- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

SEOUL

Like most North Koreans, Son Jong-nam knew next to nothing about Christianity when he fled to neighboring China in 1998. Nearly 11 years later, he died back in North Korea in prison, reportedly tortured to death for trying to spread the Gospel in his native land, armed with 20 Bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns. He was 50.

His story, pieced together by his younger brother, a defector who lives in South Korea, sheds light on a little-discussed practice: the return of North Korean converts to evangelize in their home country - a risky move, but one of the few ways to penetrate a country that bars most citizens from outside TV or radio and the Internet.

Little is known about the practice, thought to have started in the late 1990s. Missionaries won’t say how many defectors they have sent back to North Korea, citing their safety and that of the defectors.

“It’s their country, where people speak the same language. They know where to go and where to escape,” said the Rev. Isaac Lee, a Korean-American missionary in Seoul who has dedicated his life to spreading Christianity in the North. “But I agonize a lot whenever I have to send defectors to the North, as I know what kind of punishment they would get if arrested.”

Officially, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion for its 24 million people. In practice, authorities crack down on Christians, who are seen as Western-influenced threats to the government. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution, defectors say.

For North Koreans, a personality cult surrounding the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung and his son and current leader, Kim Jong-il, serves as a virtual state religion.

Kim Jong-il is above the country’s law … and in North Korea what he instructs is like Jesus Christ’s words in the Bible,” said Son Jung-hun, a human rights activist who has become a devout Christian since his brother’s death.

It was into this world that Son Jong-nam was born on March 11, 1958.

He served in the presidential security service for 10 years until his discharge as a master sergeant in 1983. In those years, he was ready to dedicate his life to fighting the “American imperialists,” his brother said. Mr. Son worked at an army-run performing arts center after his discharge.

He experienced the first twist in his life in 1997.

His wife, eight months pregnant at the time, was arrested on accusations of saying Kim Jong-il had ruined the economy and caused a mass famine. Interrogators seeking a confession kicked her in the stomach, forcing her to discharge blood and have a miscarriage, Mr. Son’s brother said.

Terrified and disillusioned, Mr. Son, then 39, fled in January 1998 with his wife and their 6-year-old daughter to the Chinese border town of Yanji. His younger brother arrived the previous year, fleeing what he said was a false charge of being involved in the illegal export of strategic items.

Mr. Son’s wife died of leukemia seven months later.

That was when the next twist came.

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