Thursday, January 19, 2017

Kenneth Bae – A Modern Paul

Traveling and living overseas has created a heightened sensitivity and awareness of events that happen outside the border of my home country. Not only am I more knowledgeable about where those events are occurring, but there is a personal connection.
Having lived in South Korea for four years, I have read quite a few books pertaining to the Koreas on both side of the 38th parallel. My collection of read books (and documentaries) on North Korea is getting quite large. Each of the books, such as Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy and Yeonmi Park's In Order to Live  enlightened me on a slightly different aspect of the people and country called North Korea. My latest book I read on the "Hermit Kingdom" was Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea had an entirely different perspective. Instead of trying to escape the horrible prison labor camps such as in Escape from Camp 14, Kenneth Bae's true story mainly focuses on the transformations which occurred while a "prisoner of Jesus Christ" in North Korea.

Although I highly encourage you to read the book, here is a basic summary. Kenneth, an American missionary of Korean descent, was arrested after a portable hard drive was discovered in his bag when his tour group arrived in the country from China. Even though he admitted to being a missionary who had made the mistake of accidentally leaving the backup hard drive in his bag, the North Korean government convicted him of the highest level of treason against the country.

Sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, Bae originally prayed and hoped for quick release - even though he knew he was being used as a political pawn. Now he was forced to manual labor from 8am-6pm out in the extreme elements and then subjected to the political brainwashing of the TV in the evening. Prior medical conditions exacerbated the already difficult situation, along with isolation and uncertainty. It wasn't until he asked the Lord to do His bidding and use Bae while "in chains" that things turned around for Bae. This was such a parallel with the Apostle Paul, who while imprisoned for witnessing about Christ, shared the Gospel with the prison guards. A sense of peace enveloped Bae, known as Prisoner 103; "Once I accepted this place as God's will for my life, and I started praying, God use me, instead of God, save me, doors opened". The guards took note and asked why he was so happy and where his hope came from, to which he responded, "God has me in here because he cares for you and all of North Korea. He wants to you to know who he is and how much he loves you."

A citizen of the US but a native South Korean, Bae had a unique opportunity. He was able to communicate directly to the guards and develop special insight. "My two years in North Korea also taught me what it means to have compassion for those who live in darkness. People in North Korea have no access to information from the outside world, no freedom to travel, no freedom to speak their minds, and now way to choose their own religions."

He realized that there was a special sense of safety within a totalitarian regime, and that those who raise questions about the societal structures is a direct threat to the nation. In North Korea, the Kim Jun family is their god.

Kenneth Bae recounted multiple instances of where God seemed to directly intervene or send strong messages that He had not forgotten His missionary. For example, there were times when Bae was at a low point in the hospital when he was craving and had prayed for a particular food; for the next meal, that exact food was brought in from a special restaurant, even though he had not verbalized any request. This happened over 40 times. At the prison, Bae's planted field was spared the flooding that affected all the other fields. When initially held in a cold detention room, his left hand suddenly became warm and the Spirit's presence was felt. At another low point while in the hospital, the Disney movie "Finding Nemo" was on instead of the usual shows venerating the Kim family, providing Bae a connection with America. Also, since it was known that Bae was a pastor and the government wanted to convey to the world that they were being merciful, he was allowed to keep his Bible. Two years after he was arrested, Bae woke much earlier than usual and heard the Spirit of God direct him to open the Bible to Zephaniah 3:20 (Bae had no idea what it would be) - and read: At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. Four days later, Bae was released.

In the end, Kenneth Bae spent 735 days in detainment - the longest held of any American since the Korean War.

Some interesting things I learned:

  • In 1907, Pyongyang was known as the "Jerusalem of the East" for having more churches than anywhere else in Asia. Now, there is only one "token church" that is under total control of the government. North Koreans have no knowledge of Jesus. One guard said he had heard of a God, but not this Jesus, asking where Jesus lived - China or North Korea.
  • The Bible is viewed as a dangerous weapon. North Korea even has a Bible on display at an anti-American propaganda museum that is filled with weapons the US has used against them in the Korean War. 
  • Everyone is expected to contribute to the common good, including manual labor. For instance, Bae witnessed tens of thousands of people (including women with children on their backs) clearing the 200 mile long highway to Pyongyang with snow shovels. Even at the labor camp, the guards had to plant and tend their own fields for their food.
  • The guards had no conception of how families in South Korea or the USA could own both a car and a home. Years ago, the North Korean government provided families with a modest home, but now that is not typical.

I was amazed how Bae did not hold animosity towards the North Korean government. With a reframing of his outlook, he saw the period of detainment as a wonderful opportunity to witness for Christ, to a nation in the dark about their Savior. Bae continues to pray for the people of North Korea and hopes that one day, the spiritual wall that surrounds the country will fall. "More than a billion people worldwide still have not heard the gospel. We must remember them, pray for them, and build a bridge to them through which we can share God's love and compassion. May God be their God, and may they be his people."

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