A North Korean soldier keeps watch south at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in this May 2010 photo. (CNS photo/Lee Jae -Won, Reuters)
What do Kenneth Bae and former NBA star Dennis Rodman have in common?
of this writing, nothing other than that each is spending, or has
spent, time in North Korea (aka, the DPRK). The presence there of both,
however, shows the lengths to which that odd little fiefdom will go to
control everything and anything that touches it.
Rodman is there
as a guest of the current Supreme Leader Kim Jong Eun, described by
Rodman as his “awesome” “friend”, and a man who recently had his uncle
and political mentor executed. The hoopster was visiting North Korea for
Kim's birthday and to conduct an exhibition game between other ex-NBA
players and a North Korean team.
One might say Bae is also there
as a guest of the DPRK, except his stay there might become permanent.
Bae is an Evangelical Christian who, according to the website freekennow.com,
“saw an opportunity [to combine] his entrepreneurial spirit with his
personal convictions as a Christian. He believed in showing compassion
to the North Korean people by contributing to their economy in the form
of tourism.” As such, he was charged with covertly attempting to spread
the gospel in the so-called Hermit Kingdom, where merely possessing a
Bible is a capital offense. This was one of several ways he was charged
with trying to overthrow the government. North Korea is holding him in a
“special prison” after sentencing him to 15 years of hard labor.
44-year-old man from Lynwood, Wash., is reported to have lost 50 pounds
and to be suffering from several serious health problems, including
deteriorating vision and diabetes.
Of course, Bae is not the only recent “guest” of the DPRK. In December, the government released 85-year-old Merrill Newman,
an American veteran accused of committing war crimes during the Korean
Conflict. In the past few years, four other Americansincluding
journalists Laura Ling and Euna Leehave been held for various reasons by the despotic regime. Fortunately, all but Bae were ultimately released.
the past, U.S. citizens haven’t been so lucky. For instance, during the
Korean Conflict’s early days, a number of civilian Americans were
captured and held by the DPRK. Some would say this is similar to how the
Japanese interned foreigners in China (as depicted in the Steven
Spielberg film Empire of the Sun, starring a very young Christian Bale) and Americans interned its ethnic Japanese citizens during World War II.
the Japanese nor the Americans systematically abused and starved their
civilian prisoners, however. The North Koreans did.
A case in
point is a man who deserves to be much better known, Bishop Patrick
Byrne, MM. In 1923, Fr. Byrne became Maryknoll’s first missionary in
Korea. Four years later, the Holy See made him prefect apostolic, which
is akin to a bishop of a missionary territory that isn’t yet a diocese.
His success was so great, the Vatican gave him the same position in
Byrne’s pre-war service to the Japanese was so
admired that he was one of the few Americans allowed to stay in the
country after Pearl Harbor, albeit under house arrest. Following Japan’s
surrender at the end of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur relied
heavily on the priest. Indeed, MacArthur considered Byrne’s assistance
crucial, saying, “Fr. Byrne was of great help to us. He was resourceful
and courageous. He was looked up to by everybody.”
In 1947, the
Vatican put his skills as a statesman to work, making him apostolic
visitorakin to an ambassadorto South Korea. The Holy See also bestowed
upon him the dignity of bishop. It was not an honor he sought. In fact,
far from reveling in his position, he somewhat resented it. He wrote a
friend saying his energy was sapped and questioned why he had received
this assignment at such an old age.
When the DPRK’s People’s Army
(KPA) overran the South Korean border on June 25, 1950, it quickly
overran the capital of Seoul and captured and imprisoned scores of enemy
non-combatants, including Byrne, who was then 62 years old.
the very start, the bishop and his fellow prisoners were given below
meager rations and kept in inhumane conditions. For most of the first
few months of their captivity, though, they at least had decent
accommodations. Starting on Halloween 1950, however, they were put on
what is now known as the “Tiger Death March.”
Prisonersmany of whom were elderly and all of whom were starvingwere
ordered not to fall out of line. If they did, they were shot in the
Those who survived were ultimately imprisoned in first one
camp and then another at a higher elevation. The winter that began at
the end of 1950 was one of North Korea’s coldest on record. Inmates were
forced to exercise, no matter their health or the weather. They had a
few hundred grams of food per day. Their accommodations were either
crowded or effectively non-existent, and the cold in some huts was so
intense, frost the thickness of cake icing coated the walls. Many
prisonersincluding Bishop Byrnehad only a straw mat on which to lie
and another with which to cover themselves. Not surprisingly, the
elderly prelate did not live to see Christmas, nor was he the only one
to perish at the KPA’s hands.
It wasn’t only or even mostly
civilian prisoners who died during the conflict. The greatest casualties
came from the POW population. Arguably, the most famous of these is the
army chaplain and Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun, a Kansas farm boy posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Kapaun had served in Burma during World War II and eventually returned
to pastor his home parish. It was a life of which he quickly tired. With
his bishop’s permission, he reentered the chaplaincy and this is how he
came to be on the front lines in July 1950. The victim of command
incompetence during that early phase of the conflict, Kapaun’s unit was
devastated, and he and the other survivors were captured by Chinese
soldiers fighting alongside the KPA. All were interned in a POW camp in
the far north, and conditions were miserable. Many men committed suicide
to end the suffering, and those who didn’t wanted to. Fr. Kapaun,
however, would not allow it. He worked tirelessly to keep up everyone’s
spirits. He tended their wounds, stole food for these starving men,
argued with their Communist captors, and generally did what he could to
He did so much for these men, and as a result, although
60 years removed from those days in hell, living survivors still recall
with tears in their eyes the great service Father did for them and
their enduring gratitude.
Unlike them, though, he was not to see
liberation. His captors purposefully let him die. As one former prisoner
told me, they had to because “he was the living embodiment of the
teachings of Jesus Christ,” and they couldn’t stand it.
previously, Kenneth Bae’s health is in a sorry state. The same is true
of his fellow gulag prisoners, numbering 130,000 souls. His family is
duly concerned he will not survive his imprisonment. If so, his guest
stay in the DPRK will become permanent.
That situation is likely one Bishop Byrne, Fr. Kapaun, and hundreds of others would likely appreciate.
wonders if Mr. Rodman can do the same, and if so, what influence he
might try to exert over his “friend,” that “awesome guy,” Kim Jong Eun.
The World’s Most Secretive Nation (Feb 21, 2012)
Perfecting the Art of Totalitarianism (Mar 16, 2012)
“Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” (May 29, 2012)