North Korea will release Christian prisoner after suicide threats

Amidst the happy news that North Korea will release a Christian activist from prison, thanks in part to the intervention of former president Jimmy Carter, are some curious details. From Christianity Today:

From a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, former North Korean prisoner Robert Park prays for the release of his friend Aijalon Mahli Gomes.

On Christmas Eve, Park crossed into North Korea in hopes of drawing attention to the Communist nation’s human rights violations and persecution of Christians. Park was arrested and imprisoned in North Korea and released after six weeks.

Gomes, 31, an English teacher turned Christian activist who attended the same church as Park in Seoul, followed in Park’s footsteps, crossing into North Korea on January 25. In April, the North Korean government sentenced the Boston native to eight years in a hard labor camp and fined him $700,000.

Park, who has been hospitalized several times since his February release, has not spoken about his imprisonment.

“I didn’t want to cause anything to happen to Aijalon,” Park told ChristianityToday in an exclusive interview. “I want him to come out first.”

Amid carefully selected answers during the phone interview from the behavioral health center where he has been since making suicidal statements in July, Park prayed several times, not for himself, but for Gomes’s return home.

“Father, restore Aijalon to his loved ones in America,” Park prayed, his voice laced with urgency. “Show us great and mighty things through the deliverance of Aijalon Gomes.”

Park’s prayers may finally have been answered.

Former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, according to the government-controlled Korean Central News Agency. North Korean officials agreed to release Gomes to Carter, 85. The two are expected to return to the United States by Friday. . . .

Park said his concern for Gomes and frustration over the lack of media coverage and response to his friend’s imprisonment have led him to speak out—and were the cause of his plans for a July 16 suicide demonstration.

Park said he was ready to end his life because nothing was being done, “but God stopped it through the intervention of a friend.”

“I was planning to kill myself with a suicide note to bring attention to Aijalon—I feel responsible for him being there,” Park said. “He is one of my best friends, and I prayed for my life to be taken and not his.”

Park said he feels a burden and responsibility for his friend’s release. He was told that Gomes was very emotional when attending several demonstrations for Park’s release.

“He wept and prayed fervently and intensely, but he did not say much—I don’t think he told his plan to anyone,” Park said. “I think he went in, in part, because he was my friend and he wanted to help me.” . . .

In July, the Korean Central News Agency reported Gomes had attempted suicide. Park said he also fears his friend would be treated as a political prisoner or become lost in the politics of the relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

Observers speculate that North Korea was using Gomes as bargaining leverage with the U.S. over its nuclear program.

The seeming acceptance of suicide by both of these Christians is startling.  Perhaps they are combining their Christian faith, which I don’t doubt for an instant, with the relative acceptance of suicide found in Asian cultures.  (Gomes, though, is an American.)   We certainly shouldn’t accept the old Roman Catholic teaching that suicide is an unforgiveable sin; and yet, I wonder if the attitude against suicide is shifting.

HT:  Sarah Pulliam Bailey

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Amy

    Why should we not accept that suicide is a sin? I’m not Catholic, but I’ve always thought of suicide as sinful. How else should we look at it? It’s certainly not something we should aspire to do.

  • Amy

    Why should we not accept that suicide is a sin? I’m not Catholic, but I’ve always thought of suicide as sinful. How else should we look at it? It’s certainly not something we should aspire to do.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Amy,
    Vieth wasn’t saying that suicide isn’t sin. The whole tone of that paragraph shows that he thinks it is sinful. He just made a comment to the effect that it is not an unforgivable sin as the Roman Catholics used to teach, and perhaps still do. He believes it is forgivable, indicating quite strongly that he thinks it is a sin, since it would not have to be forgiven if it wasn’t a sin.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Amy,
    Vieth wasn’t saying that suicide isn’t sin. The whole tone of that paragraph shows that he thinks it is sinful. He just made a comment to the effect that it is not an unforgivable sin as the Roman Catholics used to teach, and perhaps still do. He believes it is forgivable, indicating quite strongly that he thinks it is a sin, since it would not have to be forgiven if it wasn’t a sin.

  • Carl Vehse

    From a July 9 BBC News article about Aijalon Mahli Gomes:

    The North Korean government says that an American detained for illegal entry has tried to commit suicide.

    Driven by his strong guilty conscience, disappointment and despair at the U.S. government that has not taken any measure for his freedom, he attempted to commit suicide,” the North’s KCNA news agency said.

    Well… if the NorKs said Gomes tried to commit suicide, it must be true. /sarc

  • Carl Vehse

    From a July 9 BBC News article about Aijalon Mahli Gomes:

    The North Korean government says that an American detained for illegal entry has tried to commit suicide.

    Driven by his strong guilty conscience, disappointment and despair at the U.S. government that has not taken any measure for his freedom, he attempted to commit suicide,” the North’s KCNA news agency said.

