Dennis Rodman and the surreal and savage fiefdom of North Korea

Unjust imprisonment and death camps in the DPRK are nothing new

What do Kenneth Bae and former NBA star Dennis Rodman have in common?

As 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, “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.

The 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 Americans—including journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee—have been held for various reasons by the despotic regime. Fortunately, all but Bae were ultimately released.

In 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.

Neither 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 Kyoto, Japan.

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 visitor—akin to an ambassador—to 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.

From 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.” Prisoners—many of whom were elderly and all of whom were starving—were ordered not to fall out of line. If they did, they were shot in the head.

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 prisoners—including Bishop Byrne—had 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.

Fr. 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 defy them.

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.

As noted 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.

One 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.

Also see:

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)

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About BK O'Neel 29 Articles
BK O’Neel writes from Pennsylvania.