Flame against Flame: Reflections on North Korea & Wiesel's Night

by Guest Blogger October 14, 2014

by Jae Newman

Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? –James 3:11

A month ago, I traveled deep into a valley of the Southern Tier in New York State. It was nearly a two-hour trip on a day that I had other things to do. In my fifth of six semesters of seminary, things are picking up. I made the long drive in the rain because I believe it is a writer’s responsibility to make the time necessary to create a work for which we are convicted.

For over a decade, a seed of concern about the humanitarian crisis in North Korea has grown into something I could no longer ignore. As a high school senior, I was mortified of the possibility that there were places where children could be intentionally denied food.

I was incensed later to learn how the ideological structure of politics could somehow rationalize a behavior that seemed so coarse and inhumane to me. Then I heard about the internment camps, some the size of cities, where even those rumored as distant family relations to a known defector can receive five years in a gulag.

Do you remember the moment you were tapped on the forehead and convicted to become a writer?

As any writer can tell you, it’s a ruthless profession. We usually work in relative obscurity, are often broke, and occasionally get just enough rope to keep us tugging at some impossible aesthetic—a goal some of us can’t quite name.

For me, it was what many might call a “moral awakening” that sparked an interest to start doodling poems. Just prior to learning about the situation in North Korea, I read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Before reading that book, if you’d called me a reader, I would have denied it through and through. I read literature to complete assignments.

Night flipped the switch because never before did I know it was possible to write a book that way—in the way that made such ethical and empathetic demands on a reader.

Never before did it dawn on me that a writer’s responsibility to his or her community could be so great that the book virtually burst free from our humanity, or rather, from the attempt to protect it.


Driving in the rain, I met a man I’ll call Han. He was born in North Korea during the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910-1945. We drank coffee and made those around us increasingly uncomfortable as every other sentence contained the words “North Korea.” His story is remarkable.

Shortly after the Korean War broke out, Han and his brother were informed that their mother had seen Jesus in a vision. Jesus had walked into their living room and said, “Daughter, this is no longer your home. Leave. Leave.” Devoted, Han’s mother packed the family’s photo album and Bible and started out in the middle of December toward the nearest port.

She had no plan. She had no compass. She had no car. They walked.

After reaching the port, thousands of Christians pleaded with American naval officers to allow them to board and travel to South Korea. It was there that Han later learned English and eventually made his way to the United States to start his education and become a father of three children.

Han told me a story of government officials overtaking his church and transforming it into an armory. He laughed saying that they knew that the Americans would not bomb a church. It was the kind of laugh that begged me to laugh, too. I understood. This was tough to do.

My new friend Han is nearly eighty years old. He’s lived in the United States since the early 1960s and yet had never had anyone ask him about his experience. “This is not made up. It really happened to me,” he noted several times.

The image in Night that haunts me most is, when accosted in the middle of the night, many Jews are forced out of their homes and made to run in the snow—many without shoes. I know there are other horrendous images, but over the last fifteen years, this is the one I remember. It makes me cringe.

Sometimes I wonder what my seminary experience if really for. I am no Pastor, and yet I still feel the call, with James 3:1 as an admonishment, to be a teacher of sorts. Yes, I teach college composition, and occasionally literature and creative writing courses.

I’m talking about a teacher of more. I’m talking about teaching people to take their convictions and turn them over to the Lord so that He might begin working out the events needed to enable our work.

It’s not easy. At one point during the last five semesters, I found myself reading Augustine after midnight in my bathtub while we had company downstairs. But I choose to walk and sometimes run when I understand that this is my responsibility. This is my proof that my God who sent the prophets is alive in me.

We don’t need too much to start this kind of journey. I think of Han’s mother and how she left the very next day. We can’t sing, “Break my heart for what breaks yours” and exist in idle apathy. We can’t ignore what is planted inside us, but must allow it to spring forth with a desperation of our own to meet that fire, flame against flame.

  Photo credit: “Sparklers!” by Derek Key. Flickr. Creative Commons / BY. Resized from original. 

Jae Newman, author of Collage of Seoul (Cascade Books 2015), lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and daughters. He teaches writing courses at Monroe Community College and Roberts Wesleyan College. His poetry has been published in many national journals including: The Bellingham Review, Redivider, Karamu, Saranac Review, and Rock & Sling. In 2008, his poem “Honeymoons” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, Newman has recently completed a MA in Theological Studies at Northeastern Seminary. 

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