    Well… if the NorKs said Gomes tried to commit suicide, it must be true. /sarc

  • http://www.christlutheran.net Jeff Samelson

    I’ve long thought it a shame that we use the Latinate “suicide” in English, rather than something more direct, clear, and natural like the German “Selbstmord”. I think that a lot of people would be a lot more hesitant to condone or consider suicide if it were referred to as God certainly sees it: “self-murder”.

  • http://www.christlutheran.net Jeff Samelson

    I’ve long thought it a shame that we use the Latinate “suicide” in English, rather than something more direct, clear, and natural like the German “Selbstmord”. I think that a lot of people would be a lot more hesitant to condone or consider suicide if it were referred to as God certainly sees it: “self-murder”.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Carl; good point about NK media.

    Jeff; it might help, but don’t forget that suicide rates are much higher in German speaking nations like Germany and Switzerland. I’d suggest other factors are in play, like a general lack of faith.

    Going deeper into the article, I wonder if the big issue isn’t suicide at all, but rather a worldview that encourages those who would “raise awareness” of persecution. In my mind, the problem with North Korea isn’t that people are not aware of what is going on. Rather, it’s that people don’t care–in much the same way as many didn’t care about the plight of Soviet political prisoners, or residents of China’s LaoGai, or……

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Carl; good point about NK media.

    Jeff; it might help, but don’t forget that suicide rates are much higher in German speaking nations like Germany and Switzerland. I’d suggest other factors are in play, like a general lack of faith.

    Going deeper into the article, I wonder if the big issue isn’t suicide at all, but rather a worldview that encourages those who would “raise awareness” of persecution. In my mind, the problem with North Korea isn’t that people are not aware of what is going on. Rather, it’s that people don’t care–in much the same way as many didn’t care about the plight of Soviet political prisoners, or residents of China’s LaoGai, or……

  • Norman Teigen

    I think that this ‘Christian activist’ is more interested in promoting himself than the cause of Christianity. What is it with these weird people, anyway? My prayer is that these people will no longer receive the free publicity that comes from enacting out their selfish schemes.

  • Norman Teigen

    I think that this ‘Christian activist’ is more interested in promoting himself than the cause of Christianity. What is it with these weird people, anyway? My prayer is that these people will no longer receive the free publicity that comes from enacting out their selfish schemes.

  • Porcell

    For the sake of clarity in this discussion, the Catholic Catechism states the following on the subject of suicide:

    2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

    2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

    2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

    Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

    2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

  • Porcell

    For the sake of clarity in this discussion, the Catholic Catechism states the following on the subject of suicide:

    2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

    2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

    2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

    Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

    2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

  • DonS

    The whole incident is unusual. I’m with Norman, it seems like it’s more about grandstanding than substance. What, exactly, did these two men hope to achieve by their knowingly dangerous foray across a forbidden border? It doesn’t seem as if there was a ministry purpose at all. Did they really think that their little rebellion would be the tipping point for a North Korean regime which has weathered negative world attention for 60 years?

  • DonS

    The whole incident is unusual. I’m with Norman, it seems like it’s more about grandstanding than substance. What, exactly, did these two men hope to achieve by their knowingly dangerous foray across a forbidden border? It doesn’t seem as if there was a ministry purpose at all. Did they really think that their little rebellion would be the tipping point for a North Korean regime which has weathered negative world attention for 60 years?

  • DonS

    J @ 10: You took my comment a bit out of context. Read it again, especially the sentence immediately following the one you quoted. Paul and Silas had a ministry purpose for the risks they took. They were spreading the Gospel. If Park and Gomes had a similar ministry purpose, unreported in the article, that would justify the risk they took.

  • DonS

    J @ 10: You took my comment a bit out of context. Read it again, especially the sentence immediately following the one you quoted. Paul and Silas had a ministry purpose for the risks they took. They were spreading the Gospel. If Park and Gomes had a similar ministry purpose, unreported in the article, that would justify the risk they took.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Norman Teigen (@7): “I think that this ‘Christian activist’ is more interested in promoting himself … What is it with these weird people, anyway?”

    DonS (@9): “I’m with Norman, it seems like it’s more about grandstanding than substance.”

    The purest compassion!

    The article says that “Park crossed into North Korea in hopes of drawing attention to the Communist nation’s human rights violations and persecution of Christians.” Not good enough for DonS, though (@11): “If Park and Gomes had a similar ministry purpose, unreported in the article, that would justify the risk they took.”

    So let’s see. Expressions of concern for the persecution of Christians in North Korea? None. And apparently doing something about that is “weird”. Expressions of concern for the safety of two Christians doing that? None. Expressions of concern for their mental well being, given expressed suicidal wishes? None. (Probably more “grandstanding”, that, eh?)

    And, it goes without saying, expressions of congratulations to Jimmy Carter for gaining a Christian brother’s freedom? Oh, you know the answer. After all, as Bike Bubba once said, “Jimmuh is one who likes to pull publicity stunts to keep his name in the papers.”

