In one year, three missionaries were detained in North Korea from America, South Korea and Australia.
The Australian, John Short, was detained in North Korea for passing out religious pamphlets at a Buddhist temple and in a crowded train in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. The worst he would have been charged with in most of the world is littering.
Short said in a statement released to the Australian Associated Press after his release that he was harshly interrogated every day for his actions. "There were two-hour sessions each morning, which were repeated again in the afternoons," he said.
Despite his troubles, John Short was luckier than others. American missionary Kenneth Bae has been imprisoned for about a year and from videos the North Korean state media released of him, he looks to be sick and have lost a considerable amount of weight.
And last week, there were reports that said North Korea would be executing of 33 North Korean citizens for their links to Korean missionary, Kim Jung-wook, who is currently detained.
Missionary Robert Park was imprisoned for illegally entering the country in 2009. He recently recounted the severity of torture he experienced.
"Several North Korean women surrounded me and did the worst thing to me to try to make me commit suicide," he said in an interview with South Korean wire service, Yonhap News. In that interview, he also said that he was placed in a bright room where his genitals were clubbed.
These string of events beg the question, "What is North Korea so afraid of?" And more specifically, "Why is North Korea so afraid of Christianity?"
Many people have asked me these questions and the answer is simple: the North Korean government sees Christianity as a threat to their power. All of these stories point to this fact.
I have interviewed several North Korean refugees who were caught in China, sent back to North Korean prison camps and tortured. In these interviews, I learned that there are sections of the gulags that are dedicated to Christians, reportedly in the tens of thousands. All of them have said that among the first questions they are asked upon repatriation is "Did you convert to Christianity?" and "Did you come into contact with any foreign missionaries?" These are odd questions to greet returning North Koreans with and point to an obsession the regime has with Christianity.
Through Crossing Borders, the non-profit I founded, we know that the North Korean regime has been experiencing a loosening stranglehold on controlling the hearts and minds of their people. Until recently the regime enjoyed the luxury of near-total information control but this trend is changing. Each day DVDs and thumb drives are being smuggled into the country. Radios are being hacked to receive signals from the outside. And cell phones connected to the Chinese network are being used to keep contact with relatives and friends who have escaped.
With no known civil society organizations in operation, the biggest threat to the government is organized religion (the focus of the regime's attack seems to be Christianity but the regime sees any organized religion opposing the government as a threat). They understand that they have not squashed the church despite their efforts to do so. Even after decades of trying to crush the church, there is still an underground community of Christians who gather secretly at night and read their Bibles using a flashlight under blankets.
It is the church (and any other organized group that will step up to the challenge) that poses a great threat to topple the government and disseminate anti-government messages. There is no way to know exactly how many Christians there are but I have heard whisperings of an underground community of 100,000 strong. They have the capability of quickly organizing and just as they can disseminate religious teachings, they can swiftly influence thoughts and actions through word of mouth and handwritten letters.
If organized groups are successful in toppling the government, the ruling elite knows they will be prosecuted in international courts for crimes against humanity. The UN panel that released February's damning report on North Korea suggested that the findings be given to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution.
North Korea's ruling elite has painted themselves into a corner. They know that opening up to the outside world will lead to new ideas and an eventual threat to their power. They are terrified and distrusting as illustrated by the current ruler Kim Jung Un, who ordered the execution of his very own uncle Jang Song Thaek among other high-level leaders. This is why the regime takes such draconian measures to protect themselves from foreign influence.
Though the situation seems bleak, there is a glimmer of hope. There is a thriving underground market for foreign media. Many experts say that North Koreans no longer believe their country is paradise on earth. The government has stopped claiming this. The foundation of information control that the government once had has corroded and today the world looks on and wonders what will happen next.
One of the most important things Crossing Borders does is to make sure each refugee has a television. I sat with many as they saw the peace and prosperity of the outside world for the first time. They saw the shining lights of Times Square and Seoul and knew they had been duped. In a moment they realized that their fundamental view of the world was a lie. Some of them return to North Korea to aid starving or sick family members and they share the information they gleaned. Then the information spreads. It makes sense for the world to help those who have escaped. These people are an important conduit of information flow back into their country. As information seeps in, the whispers will begin to grow into shouts for freedom and reform.
The truth shall indeed set you free.
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