John Short is a free man again, having endured 15 days of interrogations and emerging with his health intact.
The Australian missionary’s reason for entering – his faith – appears to have strengthened him during the experience (though a hunger strike may have shortened the ordeal), culminating in his release earlier this month.
But not all Christians to have gone into the North have been so lucky: Robert Park emerged from his experience tortured and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Kenneth Bae remains detained a year and a half after his arrest, and his physical state has worried many, even if it has since stabilized. Kim Jeong-wook, a South Korean missionary, has been held since the fall, confessing – though quite possibly under duress – that he received assistance from the South Korea government to carry out acts of espionage.
Granted, there are stark differences in these cases; Park attracted attention by crossing into the North with the express purpose of speaking out against its crimes against humanity. Bae had made references in previous speeches to Jericho, a city depicted in the book of Joshua as being overthrown through the faith of Israelite believers.
Short, on the other hand, was detained for passing out religious literature, translated into Korean, at a temple. Short has run afoul of Asian governments that oppose such witnessing before, but there’s no evidence to suggest that he had political aims, much less revolutionary ones, and the interrogation process failed to elicit a confession of anything except “insulting” North Korea and attempting to harm their trust in their leadership.
“…the Kim regime has exterminated religious believers, Christians in particular, with extreme prejudice”
Persecutions of Christians in the North are well-documented, despite a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, as well as a handful of churches in Pyongyang (whose authenticity has been questioned). This also happens despite the Northern provinces’ Christian heritage; national founder Kim Il Sung’s family was Presbyterian.
“Although Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, was once the center of Korean Presbyterian Christianity, also known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East,’ the Kim regime has exterminated religious believers, Christians in particular, with extreme prejudice,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “The cruel persecution of Christians continues under the Kim Jong Un regime.”
Even the North’s constitutional guarantee prohibits anti-state activities, as well as those considered harmful to the social order and those bringing in “foreign influences,” which gives authorities a broad mandate to conduct crackdowns.
Ryan Martin, East Asia regional manager for International Christian Concern, which advocates for Christians’ human rights globally, said that there are particular regions of countries that may be considered more dangerous than the North at times. These include parts of Syria currently controlled by Islamic extremists and areas of northern Nigeria where the terrorist organization Boko Haram has killed many Christians.
Still, he said North Korea as a whole is “definitely at the top of our list (and has been for some time) in terms of danger for both missionaries and local Christians in general.”
The non-denominational mission Open Doors consistently ranks the North at the top of its World Watch List, highlighting persecution of believers. Treatment is also harsh for North Koreans who convert, as well as those who make contact with Christians after crossing the border into China before they return.
The recently released UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK made note of this in its February 7 report.
“The (North Korean) State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State,” the report reads. “Apart from the few organized State-controlled churches, Christians are prohibited from (practicing) their religion and are persecuted.”
NO SYMPATHY FOR EVANGELICALS
“…it’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for that Australian guy, or Kenneth Bay for that matter”
Yet, when cases such as Short’s or Bae’s make news, it’s not just the North’s policies that come under fire.
“He shouldn’t have gone & done something that he knew that could get him (sic) arrested. Fundamentalist christians (sic) are always getting themselves into (sic) trouble,” reads one comment left at NK News in response to Short’s arrest.
“While I strongly oppose anti-religion laws in the DPRK, it’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for that Australian guy, or Kenneth Bay for that matter,” reads another.
Short’s arrest required some complicated diplomatic maneuvering from Australia, which has no embassy in the North (nor the North in Canberra) and had to rely on Swedish diplomats as intermediaries. It may therefore be no surprise that conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, himself a Christian, seemed irritated with Short, urging his countrymen to “obey the laws of the country you’re in.”
Abbott, however, is Roman Catholic, and evangelical Christianity is typically (though not always) associated with Protestantism and emphasizes salvation through faith in Christ’s atonement.
Verses, particularly in the Gospels, lead evangelicals to pursue their missions, including in dangerous places, believing that the risks taken are temporary, but consequences of not winning souls are eternal.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. And, regarding the fear of persecution, he concludes verse 20 with, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Elsewhere, in John 3, he tells Nicodemus the Pharisee that no one can see the kingdom of God without being “born again.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“Most Christians believe this is a life and death matter of eternal significance”
Though International Christian Concern is non-denominational, Morgan’s responses to criticism of witnessing in North Korea are consistent with evangelicalism: He cites a passage from the book of Mark with essentially the same message as in Matthew 28.