    And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love …

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Norman Teigen (@7): “I think that this ‘Christian activist’ is more interested in promoting himself … What is it with these weird people, anyway?”

    DonS (@9): “I’m with Norman, it seems like it’s more about grandstanding than substance.”

    The purest compassion!

    The article says that “Park crossed into North Korea in hopes of drawing attention to the Communist nation’s human rights violations and persecution of Christians.” Not good enough for DonS, though (@11): “If Park and Gomes had a similar ministry purpose, unreported in the article, that would justify the risk they took.”

    So let’s see. Expressions of concern for the persecution of Christians in North Korea? None. And apparently doing something about that is “weird”. Expressions of concern for the safety of two Christians doing that? None. Expressions of concern for their mental well being, given expressed suicidal wishes? None. (Probably more “grandstanding”, that, eh?)

    And, it goes without saying, expressions of congratulations to Jimmy Carter for gaining a Christian brother’s freedom? Oh, you know the answer. After all, as Bike Bubba once said, “Jimmuh is one who likes to pull publicity stunts to keep his name in the papers.”

    And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love …

  • Norman Teigen

    todd: Foolishness masquerading as mission work is still foolishness. This reminds me of the recent story in the NY Times about certain people who enter wilderness areas with insufficient training. When problems arise they are quick to call for rescue assistance. It’s what is commonly called the 911 Syndrome. Do any dumb thing and if trouble results, call 911.

    One can be seriously interested in the work of spreading Christianity but there must be some assessment of the situation and risks involved. Simply putting one’s self at risk is no guarantee that the action is justified Without the prospect of world wide attention, these Christian activists would likely not engage in their reckless behavior.

    Not everything done by self-proclaimed Christians is worthy of the respect of other Christians. To fall for this sort of thing opens one up to gullibility.

  • Norman Teigen

    todd: Foolishness masquerading as mission work is still foolishness. This reminds me of the recent story in the NY Times about certain people who enter wilderness areas with insufficient training. When problems arise they are quick to call for rescue assistance. It’s what is commonly called the 911 Syndrome. Do any dumb thing and if trouble results, call 911.

    One can be seriously interested in the work of spreading Christianity but there must be some assessment of the situation and risks involved. Simply putting one’s self at risk is no guarantee that the action is justified Without the prospect of world wide attention, these Christian activists would likely not engage in their reckless behavior.

    Not everything done by self-proclaimed Christians is worthy of the respect of other Christians. To fall for this sort of thing opens one up to gullibility.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Norman, I wasn’t asking for you to “respect” these people, nor claiming that one couldn’t claim their particular mission “foolish”, much less demand you “fall for” it. These are straw men.

    What I noted was a singular lack of compassion (from you and Don, at least) for these people, who are, it should be noted, Christian brothers.

    And you went beyond a lack of compassion, even. You imputed selfish motives to a man you’d almost certainly never even heard of, calling him “more interested in promoting himself than the cause of Christianity” (@7). Man, where do you get off? I sincerely hope you’re not in charge of caring for any people at your church, if that’s how you treat them.

    And calling such people “weird”. Nice.

    You read about two people who are struggling with suicidal temptations, trying to call attention to the persecution of Christians in North Korea, and the sole prayer you could be bothered to talk about was a prayer “that these people will no longer receive the free publicity that comes from enacting out their selfish schemes.”

    No, compared to that pathetic comment (@7), Norman, a mere discussion on the wisdom of their tactics would have been just fine.

    Meanwhile, Don, given that I believe you’ve complained about the way Christians have been treated in America, maybe just a little something nice to say for people attempting to raise attention to the actual persecution of our Christian brothers in North Korea?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Norman, I wasn’t asking for you to “respect” these people, nor claiming that one couldn’t claim their particular mission “foolish”, much less demand you “fall for” it. These are straw men.

    What I noted was a singular lack of compassion (from you and Don, at least) for these people, who are, it should be noted, Christian brothers.

    And you went beyond a lack of compassion, even. You imputed selfish motives to a man you’d almost certainly never even heard of, calling him “more interested in promoting himself than the cause of Christianity” (@7). Man, where do you get off? I sincerely hope you’re not in charge of caring for any people at your church, if that’s how you treat them.

    And calling such people “weird”. Nice.

    You read about two people who are struggling with suicidal temptations, trying to call attention to the persecution of Christians in North Korea, and the sole prayer you could be bothered to talk about was a prayer “that these people will no longer receive the free publicity that comes from enacting out their selfish schemes.”

    No, compared to that pathetic comment (@7), Norman, a mere discussion on the wisdom of their tactics would have been just fine.

    Meanwhile, Don, given that I believe you’ve complained about the way Christians have been treated in America, maybe just a little something nice to say for people attempting to raise attention to the actual persecution of our Christian brothers in North Korea?