The image of the mad emperor imposing torture and death upon stalwart and heroic Christians for their refusal to bow down and worship any but their true Lord was a recurring motif in the silver screen Roman epics of the 1950s and 60s.
Apart from the pages of history books or from rolls of Technicolor film, it might be hard, today in the Land of the Free where there's a megachurch on every street corner and televangelists galore, to envision such a scenario unfolding in the modern world.
However, at this very moment in the 21st Century, there is a man languishing in a dungeon for his religion as he awaits death at the hands of an emperor who declares himself a god.
Some concerned activists not too far from Tulsa are doing something about it, though.
Members of the Bartlesville-based group, The Voice of the Martyrs, are rallying U.S. lawmakers and members of the international community to pressure the North Korean government to release Son Jong Nam from his death row basement jail cell in Pyongyang.
About a year and a half ago, Son was sentenced to public execution for sending missionaries into his native country of North Korea from China, where he fled with his family after a run-in with the North Korean gestapo.
Tom Nettleton, director of media development for VOM, told UTW that his organization learned of Son's plight from his brother, Son Jong Hoon.
Hoon now resides in South Korea, but VOM brought him to the United States to enlist help in securing his brother's freedom by appearing on national news broadcasts and by meeting with U.S. lawmakers.
Some congressman responded early last month in the form of joint letters petitioning Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to pressure the North Korean government to release Son.
Tulsa's Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe was among those who signed the letters, but the principal author was Republican Kansas Sen. and presidential candidate Sam Brownback.
"Future cooperation and engagement with North Korea will be far more challenging if its leaders continue to persecute their own people for religious views. The United States has made political and religious freedoms important elements in its diplomatic relations, and we are gravely concerned about abuses of such basic rights in North Korea," read a portion of one of the letters.
Meanwhile, Nettleton said the prisoner's brother has appeared on CNN to call attention to Son's plight, and VOM is calling on people from around the world to write letters and e-mails to him and on his behalf to the U.S. Department of State, the UN and the North Korean government.
"Kim Jong-il wants people to worship him as a deity, and refusing is seen as a treasonous act against the government," Nettleton said of North Korea's infamous ruler.
"Religious freedom is non-existent in North Korea," he added.
Prior to his religious "crimes," Son had somehow run afoul of the North Korean government, attracting the attention of the secret police, who kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach through the course of an "investigation," causing her to miscarry.
After complaints to the North Korean Central People's Committee about the incident, he was pressured to "drop the matter," so in 1998 he defected to China with his wife, son and brother.
His wife died shortly thereafter.
While in China, Son met a missionary from South Korea and soon converted to Christianity.
As recounted by his brother, Nettleton said Son "felt called to be an evangelist in North Korea" as he continued his training in Christian spiritual disciplines, but was arrested by Chinese police in 2001 before he could make arrangements to return.
Son was extradited back to North Korea on the charge of sending missionaries into the country, where he was imprisoned and "brutally tortured" for three years, according to his brother.
In May 2004, he was released on parole and pressed into service at a rocket research institute in Chongjin.
However, his years of imprisonment and torture had taken their toll on his body, and his poor health and inability to walk got him released from the project.
He then went back to China, but returned to North Korea in January 2006 to carry out his original calling, where he was soon arrested again, sentenced to public execution, and now awaits his fate in a basement jail cell in Pyongyang.
"It is suspected that because he is being kept in the capitol city, North Korean officials view him as a special case and perhaps are keeping him alive, if barely, for unknown reasons," said Nettleton.
The VOM spokesman said Son is representative of thousands of others in North Korea "who face this kind of treatment because of their faith in Christ."
Nettleton's organization, The Voice of the Martyrs, is a non-profit, "interdenominational" group that works to raise awareness about the persecution of Christians around the world while collecting donations and aid to assist them in their efforts to survive and to proselytize.
VOM is based in Bartlesville, Okla., but has 30 international offices.
Nettleton said Son is the subject of so much focused attention from his organization because "it's incredibly rare to have a name and a face with a prisoner in North Korea," given the characteristically isolated attitude of the dictatorship, "and we wanted to really go all out" to draw attention, not only to Son's predicament, but to the human rights violations and religious persecutions that happen every day as a matter of course in North Korea.
Since VOM launched its media campaign early last month, Nettleton said more than 2,500 people have logged-on to PrisonAlert.com and sent e-mails to Son.
The website has software that will translate English into Son's native language of Korean, Nettleton said.
Of course, the prisoner doesn't have internet access in his cell in Pyongyang, nor does he have any contact with the outside world, so none of these correspondences are actually getting to him, said the VOM spokesman.
Instead, they're being sent to the North Korean delegation at the UN as well as the UN Human Rights Commission, thereby adding to the pressure already exerted by Inhofe, Brownback and others to free Son and others like him, whose only "crimes" were the exercise of freedoms that we in the United States see as basic to human existence.
"Christians in the U.S. often think that the last chapter of the book of 'Acts' was the last chapter of Christian persecution, but it wasn't," said Nettleton.
"As Christians, though, that's not a surprise--Christ said, 'If the world hates me, it will hate you also," he added.
Nettleton said the last anyone heard about Son's predicament was in February of last year, but since his sentence was to a public execution in order to serve as an example to other "traitors" to the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, it is widely believed that Son is still alive, since his execution would have been publicized had it occurred already.
"No news is good news at this point," he said.
Until that happens, Nettleton said, "the more letters we can get, the more we can pressure them to release him, or at least call them to account."
However, given North Korea's characteristic aloofness from the international community, Nettleton was asked, Are they likely to be persuaded by pressure from the U.S. and the U.N.?
"That's a hard question," he answered.
"They're the most isolated country in the world and the least likely to care what we think about them, but we can't just stand by and let this innocent man die," he added.
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