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By John Geissler

The morning’s fog shrouded the far banks of the river in northeastern China where my friend Kenneth Bae and I stood.

“What river is that?” I asked.

“It’s the Yalu,” Kenneth answered.

“What’s on the other side?” I continued.

Looking wistfully across the river, Kenneth stated, “North Korea.”

This was my introduction to the “Hermit State.” For decades North Korea has been one of the world’s most secretive societies, its nuclear ambitions having exacerbated its rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world.

Kenneth Bae, as prisoner 103.

Kenneth Bae, as prisoner 103.

Kenneth began a tour company based out of China to North Korea in 2005. He made regular trips to North Korea, accompanied by Christian tourists. He hoped to expose these tourists to the country and encourage them to pray for it, all while bringing investment income to the government. I had worked with Kenneth Bae for five years in the underground church in China and North Korea. During a visit to our home during Christmas of 2011, we launched a plan for a Prayer Incursion into this dark nation. We set foot on North Korean soil four months later.

Our trip was unusual in that our team included five pastors. When we entered the country, guards confiscated our Bibles and books long enough to take pictures of them. They warned us that at the conclusion of our trip, if any book or any page from these books was missing, we would not leave the country until they were found.

“You are terrorists in our country,” the guard stated. Two days later we were cleared to go to the Mount of Authority, Mount Chilbo. At the hotel though, Kenneth was removed from our team and held. He did not rejoin us until three days later. Something was clearly wrong.

A few months later, in November of 2012, while leading another team, Kenneth was arrested, charged, and convicted for crimes against the state. His crime: carrying a portable hard drive with a video depicting starving North Korean orphans. His new name: prisoner 103.

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In April of 2013 Kenneth finally received his sentence: fifteen years of hard labor. He was shipped to a prison work camp where he was the only prisoner. Since Kenneth’s family is Korean, he spoke and understood the language.

Kenneth Bae and John Geissler enjoy happier times.

Kenneth Bae and John Geissler enjoy happier times.

The guards continually pressed him as to why he was the only prisoner. “Was he CIA or a Navy Seal?”

They could not understand; no other prisoner had been treated in such a manner. For fun, Kenneth told the guards that U.S. Intelligence was probably watching them by satellite. That evening in his cell, Kenneth heard a folding table fall with a loud crash. The commandant ran from his office saying, “I thought the Seals had broken in!”

Kenneth saw no one but his guards. He farmed by hand, moved rocks, and loaded coal six days a week with only watery soup to eat. In 60 days he lost 60 pounds. Sunday was a day off, when he was forced to watch television with a break to do laundry. Each week the prosecutor, a man he nicknamed Mr. Disappointment, would tell him, “No one remembers you. You have been forgotten by everyone, even your own government. You’ll be here for 15 years. You’ll be 60 years old before you go home.” Yet Kenneth held on to God.

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Eventually one of the guards said, “We are the guards and you are the prisoner. How come you look happier than us? Where does your joy come from?”

“From God,” he answered.

They had heard about Christians but had never seen one. One guard questioned Kenneth, “Pastor, if I believe in God like you do, what’s in it for me?” Another asked, “If I want to believe in God, what do I have to pay the church?”

Kenneth points to the Korean peninsula, separated by the Yalu River.

Kenneth points to the Korean peninsula, separated by the Yalu River.

Kenneth explained that there is no price and that God wants to hear and answer our prayers, protect us, and provide for us. They had never heard anything like that before.

At the end of the conversation someone said, “You said God answered your prayers. But if God is real, then how are you still here?”

Kenneth explained that God has different plans than we do. “Maybe,” he said, “His plan includes you. How will you know anything about God unless I’m here?”

The guard said, “That’s true. I have never heard anything like
this before.”

After Kenneth had spent a year in prison his mother sent him a letter telling him to have faith like that of the three friends of Daniel in the Bible (Daniel 3). Yet Kenneth pondered why God wanted him to stay in North Korea.

He said, “I learned to say, Lord, You know my heart, but not my will but Yours be done. I give up my right to go home, and I leave my family to You.” Kenneth’s prayer changed from, “Send me home, Lord” to “Use me, Lord.”

It was at that point that Kenneth realized he was a missionary to the prison guards. God started opening doors to connect Kenneth with his captors. They would eventually seek his counsel and ask him to pray for them. One guard had a teenage son who was often sick. Kenneth advised him to take vitamin C. He was building genuine relationships.

Amazingly after two years, in November of 2014, Kenneth was released from prison. Sometime later as we sat in my office, Kenneth gave me this to consider: “God didn’t forget me. He hasn’t forgotten the people in North Korea. He wants us to continue to remember those who are in darkness. As the body of Christ, we need to stand with them, to pray for and support them, and to love them as Christ loved us. I feel like that’s my calling now. So many people spoke up for my release. My job is to be a voice for
the voiceless.”

If we let the Lord do His work and depend upon Him during times of difficulty, whether that’s in a North Korean prison or anywhere else, God will be faithful. With God there is always hope.

*Kenneth Bae is Co-president of Serving Life, an NGO focusing on the human rights of North Koreans and for Unification of the Koreas. To learn more, go to his Facebook page, Kenneth Bae.

President Randall A. Bach interviews Kenneth Bae:

Geissler-authorboxJohn Geissler, an Open Bible credentialed minister, pastored for more than 25 years. He founded Agape Distribution in 1996, serving 23,000 individuals with free groceries and more than 230 non-profit agencies with goods and supplies. John also founded The Joseph Connection, an international outreach organization serving 47 nations.

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