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The True Meaning Of Martyrdom

January 14 2010

Claudia Rosett, 01.14.10, 12:01 AM ET
What cause would you be willing to die for?
For many of us, that question may seem academic. But in the great wars of values and ideas, there are inflection points at which the course of many lives can turn on the actions of those willing to sacrifice their own. America is about to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, honoring a man who put himself on the line for freedom, looked over the mountaintop--and died for it.
This past Christmas Day brought us the stories of two young men, both willing to martyr themselves for their beliefs, but in ways and for visions so utterly different that their tales might serve as a parable for the defining struggles of our time.
One, as you surely know, was the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a wealthy young Muslim from a prominent Nigerian family. Following his embrace of radical Islam, he tried to sacrifice himself--allegedly--in a botched attempt to sow terror and death by blowing up an American airliner packed with 289 other people, en route to Detroit. Having entered American air space decked out as a suicide bomber, he is now availing himself of U.S. constitutional rights, granted to him by the Obama Administration, to plead not guilty to criminal charges.
The other martyr, in stark contrast, was a 28-year-old Christian missionary, Robert Park. An American of Korean descent, Park offered himself up peacefully, on Christmas Day, for the cause of life and liberty for others. He went to northeast China, and from there walked across the frozen Tumen River into North Korea. Witnesses told reporters that as he went, he called out, in Korean, messages of God’s love, as well as “I am an American citizen.” He took with him a letter to North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-il, asking Kim to open his country and shut down his prison camps.
It is now almost three weeks since Park vanished into the shadows of North Korea. As he expected, he was seized by North Korean authorities. Among advocates of human rights for North Korea, his extraordinary act has sparked a debate over whether he was brave, foolish or crazy, and whether there can be any good reason for a man to walk deliberately into the blood-stained grip of Kim Jong-il’s regime.
But Park made his aims and requests quite clear. Before he crossed that frozen river, he gave an interview to Reuters, asking that it be held until he was in North Korea. In that interview, which Reuters released shortly after he had crossed over, Park spelled out “I do not want to be released. I don’t want President Obama to come and pay to get me out.” What he wanted, he said, is for “the North Korean people to be free. Until the concentration camps are liberated, I do not want to come out. If I have to die with them, I will.”
Those were not words of madness, but of passion for good over evil. Park knew what he was walking into. North Korea is home to some of the most brutal repression on earth, with slave-labor prison camps that hark back to Stalin’s gulag. Park in his farewell interview accused the North Korean regime of “genocide,” and he was right. It is no accident of nature that just across the demilitarized zone from South Korea’s economic powerhouse, North Korea suffered a famine in the late 1990s that killed an estimated 1 million or more people. That was a direct result of Kim Jong Il’s state policy, which continues to this day to systematically starve and isolate North Koreans, while building nuclear weapons and running global rackets to sustain the power and pleasures of Kim and his ruling circle.
Where in global officialdom has there been serious will and a true campaign to end these horrors? American soldiers are willing to fight and die for freedom, but not since the halt of the Korean War in 1953 have America and its allies actually done battle to try to rid the Korean peninsula of the North’s totalitarian regime. Neither has any international bureaucracy found the methods or backbone to force the Pyongyang regime to open its prisons or free its people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for instance, runs a comfortable, well guarded office in Beijing, where in keeping with the wishes of China’s government, the UNHCR politely refrains from offering haven to desperate and hunted North Korean refugees. The International Committee of the Red Cross pays court to Kim, in order to have access to some parts of his domain. But if any ICRC delegates have visited Kim’s gulag, they have not managed to leak the memo.
Robert Park, “American citizen,” looked into that heart of darkness, and walked toward it, calling for life and freedom for the 23 million people of North Korea ? a message filled with the passions that are the soul of America itself. But since that freighted Christmas Day, Americans have heard far less about the self-sacrifice of Robert Park than about the exploits of alleged suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. That’s no surprise, given that Abdulmutallab, since his smoldering arrival in Detroit, has been provided with doctors, lawyers and a public stage in a U.S. courtroom, where he has already seized his chance to enter a not-guilty plea. Park, by contrast, has vanished into the murk of a North Korean system utterly lacking in justice and notorious for torturing and starving its prisoners. American authorities, as of this writing, have said they’ve made inquiries, but do not know exactly what has happened to him.
Between these two young men, both willing to die for a cause, who is more worthy of capturing America’s imagination? Faced with death-exalting jihadis, terror-masters and opportunistic tyrannies, will the free world reply with an unyielding passion of its own? We can debate tactics; I would not urge anyone to follow Robert Park into the detention cells of Kim Jong Il. But Park, with his deliberate act of self-sacrifice, chose to embody a message that should be bracing for Americans to honor and remember: That it is not the place of free men to accommodate evil, but to call it what it is, and challenge it ? not on its own terms, but on ours.
Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies , writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.