What the North Korean government understands about Christian martyrdom that we Christians sometimes forget

English language media today are reporting what at first sounds like predictable comments from North Korea’s state media: North Korea is displeased that its former captive Kenneth Bae is talking publicly and negatively about his time in a North Korean prison camp, and unless he stops talking in this way North Korea will not release any other American captives it is holding. Reuters is representative in the quote it pulls from the North Korean state media report:

“As long as Kenneth Bae continues his babbling, we will not proceed with any compromise or negotiations with the United States on the subject of American criminals, and there will certainly not be any such thing as humanitarian action,” the North’s KCNA news agency said.

“If Bae continues, U.S. criminals held in our country will be in the pitiful state of never being able to set foot in their homeland once again”.

The reports from other media outlets–AP, UPI, Fox, Vice, VOA, US News–all offer virtually the same details.

This appears to be a straightforward and relatively unremarkable story: Kenneth Bae was detained in North Korea. Kenneth Bae was released from North Korea. Kenneth Bae wrote a book about his experiences in North Korea. North Korea doesn’t like the book. North Korea warns that it will punish other prisoners for Kenneth Bae’s comments. It appears to be just another case of an outspoken former prisoner calling an oppressive regime to account, and the oppressive regime doing all it can to silence the complainant.

But there is a different question here than North Korea has been inclined to ask. Though North Korea’s threat is reported in the English language media, the substance of its concern is not. The particular allegation that North Korea makes relates not to Bae’s outspokenness but rather to what North Korea calls a “moral” question: Is it appropriate for a Christian to make promises and then break them? Here is North Korea’s own English language report:

There is a saying one’s kindness should be repaid. However, Bae returns evil for good. He has not built a bridge of friendship but erected a bridge of distrust and confrontation. Is it morally right?

Bae is the felon who betrayed not only human conscience but also religious devotion.

Before flying to the U.S., he told officials concerned of the DPRK that he is the churchman saying truth and religionist’s devotion to God is sacred and he can never betray it.

But upon returning to the U.S., he made a U turn, going busy hatching plots with the group of Satan falsifying facts. He is none other than Judas.

The English in the third paragraph is difficult to understand. It references comments made by Kenneth Bae while in North Korea regarding his release. Here are Bae’s original comments from that time, in Korean followed by our own English translation:

“나는 앞으로 미국으로 돌아가서 공화국을 헐뜯는 일은 하지 못한다. 인간적량심으로 봐도 내가 어떻게 나를 성의껏 대해준 공화국에 반하는 말을 할 수 있겠는가. 더우기 나는 있는 것을 그대로 말하고 본것을 사실대로 전하는 성직자이기때문에 더욱 그렇다. 종교인이 하느님앞에 다진 신앙심은 신성하다 결코 그것을 비난할 수는 없다.

“When I return to the US, I am unable to speak ill of the DPRK. Even with a proper human conscience, how can I speak against the DPRK which has treated me with sincerity? Moreover it is because I am a clergyman who says as it is and tells what I saw as it is. A religious man whose faith was built up before God is holy. Never can it be blameworthy.

It would of course be understandable to contend that Bae’s confessions, apologies, pledges, and promises were coerced or that he had even been brainwashed during his time in North Korea, and that he is thus no longer bound by anything other than conscience. Conscience would then, it seem, require that he be bold and outspoken in his characterization of North Korea as a prison-state that engages in wholesale brainwashing of its people. Further, it could be noted that his desire to continue to help North Korean people is laudable in light of all he has suffered.

But here Bae’s own recent comments regarding his apologies and confessions–to South Korea’s Unification Media Group via Daily NK–are worth noting. Bae says:

In the beginning, the reason why I acknowledged the things that I did is because the authorities there convinced me that if I admitted to everything, they would send me home. But as time went by, I realized admitting to things and apologizing was not the main issue. That’s because the state would tell me my repatriation depended on ‘what the U.S. decides to do,’ so I came to realize they saw me as a negotiating tool they could use with Washington.

Bae appears to describe his admissions and apologies as expedient rather than coerced or brainwashed. This dismisses the easy options and puts us back on the horns of the dilemma posed by North Korean state media (albeit posed in a hardly disinterested way):

Is it morally right?

That North Korea sets the modern curve for morally reprobate behavior is hopefully beyond dispute. From this, more than a few missionaries and activists contend that North Korea’s extraordinarily reprobate status means that activities or actions in service of a perceived greater good are accordingly legitimated. Deception can only be countered with counter-deception, the argument goes, and the counter-deception is justified because it is aimed at a moral end. For missionaries, for example, that may mean engaging in covert missionary activities under the aegis of business projects approved by the North Korean government, or in agreeing to certain things while inside North Korea that are nullified upon exit.

But North Korea, no doubt for entirely self-serving means, seems to intuit something about martyrdom that we Christians are perpetually in danger of forgetting when we are confronted by regimes cut from wholly evil cloth, namely:

Martyr means witness. Christian martyrs witness to the truth of Christ. Christ overcomes sin and its allies (which at one point included each of us) through his own suffering love. There is nothing expedient about his approach, and it forecloses literally every rational option.

But here the most distinguishable characteristic of Christian martyrdom eludes North Korea, in much the same way that it continues to elude us Christians. North Korea contends that Kenneth Bae should keep the promises he made in North Korea because North Korea was so charitable to him during his detainment. Human rights activists and some missionaries contend that Bae should not keep the promises he made in North Korea because North Korea is so uncharitable to its own people and was likewise uncharitable in detaining Kenneth Bae in the first place.

The most distinguishable characteristic of Christian martyrdom, however, is that our actions are not to be shaped or constrained by our persecutors but rather by Christ. Christ commands us and models for us that our yes is to be yes and our no is to be no, regardless of who is asking. Christ commands us that enemies–his and ours–are to be loved at the cost of our own lives; this, Jesus says, is basic discipleship, and the willingness to accept such is a condition for following him. Likewise, Christ commands us to speak truth to power–but it is to be the same truth before, during, and after power places its foot on our neck, because what we are called to speak is our witness to him.

None of these things is easy (they are in fact humanly impossible, according to the Bible), and falling short of these commands is not cause for judgment or condemnation. But falling short is cause for prayerful review, corporate repentance, and relearning, since martyrdom belongs to the church, not the martyr, and the church is always reforming so as to more biblically and richly form her martyr/witnesses. The early church stressed that the heavenly contest requires intensive training before Christians enter the arena. That training often takes the form of hearing, telling, repeating, and performing certain types of stories–martyr’s stories. These are stories where, more than outspokenness or outfoxing rogue regimes or outgiving them through NGO projects, disciples and their enemies–through simple lives of scriptural faithfulness, costly transparency, and self-denying enemy love–are confronted by the cross-shaped, infinite, pulsating power of God.

The North Korean government may not understand it. But even they can tell when we veer off script.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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