Kenneth Bae has held the hand of God.
The American Christian missionary — who spent over 700 days as a captive of the North Korean communist regime — says the Holy Spirit held his hand through an “interrogation” exercise. He saw “something sparkling like gold dust” before hearing the voice of God explain: “The Holy Spirit is holding your hand. You are not alone.”
Bae’s new book, Not Forgotten, is a powerful and unique look at his time in North Korea, from his arrest over running a secret missionary operation in the north of the country to his days working in a labor camp after his conviction. It is unique because it is a Christian testimony, in which Bae explicitly refers to supernatural incidents during his captivity that ensured his safety and kept hope for his release alive. He credits Jesus for the limited time he spend in prison; he had been sentenced to serve 15 years.
In one incident, Bae felt God remove the hands of a demon from his neck. On multiple occasions, singing prayer songs in the harsh condition of North Korea’s labor camp fields, he found himself laughing and crying with joy, filled with the Holy Spirit. To say that his guards and handlers were confused would be an understatement. One interrogator asked who Jesus was and where he lived so that North Korean guards could arrest him.
Bae argues that the North Korean government understands the power of Jesus Christ, and takes extraordinary measures to keep its citizens from knowing about God. The only North Koreans who know what Christianity is in the book are the prosecutors studying his case, the guards keeping him captive, and the few civilians he encountered during his “tours” out of China. A Bible, he says, stands in a display case in a room full of American “weapons” at an anti-American propaganda museum.
Bae had established a tourist organization overtly meant to show foreigners friendly to the regime the side of North Korea Kim Jong-un wants the world to see. Secretly, the groups consisted of Christian missionaries who would pray in silence for the nation, and off-handedly mention Christianity to civilians when guards were not looking.
“You say it is just prayer, but prayer is a hostile act because it calls into question everything our system is based upon,” a prosecutor tells him during pre-trial hearings. Bae seems to agree. He argues North Korean communists understand the power of Jesus even more than some Christians in the free world: “they understand that if they allow the message of Jesus to spread, their government will collapse, along with every aspect of their society.”
“They know how powerful faith in Jesus is, and it scares them to death,” he writes.
The mainstream political media, so unused to treating Christian testimonies as reality, appear to be sidelining the entire point of Bae’s book. CNN has chosen to focus on passing mentions of Dennis Rodman (whom Bae credits, in part, for his release), and the hardships of a labor camp. The New York Times acknowledges the Christian foundation of the book, but notes with more interest that it is “also a survival story that shines a light on North Korea’s history of seizing United States citizens.” CBS highlights the North Korean government’s use of Bae as a “political pawn” to humiliate America.
One cannot blame them. There are few stories in the American political and cultural sphere like Bae’s — because there are few stories like Bae’s, period. He remains the longest-serving U.S. citizen in a North Korean prison. He focuses on describing true events in his life that would get a fiction book branded magic realism. While his story managed to rope in NBA stars and politicians looking to score cheap publicity points by saying his name, he ultimately took the risks he took to return Christianity to a nation that was once home to the “Jerusalem of the East“: Pyongyang. The earthly implications of his detention, to Bae, are clearly secondary.
Bae’s memoir, Not Forgotten, is currently out in stores.