“Jesus clearly tells his followers in the Great Commission in Mark 16:15 to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,’” Morgan said. “For Christians, not preaching the gospel in every nation simply isn’t an option. Most Christians believe this is a life and death matter of eternal significance, so to ignore millions of people…because their government threatens to imprison or kill you for teaching it is really to put your own health and freedoms above the needs of others.”
He compares this to criticizing firefighters and police officers for sacrificing their own safety.
“This is not to say that we don’t use wisdom and discretion as much as humanly possible, but we also simply cannot ignore the Great Commission,” he said. “I have no doubt John was perfectly aware of the dangers and risks he faced by traveling to North Korea and that he conducted himself there as prudently as anyone could in that situation, but I also know that he went out of love, determined to serve the people of North Korea, even if it required sacrifice.”
Furthermore, such comments also direct criticism at the victim rather than the perpetrator.
“It is certainly true that North Korea is the most repressive country in the world for freedom of religion, and therefore anybody who goes to the country to undertake missionary work, especially if it is overt, is taking an enormous risk,” said Benedict Rogers , East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
“That does not mean, however, they should be undeserving of sympathy, for the North Korean regime is one of the most brutal in the world and anyone detained by such a regime deserves sympathy. Whatever your views on religion or on missionary activities, no one should be detained for peacefully and non-coercively expressing and sharing their beliefs – and to do so is a serious violation of freedom of religion or belief.”
“Those who make these types of comments don’t realize that their freedom to even make public comments of this nature was purchased by countless individuals before them who sacrificed their own freedoms and often their lives to secure these rights,” Martin said.
“Put pressure on your own governments to take this situation more seriously and act”
Rogers also notes that Christians are among the most active, not just in seeking conversions to their worldview, but in helping North Koreans achieve a better standard of living. This includes providing them with aid, helping defectors escape and helping them settle in elsewhere.
“Those activities should not be overlooked, ignored or negated by criticisms some people may have of other activities,” he said.
Rogers said that Christians with a burden in their hearts to help North Koreans can do so in a variety of ways.
“First, do your research, learn about the country, and get to know North Koreans outside the country,” he said. “Befriend and support North Korean refugees in your country, and perhaps help by teaching English, helping develop their advocacy for their own people, and join with them in their campaigns. Join an international advocacy organization and help raise awareness in your country about the horrific suffering of the North Korean people. Put pressure on your own governments to take this situation more seriously and act.”
And regarding Christians detained in the North, he suggested petitioning their own governments and elected representatives to call for their release.
“Mr. Short has done nothing to assist the North Korean people, nor advance their rights or benefit their living conditions”
Matthew Reichel, who has organized a number of engagement programs, particularly to provide education and skills-building opportunities for North Koreans, said that faith-based organizations can play a productive role in the engagement process.
“Humanitarians come in all shapes and sizes, some are motivated by their personal faith, some are not, and in my book both kinds are okay,” he said. “However, this does not mean proselytizing is acceptable behavior in the DPRK and it does nothing to advance the rights or conditions of the North Korean people – the very people whom humanitarians pledge to serve with dignity and respect.”
As such comments indicate, Reichel was not impressed with Short’s actions.
“Mr. Short has done nothing to assist the North Korean people, nor advance their rights or benefit their living conditions,” he said. “Instead, he has taken what I would consider a paternalistic and imposing position to try and exert a specific religious persuasion upon other people, and has willingly put himself and others at risk. If anything, his actions have distracted public attention away from real issues that North Koreans face every day, and at the same time furthered the isolation and culture of mistrust between Westerners and North Koreans.”
Reichel called for practical measures rather than “dogmatic and ritualized belief structures,” which he said North Koreans have seen enough of already.
“As with faith-based humanitarian organizations everywhere, it depends on how each organization is run: how they structure their practices, how they evaluate their effectiveness, and what their ultimate aim is,” he said. “Those that have genuine humanitarian goals, respect the humanitarian imperative, and have experience implementing successful humanitarian initiatives, regardless of what personal beliefs they or their staff may have, are more likely to be doing good work in the DPRK.”
Picture: Eric Lafforgue