(Photo: AP / David Zentz)
As the nation rejoices over the release of two U.S. journalists, a ministry working with persecuted Christians reminds the world that tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of innocent people remain trapped in North Korean prisons without hope of a special pardon.
“North Korea is suspected of detaining more political and religious prisoners than any other country in the world,” wrote Jerry Dykstra, media relations director for Open Doors USA, in a column Wednesday.
His organization estimates at least 200,000 people are detained in North Korea, including 40,000 to 60,000 Christians.
In North Korea, it is illegal to criticize the government, leave the country, fail to have a picture of Kim Il-Sung in one’s house, own a Bible, or practice Christianity. Leaving the country to search for food in China will result in imprisonment if the person is caught, and owning a Bible or being found to be a practicing Christian will result in imprisonment or public execution.
Just last month, Ri Hyon-Ok, 33, was accused of distributing Bibles and “spying” for South Korea and the Untied States. She was executed by the North Korean government. Her husband, children and parents were sent to a political prison camp the day after her execution, The Associated Press reported.
The North Korean regime is known for imprisoning not only the suspected “criminal,” but also three generations of his or her family to “root out” the bad influence.
Open Doors this year ranked North Korea as the worst persecutor of Christians in the world for the seventh straight year. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department re-designated the rogue country as one of eight “Countries of Particular Concern” for systematic and egregious religious freedom violations.
For months, U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee had lived amid this lack of respect for human rights.
The two women were arrested in March while reporting on the border of China and North Korea. The North Korean government accused the women of illegally entering the country and carrying out a smear campaign.
In June, they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for the above charges.
“We feared at any moment that we could be sent to a hard labor camp and then suddenly we were told we were going to a meeting,” recalled Ling at a news conference Wednesday morning shortly after their plane arrived at a Burbank, Calif., airport.
“We were taken to a location, and when we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton,” she continued. “We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end.”
Former President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday to discuss the journalists’ release. After several hours of discussion, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il issued a special pardon to the two Americans.
President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all released statements expressing joy over the release of the American journalists.
“I think that not only is this White House…extraordinarily happy, but all Americans should be grateful to both former President Clinton and Vice President Gore for their extraordinary work,” Obama said.
Dykstra of Open Doors agrees that Americans should rejoice over the release of Ling and Lee who now have complete freedom in the United States. But he also urges people to pray and advocate “for those who have not received pardons; for those languishing in the ‘hell’ that is North Korea.”