Friday, September 28, 2007

Contemporary Martyrs in North Korea

From Newsweek 10/1/07 via Crossroads:

During the first part of his life in North Korea, Son Jong Nam had it good. As the son of a high-ranking officer in the all-powerful military, Son never had to worry about getting enough food, and after he joined the Army himself, his background helped him land a spot in an elite unit that guarded North Korea's leaders.

But then things began to change. In the mid-1990s, plagued by natural catastrophes and stripped of support from its erstwhile Soviet sponsor, the North saw its economy plunge into a tailspin. One day Son's pregnant wife made a carelessly critical remark about the country's mismanagement. The next thing they knew, she'd been taken in for questioning. One of her interrogators kicked her in the stomach, triggering a miscarriage. Disillusioned, the Sons decided to defect to the South. In 1998 they took their young daughter and slipped over the border into China. But Son's wife died after the crossing, and Son, bereft, soon met a South Korean missionary who was there to help North Korean refugees find their way to freedom. Through him, Son discovered Christianity and decided to convert, joining the growing legions of desperate North Koreans who are turning toward God. This led to Son's next step, which may yet prove fatal: he resolved to head back to the North in 2004 in order to bring the Gospel to others.

Today Son finds himself on death row in Pyongyang, awaiting execution for the crime of spreading his faith. North Korea theoretically allows religious freedom; it even maintains Potemkin cathedrals, where worshipers are supposedly welcome and ersatz services, staffed by loyal communist party cadres, are held each Sunday. In reality, however, the government of Kim Jong Il has a history of persecuting believers in the most savage of ways, including public execution. Religion, say activists, is viewed as a particular threat by Kim, who, like his father, Kim Il Sung, stands at the center of a bizarre personality cult with numerous religious overtones. "To be a Christian [in North Korea] is not just to follow a different religion," says Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs, an American Christian organization. "It's really seen almost as treason against their whole political system—a system built to deify the leader." Nettleton and his allies in the United States and South Korea are now trying to save Son's life by bringing international pressure to bear on Pyongyang. In the process, they're also drawing attention to a phenomenon little noticed in the outside world: North Korea's growing underground churches, and new legions of Koreans willing to defy their government in the name of God.

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