It is a terrible thing to say, but I will say it: it is better that Son Jong Nam is dead than that he still endures torture in North Korean captivity. Truthfully, I had long assumed that Son had died, even by the time I wrote this post in late 2007. Now, Son’s brother has told an AP reporter that his brother is dead.
Like most North Koreans, Son Jong Nam knew next to nothing about Christianity when he fled to neighboring China in 1998.
Eleven years later, he died back in North Korea in prison, reportedly tortured to death for trying to spread the Gospel in his native land, armed with 20 bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns. He was 50.
His story, pieced together by his younger brother, a defector who lives in South Korea, sheds light on a little-discussed practice: the sending back of North Korean converts to evangelize in their home country — a risky move, but one of the few ways to penetrate a country that bars most citizens from outside TV or radio and the Internet.
Little is known about the practice, believed to have started in the late 1990s. Missionaries won’t say how many defectors they have sent back, citing their safety and that of the defectors.
“It’s their country, where people speak the same language. They know where to go and where to escape,” says the Rev. Isaac Lee, a Korean-American missionary in Seoul who has dedicated his life to spreading Christianity in the North. “But I agonize a lot whenever I have to send defectors to the North as I know what kind of punishment they would get if arrested.” [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]
No word in our times is as profaned as “martyr,” but that is what Son Jong Nam embodies to me. His case evokes none of the ambivalence I feel about starry-eyed foreigners prostrating themselves before border guards with petitions in their hands. Son knew that he was confronting a fate worse than death for a small chance at a small role in changing the fate of his homeland. He also knew enough about North Korea and its regime to have a plausible chance at evading capture and accomplishing an important mission, and he knew that Bill Richardson wasn’t coming to fetch him if he got caught. He took that chance, one that others must follow him in taking if North Korea will ever change.
Son was arrested again in January 2006 after police found bibles at his home in the northeastern city of Hoeryong. He was also charged with spying for the United States and South Korea and sentenced to public execution by firing squad.
His brother launched an international campaign to save him. That apparently led his captors to switch to a less public method: torture. “There are many ways to kill people in North Korea,” says his brother.
He died in a prison in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in December 2008.
“He told me his dream is to build a church at a good Pyongyang location and work as a pastor there,” his brother says. “I thought the religious faith completely changed his fate.”
I do not profess to know whether God exists, but if anyone can transform North Korea, it will be men and women who are at once warm enough to believe He does and cool enough to propagate that belief with discretion and guile. Men like Son Jong Nam make me hope ardently that there is a better afterlife for those who suffered so much on this earth. Lacking that, we can only hope that his suffering will be for the eventual betterment of others.