Kenneth Bae (with Mark Tabb)
Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea
W Publishing, Nashville, Tennessee, US, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0718079633

American Kenneth Bae spent 735 days as a prisoner in North Korea after he was arrested in 2012 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government (due to his being a Christian missionary), largely thanks to the fact the he took in a hard drive which contained what the North Koreans saw as compromising material about his purpose in their nation – reaching them for Christ.

Not Forgotten is his personal account of his time as the “longest held American detainee” since the Korean War in what is arguably the most isolated nation in the world, the ‘hermit kingdom’ of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Not Forgotten

There’s not a lot of time spent on background before we’re plunged straight into Bae’s recollections of what took place after his arrest in North Korea – the month he spent being interrogated before he spent five months in a Pyongyang detention centre where he was prepared for what turned out to be an hour-long ‘trial’, followed by the time he spent in the rural labour camp after being sentenced to 15 year’s hard labour.

But, that said, Bae does spend some time talking about his heart for the Koreas – both North and South – throughout his account and, as he explores some of his own family’s history (and how he came to be living in the US before moving to China so he could serve as a missionary to North Korea), we’re also provided with a glimpse into the history of a country which only 100 years ago was the location of one of the world’s great Christian revivals – the 1907 Pyongyang revival in which tens of thousands of people came to know Christ.

While Bae did suffer physically due to the labouring work he was forced to undertake as part of his imprisonment – largely due to pre-existing medical conditions, the focus is mostly on the mental hurdles he had to overcome as he surrendered his fate to God and came to the realisation that, despite things not going as he might have imagined or envisaged and despite the many disappointments he faced relating to his hope for imminent release, God had nonetheless opened the chance for him to be a missionary in North Korea.

It was a liberating moment. As he writes: “The moment I stopped praying, ‘God,  save me’, and instead prayed, ‘God, use me’, I felt free. I was still in a North Korean hospital as a prisoner. I still faced 15 years of hard labour once I was released from the hospital, but I was suddenly fine with all that.  God wanted me in North Korea. God had called me here. He had a purpose for my being a prisoner.”

And while that realisation didn’t mean everything was rosy all the time –  he still had "good days and...bad days,” Bae says, he did start to have a new level of compassion for his captors. “My attitude toward the people around me completely changed, and that opened doors to build real relationships with them.”

This is a story of encouragement – not only in the fact that yes, after much prayer and anguish, he was eventually released and reunited with his family - but also in the little things: how God, for example, provided him with the very food he craved, such as cold noodle soup from a particular eatery, right at the moment he needed it - and from the very hands of those who held him captive. Not to mention how God provided him with the Bible, music and books which, as well as his prayer life, sustained him throughout his ordeal.

It's also a story about what it means to follow God, including surrendering our own expectations of what that means - and the cost that we may be called to pay in doing so. And while we know the outcome thanks to the headlines, it’s fascinating to see how events unfolded - and how God was working - behind the scenes.