Dear Christian Family of Brother Park,
You don’t know me. I was a friend of your brother. I know you never got a chance to know him, but I did. I shared a prison cell with him in North Korea. We were both in prison for the crime of being Christians and spreading the Gospel.
In North Korea there is no greater crime.
There is no easy way to tell you about your brother’s suffering and his death. Four months after his arrest in North Korea, he died of starvation, disease and abuse in Room 5 of the prison – the cell reserved for those convicted of the worst and most heinous crimes.
But there is so much more to that story. Your brother became my dear friend and I really want you to know him…so that you can rejoice with me that his suffering is over and he is now with our Savior. I want you to know more than just how he died. I want you to know the way he lived his life and the indelible mark he left on mine.
I think prison revealed your brother’s true character. Our bodies bore the evidence of abuse and starvation, but your brother’s face reflected a peace I still cannot comprehend. It isn’t that he was unaware or unaffected by the stark realities of prison. But they did not rob him of his quiet dignity or his love of his family, his neighbors, his country, or his Savior Jesus Christ.
When he entered Room 5, he was assaulted by the sights, scents and sounds of hatred and fear. But he knew love and hope could conquer hatred and fear, so he focused on those he loved and his desire that his country might one day find the hope in Jesus Christ. And, he offered hope to me too, by sharing with me stories of his life and his efforts to reach his neighbors for Christ. It is in these contrasts that I think you will see a true picture of who your brother really was.
Everywhere we looked, we saw disgust and hatred. It was in the dismissive glances of our guards and the piercing glares from our fellow prisoners. We saw despair on their faces too…hopelessness. In this room, the two of us had the least earthly reason to hope. It was unlikely we would ever leave that room. But, hope is exactly what I saw reflected in your brother’s eyes.
It was as if his eyes were seeing something else. He would share with me the sights of his home – his wife in the kitchen cooking, his family sitting together to eat, the view from his window. You have an English proverb that says, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Looking through that “window” we could see the love of Jesus.
The stench of Room 5 was overwhelming. Eleven men, shoulder to shoulder in a dank cell…no water, no soap. There was one shared toilet, but fellow prisoners blocked “traitors” like us from using it. So, our clothes were soiled and we were in great pain. Sometimes we’d smell the food given to other prisoners, though we were usually denied food and water. When they did give us food, it was usually unsalted meat that had gone bad and made us sick. Even now, it is as if I can still smell that room.
But your brother would tell stories of the familiar scent of food in his home. He knew that many of his neighbors were starving. So, he and his family lovingly prepared food and shared it with their neighbors. Often, neighbors would ask why they would share what little they had. And, fearing death but fearing God more, he would share with them that he was following the teachings of Jesus.
“Worthless traitor!” “Spy!” Those shouts were the sounds that punctuated our time in prison. Screams of agony from the nearby interrogation room. The constant taunting by guards and fellow prisoners. “Why hasn’t your God saved you?” “Just deny God and I will give you some food.”
But your brother would muffle these sounds by quietly singing his favorite hymn, “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee.”
Father, I stretch my hands to Thee,
No other help I know;
If Thou withdraw Thyself from me,
Ah! whither shall I go?
What did Thine only Son endure,
Before I drew my breath!
What pain, what labor, to secure
My soul from endless death!
He was a musician, and he told me how his home was filled with songs – even Bible songs he would share with his neighbors.
Your brother’s early life was quite unique for someone in North Korea. His grandfather came to Christ after hosting two U.S. missionaries in South Korea in 1939, and then his entire family learned to follow Jesus. When his father and their family were brought to North Korea from the South during the war because of his father’s unique skills, they learned to live out their faith more quietly.
For your brother, living out his faith meant sharing whatever he had with his neighbors. But ultimately, he knew that what they hungered for could only be found in Jesus Christ. He couldn’t be quiet any longer.
He started slowly. Carefully sharing the gospel with one neighbor, then another. He once told me he thought he must have shared the Gospel with more than 100 people during his lifetime.
Sadly, the rest of your brother’s story is not unique. One of his neighbors finally reported his activities to the police.
When he discovered the police were seeking evidence against him for the crime of being a Christian, your brother and two others crossed into China. While they were there, they studied the Bible, prayed with other Christians and waited on God’s direction. After one month, your brother and one other man crossed back into North Korea and were quickly arrested and imprisoned.
I write to you today to honor my friend…your brother.
If you are a follower of Christ, you lost your brother when Mr. Park died. There are hundreds and thousands of Christian brothers and sisters in North Korea who face the same fate. Hebrews 13:3 (NIV) says, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” North Korean brothers and sisters continue to share the hope of Jesus Christ, though getting caught means almost certain death. They spread the Gospel because they believe, just like in the words of your brother’s favorite hymn, that “The worst of sinners would rejoice, could they but see Thy face.”
Honor Brother Park by joining the 100 Days of Worship campaign. Click the link to learn more.