North Korean defector and Columbia University student Yeonmi Park drew considerable media attention for her comments earlier this month equating academic freedom at America’s Ivy League schools to North Korea. “”I expected that I was paying this fortune, all this time and energy, to learn how to think,” she said. “But they are forcing you to think the way they want you to think. I realized, wow, this is insane. I thought America was different but I saw so many similarities to what I saw in North Korea that I started worrying.” Conservative commentators Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee urged Park to go on a bus tour of U.S. colleges to share her warning.
Ms. Park customarily speaks in hyperbole in her public comments and usually attracts interest from media outlets where those kind of dramatic comments capture headlines. Yet beyond the hyperbole, Ms. Park’s comments recall those of another dissident from a communist country who spoke at another Ivy League school 43 years ago this month:
The American Intelligentsia lost its nerve and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this….
How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness?
But this dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, did not go on in that same speech to contend for a bus tour urging college students to fight “cancel culture” and reclaim the freedoms that once made the country great. In fact, Solzhenitsyn went on in that speech to anger his hearers by claiming that if one looked back to the root, to the very fountainhead, of Western liberty one would find not a greatness to reclaim but rather a fundamental mistake necessitating repentance:
Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in [the West’s] development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.
This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.
The problem, to borrow an image from another dissident, is not that sand has encrusted the West’s foundation of rock and needs a thorough sandblasting to return it to its pristine beauty. Rather, the West’s rock-encrusted foundation has revealed itself, after the wind of centuries, to be fundamentally sand, and a new foundation is required.
As the reaction to Solzhenitsyn and Yeonmi Park show, this kind of talk is not received well in the West. We descendants of the Enlightenment will readily admit that freedom has seen better days, and these days we are eager to debate what and who are responsible for the decline and how to restore the glory we are certain existed in a Western golden age. But to admit that the Enlightenment project itself–what Solzhenitsyn calls “the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries”–is a colossal misstep, not a promising advance, and that what is required of us is repentance, not recovery, and that the worst of our problems rests not in the encroachment of our ideological opponents but in the very best thoughts and practices that we and our ideological heroes have mustered, this is a level of self-examination and humility that eludes our fallen human nature. Self-protection and pride leads us to mock Solzhenitsyn and Park: “If things are so bad here, why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
But by far the most common response exhibited by dissidents who come to the West and recognize its shortcomings is not to “go back” but instead to commit suicide. North Korean defectors have a suicide rate three times that of South Koreans. The rate of suicidal thoughts is also tragically higher.
The lifetime prevalence of suicidal ideation (28.3%), suicide plans (13.3%), and suicide attempts (17.3%) among NKDs are reported to be higher than the rates reported in a nationwide sample of SKNs (suicidal ideation: 15.4%, suicide plans: 3.0%, and suicide attempts: 2.4%). Moreover, the rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors (suicidal ideation, suicidal plans, or suicide attempts) among NKDs are much higher (31.3%) than the nationwide prevalence in the Republic of Korea, Western countries, and Asian countries, which range from 0.9 to 15.9%.
Furthermore, severe depression, anxiety, PTSD, or somatization symptoms in NKDs have been found to be negatively correlated with their overall satisfaction with living in the Republic of Korea. Thus, a strategy that focuses on relieving psychiatric symptoms in traumatized refugees may help them to adapt to their new environment.
Three agencies ― the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees (Hanawon), the Korea Hana Foundation (KHF) and the Korea Suicide Prevention Center (KSPC)–have joined together to create a suicide prevention program for North Korean defectors. Paik Jong Woo, the director of the KSPC, says, “During their escape, those defecting from the North are often exposed to traumatic events, and even in South Korea, many of them have difficulties adjusting to the new culture.”
But Paik also admits that “mental health professionals in South Korea did not possess a full understanding of the defectors’ circumstances”.
Is it possible that the difficulties may not be in them but rather in us?
That is, is it possible that dissidents from Communist countries–like North Korean Yeonmi Park and Russian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn–may be the canaries in the Enlightenment coal mine? Those who stake their lives on the claim “Give me liberty or give me death” may be the first to recognize that freedom the way it has been explained and bequeathed to us by our Enlightenment forefathers is not capable of sustaining life, nor of providing a particularly rewarding meaning to it. As Solzhenitsyn himself recognized in his Harvard speech, the problem is not that freedom once could sustain us but now has decayed. The problem is that the seed of autonomy that looked so promising when it was planted centuries ago is, now that it is in full blossom, bearing fruit that is not so different from other ideologies after all.
The solution for the West, as Solzenitsyn could tell Yeonmi Park, Sean Hannity, and Mike Huckabee, is not a finger-pointing, heritage reclaiming bus tour. Neither is the solution for North Korean defectors and other dissidents a suicide prevention program of cultural adjustment.
Instead, the solution is to recognize it is freedom in Christ, not freedom of religion nor political freedom nor academic freedom, that alone sets us free, indeed. Christianity does not require an Enlightenment operating system on which to run. In fact, as one recent study showed, Christianity may actually be hampered, not strengthened, in Enlightenment cultures that privilege Christianity in their founding ethos. The same study contended that persecution of Christianity may be more conducive to its growth than privilege.
In short, religious and other freedoms neither preserve Christianity nor pave the way for its growth. This does not mean that they are bad. But it does mean that we Christians are not reliant on them, nor are we called to defend such freedoms as articles of our faith. Instead, we are called to articulate the difference between freedom in Christ and freedom the way the world gives (and restrains, and takes away). At minimum, we are called not to confuse these two concepts of freedom, or to trust in their inherent compatibility.
We can no longer say (if we ever could) that living in societies that exhibit Enlightenment-rooted freedoms is of course always better than living in societies where such freedoms are lacking. This is not because we suspect that another -ism or -ology could do or has done better. It is because we know that Christianity engages another, wholly other, dimension of freedom–one that cannot be diminished or enhanced by any instantiation of freedom this world can offer. After all, when Satan shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” and says to him, ” “All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me”, freedom-enhancing democracies are not excluded from the offer.
On a personal note, I would observe that among the most free people I have ever met are North Korean underground Christians. Despite living under rule that is generally tyrannical and specifically hostile to Christians, they rarely exhibit suicidal ideations. By contrast, some of the least free people I have ever met are former North Korean underground Christians who have escaped to South Korea. Mr. Bae, my co-author for the book, These are the Generations, a chronicle of three generations of underground Christians in North Korea, has remarked to me on several occasions that he remembers his time in prison in North Korea wistfully. “Back then I could focus on God all day, and he was very close to me,” he once told me. “But here in South Korea, there is so little time for God. I must apply all my time and energy to earning money for my family.” He told me that at times he wishes he was back in a prison in North Korea suffering for his faith.
I do not urge Mr Bae to undertake a campus tour decrying South Korea’s slide into socialism. I do not urge him to sign up for care from South Korea’s anti-suicide coalition. Instead, I affirm that by Christian standards he has spoken sensibly. But I tell him that the solution is neither to go back to a North Korean prison or to end his life. The solution is to recognize that it is often more difficult to be faithful to Christ in a society founded on Enlightenment freedoms than it is to serve Christ in a failed state. But Christ calls us to serve as his faithful witnesses wherever we find ourselves. And wherever that is, he is there with us, and he will be always, even unto the end of the age.