The recent dramatic release from North Korea of two American journalists was a timely reminder that the challenge posed by North Korea has not gone away.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee were imprisoned in March after they strayed across the border between North Korea and China. On assignment for Current TV , a company owned by the former American Vice President, Al Gore, they were intending to report on the trafficking of women across the border. The North Koreans sentenced them to 12 years hard labor.
Gore’s former boss, Bill Clinton, intervened on their behalf; he flew to Pyongyang, and earlier this month they were released.
Their arrest was not entirely unexpected. The Chinese authorities, and missionaries working in the region, had been warning for some time that the North Koreans were looking for high profile scalps to use as bargaining chips. Two foreign journalists fitted the bill perfectly. Their connection with the former Vice President was an additional bonus.
The whole episode has exacerbated the already dangerous situation and difficulties facing North Korean refugees on the border — not least because, unpardonably, the two journalists were carrying with them recordings of interviews they had made with refugees. The revelation of those identities and stories places these refugees and their families in acute danger. Some of their family members have probably already been imprisoned.
Life in North Korea’s prison camps is dehumanising and degrading.
The United Nations estimate that 400,000 people have died in the camps in the past 30 years. Many of the stories that have emerged from escapees reveal a primitive brutality.
Ironically, many of these barbaric practices were first pioneered by the Japanese during their occupation of the Korean Peninsular. After the Korean War, the Communist regime in the North used many of the same methods to stamp out dissent.
One of the most vivid accounts of these depredations appears in a harrowing account published in 1955 by a Columban missionary in Korea, Fr.Philip Crosbie.
March Till They Die is the story of his imprisonment between 1950 and 1953.
Unlike seven of his Columban colleagues who died in prison, Philip Crosbie, an Australian priest, survived to tell his story.
Those who paid with their lives included the Chicago born Monsignor Pat Brennan and Fr.Tony Collier, who worked with Fr. Crosbie at the mission station of Chunchon.
During his epic ordeal Fr. Crosbie, and others imprisoned with him, were marched from place to place, given starvation rations, and frequently left exposed to the elements.
One of his companions was Monsignor Thomas Quinlan who originated from Thurles in Tipperary — one of a pioneering group of Columban missionaries who went to Korea from Ireland — and Fr. Frank Canavan from Galway. Another was a Maryknoll priest, Bishop Patrick Byrne.
Others on the forced march included a captured group of Carmelite nuns along with French nuns from the Community of St. Paul of Chartres, and their provincial superior, 76-year-old Mother Beatrix.
They were later joined by other prisoners: members of the British and French Legations in Seoul; the Anglican Bishop Cecil Cooper and the Reverend Charles Hunt; members of the Methodist mission; Herbert Lord, head of the Salvation Army in Korea; and a clutch of South Korean politicians. Later they were joined by a group of American Prisoners of War.
The title of Fr.Crosbie’s book is drawn from the remarks of a North Korean major.
When Commissioner Lord protested that many of the group were elderly or infirm “…but they will die if they have to march ” the Korean major responded “Then let them march until they die .”
Among the fatalities was Mother Beatrix — who had given more than fifty years of her life caring for the sick, the poor and orphans in Korea.
When she could walk no further and lay by the roadside one of the guards shot her dead.
Following his capture in July 1950 Fr. Crosbie saw many deaths and terrible suffering.
On November 18th , Mother Mechtilde – a Belgian Carmelite succumbed and was followed, on November 25th, by that of Bishop Byrne.
Fr. Crosbie records his burial “The only sign of his rank was a light cassock of black silk, with red buttons and piping. The buttons under their covering of red cloth were of metal. Some day they may help to identify the remains .”
Charles Hunt and Fr. Canavan died a few days later.
The remaining prisoners were marched ever onwards – and their peregrinations took them to the River Yalu (close to where the American journalists would be arrested in 2009), to the Chinese border, and back again to Pyongyang. Some, including Monsignor Quinlan, Bishop Cooper and Herbert Lord, survived and were eventually freed.
Monsignor Quinlan returned to South Korea in 1954 as Regent to the Apostolic Delegation.
On May 25th 1953 Fr. Crosbie was handed over to an official of the Soviet Union, taken to Moscow and was freed. Staff at the Australian Embassy welcomed him: “And so”, he wrote, “I came to freedom.”
He movingly describes his return to “laws that respect an individual’s freedom while providing for the good of the State; …a land where the Muses are not completely chained to the chariots of politicians; where books and newspapers are freely published, and I can freely read them. …All this I prize; but I have gained a still greater and more precious freedom. It is the freedom to believe in God and openly profess my faith .” Philip Crosbie prized his regained freedom but he also remarked that the cruelty and atrocities had not only flowed in one direction.
He concluded his account with a prayer for those who did not live to see freedom; and a prayer for those who had captured and abused them: “May there be none of us who will not find Him at the end! ”
That must still be the hope we express for the hundreds of thousands still interred in North Korea’s prison camps — for it will be on the foundations of these sacrifices and such pain that one day a more gentle and tolerant Korea will be built.
[This article was originally published in The Universe , a Catholic weekly of the UK and Ireland, and is used by permission of the author.]