In the early 20th century, Christian missionaries saw much spiritual fruit in the city of Pyongyang, now capital of North Korea. It was the biggest stronghold of Christianity in Korea, and the city became the hub of the mission activity throughout Asia, including China. Pyongyang was even called “the Jerusalem of the East”! But then in came the communists and the Christians had to flee, leaving a void of Christianity in the north.
Among the many who fled the communists were the parents of Kenneth Bae who was born “Pae Jun Ho” August 1, 1968 in Seoul, Korea. At the age of 18 (in 1985), Kenneth moved with his family to the United States where he finished his high school education in California and then attended the University of Oregon and Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. His burden for the oppressed, isolated, North Koreans prompted him to return to China and to establish a tourism company called “Nations Tour.” From China he headed up tour groups of Christians to go into North Korea to befriend and show love to the people of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, the whole time praying quietly for them. Kenneth Bae wanted the North Koreans to know that they had not been forgotten by the outside world. He had made 18 peaceful, successful trips with tour groups, when he got careless and crossed the border into North Korea unwittingly carrying his external computer hard drive which he normally left in China. After the North Koreans translated the files Kenneth was arrested in April 2013 and charged with an attempt to overthrow the DPRK government.
After weeks of interrogation at Ransom, he was taken to Pyongyang. He had often wished he could go to Pyongyang and stay a couple years to establish relationships with the people there—so oppressed and controlled—and to extend the love of God. But he never intended for it to be on this basis. It was much like the Apostle Paul who wished to go to Rome to minister to the people there. He got his chance—taken there as a prisoner. Now Kenneth was about to be sentenced and they were threatening to make an example of him so that no other missionaries would dare set foot in North Korea. But, Kenneth Bae kept trusting the Lord through his trial. He writes in Not Forgotten (published by Thomas Nelson in 2016):
“During the pretrial period I decided to put some order into my day (providing the prosecutor was not in my room interrogating me). I wanted to have a schedule: three hours of worship, three hours of prayer, three hours of Bible reading and three hours of exercise.” He started off doing 100 laps a day in his room which was five meters wide. He increased this to two hundred laps, then three hundred and five hundred, until he eventually got up to one thousand laps (ten kilometers or about 6 miles)!
His meals were very minimal, bland and boring. He writes, “One morning during my worship time, I started to crave a certain noodle soup for which one of Pyongyang restaurants is famous. I didn’t dare ask the guards or the prosecutor…I didn’t even pray for it. I just said to myself, ‘I really wish I had some of that noodle soup.’ The next day, when lunch arrived, I discovered a bowl of the exact noodle soup I had craved. The guard told me that they had someone bring it from the very restaurant I had in mind. Over the course of my five months in the Pyongyang detention center, I counted at least 40 times when God gave me the exact food I was craving. He let me know that He had not forgotten me. God was with me. He was not going to let anything happen to me that didn’t go through Him first…I didn’t know if I would ever see my family again or even if I was going to get out of North Korea alive, but one thing I did know: I was not alone. My Savior was with me. He was all I had, and right now, He was enough!”
Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, which not only included the many weeks of interrogation in Pyongyang, but also months of hard labor in a prison camp during both extreme heat and cold. In spite of his failing health and the harsh conditions, Kenneth never gave up his trust in the Lord’s concern and care for him, and he continued to demonstrate God’s love to his captors. His goal was for even his guards to sense God’s love flowing through Him. He was released Nov. 8, 2014, You can read his book to find out how that all came about.
Only God knows the results of the two years that Kenneth Bae spent as a prisoner in North Korea, but the guards had started opening up to him and sharing about their families and their problems. Privately they began calling him “pastor”! When he was released, they wept to see him go. God had not forgotten Kenneth Bae while he was in prison in North Korea, nor has He forgotten the spiritual needs of the people of the DPRK.
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for more than 400 years when God appeared in a burning bush, saying to Moses, “The LORD said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey…’” (Ex. 3:7,8). God went on to ask Moses to go to Egypt and to Pharaoh and to lead the people out of bondage to the Promised Land. Moses made excuses, suggesting God pick someone else, but God responded, “Certainly I will be with you…I will be with your mouth, and teach you what your are to say” (Ex. 3:12; 4:12). Moses faced some very difficult times with his task, but, as promised, God was with him. God never forgot him.
Just as God was with Moses, and God was with Kenneth Bae, God is with us. He has promised that He will never desert us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5 cf DT. 31:6; Josh. 1:5,9). No matter the adversity of your circumstances, God has not forgotten you. Kenneth Bae gave testimony to how much he grew in his intimate knowledge God during those two years of imprisonment in North Korea. He recognizes that the depth of his relationship God resulted from the greatest trial he had ever faced. You too may be facing a difficult trial. Just remember, God is there and is using it to mold you and to conform you more fully into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ (Ro. 8:28,29).
P.S. In 2016, Kenneth Bae founded the “Nehemiah Global Initiative” which has the goal of remembering, rescuing and recovering North Korean refugees and rebuilding their lives.