The regime mandates citizens memorize more than 100 pages of ideological documents, poems and songs praising the morals and majesty of the Kims. Indoctrination and proganda begin with children in their preschool years. In these attempts to maintain a deity-like stranglehold on power, Kim Jong Un actively represses alternative ideologies and religious perspectives that encourage allegiance to any being outside his own family. 

In stark contrast to the United States, where prominent spiritual and moral leaders publicly push back on President Trump when he escalates tensions with North Korea or others, Kim Jong Un allows no such feedback. Rather, he forces the country to stay on a one-dimensional course steered only by his personal whims, with no counter-acting voices of sacred wisdom and balance. 

Also, when economic hardships arise in the U.S. and much of the free world, the religious sector is allowed to mobilize and care for the emerging needs of their communities. Local church pastors and faith leaders are free to publicly offer words of hope and comfort, and to care for those who need help most. In North Korea, though, Christians, and any people of faith, must remain hidden—coming to the aid of an increasingly anxious population only through select and scattered underground channels. Christians who are caught attempting to serve the spiritual needs of their struggling communities are punished with imprisonment, labor camp sentences and even death.

According to information Open Doors’ partners gathered in-country, North Korean Christians meet in secret, often cramming into small, one-bedroom houses in populated areas where neighbors are so close, the Christians risk being overheard. They are forced to bury or hide secret copies of the Bible to be retrieved and read under the cover of darkness, all the while calculating whether they can be so bold as to pray or sing in whispers. 

Christian converts are literally imprisoned and people are starving, but Kim Jong Un has also sentenced his entire country to intellectual and philosophical imprisonment for generations and decades to come, leaving no hope of improvement for the future.

Sanctions are one method for continuing to fight for a better North Korea. The point of such measures, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is to serve as “peaceful pressure” to force North Korea’s government to negotiate. But even if North Korea had not rejected the United States’ current efforts at diplomacy, and these sanctions somehow had succeeded in curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and restoring the country’s cash flow and food supply chain, the efforts would still have fallen short of aims to achieve peace and security.

This is the 16th consecutive year North Korea has topped Open Doors’ World Watch List. Its citizens are hungry for more than food and desperate for more than money or firepower. If North Korea is ready to reset its course and do well by its citizens, America must demand it come to the negotiating table prepared to talk about a wider agenda. Kim Jong Un must release Christians who are serving sentences in camps across the country, but even more so, the world and our American government must demand that he set free an entire population that has been confined to a philosophical prison for generations.

Public figures and media representatives need to publicly call out the problem, which has always been the oppressive tactics that allow an unchecked regime to violate its citizens’ human rights and destabilize its country and region. It’s time to make religious liberty part of America’s negotiations with North Korea.

David Curry is the president and CEO at Open Doors USA, a global advocate for persecuted Christians that works in the most restrictive and oppressive countries for Christians.