“Living life as a Christian in North Korea was a living hell”. That’s what Hae-Woo, a 70-year old survivor from a North Korean labour camp told Open Doors when she visited Australia earlier this month.
Eternity met with Hae-Woo and her translator while she was in the country. But after her experience in North Korea, the trauma of escape and the dangerous situation that still exists for her family (many of whom have now also escaped the country), Hae-Woo was understandably anxious about what she could tell us. Here is part of Hae-Woo’s story taken from an internal interview with Open Doors:
Hae-Woo became a Christian when she was 55 years old through her husband, who was arrested and died in a labour camp because of his beliefs. “It was shocking to hear that my husband had become a Christian,” says Hae-Woo. “Seeing my husband keep his faith even under such pain and suffering, before he was murdered, was the key reason that I decided to become a Christian.”
“I knew that becoming a Christian was extremely dangerous, that it could take away not only my life, but my entire family’s lives.”
Hae-Woo made a decision to try to escape North Korea. She made it to China, but was sent back twice. “Someone must have informed the police that we were North Koreans. Both arrests were for defecting to China. I was sent back to North Korea with three other people and one of them told a security agent that I had taught something to other people.
“Then they started to torture me, asking who and what I had taught in China. I remembered the verse in the Bible where it says ‘Do not be afraid when there is a trial.’”
Hae-Woo was tortured for four days. She thought she would die, but she says she was able to endure the suffering when she “thought about the suffering that Jesus had to go through on the cross.”
Hae-Woo says Psalm 23 was a key scripture she meditated on while she was in the labour camps. “Even though I was in the midst of all enemies… he gave me a pitiful mind towards them, so that I could pray. God wanted me to sacrifice myself even under such difficult circumstances to help others in need.”
She also cites 2 Samuel 7:9 as important to her: “I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth.”
Hae-Woo was in the labour camps for several years (number of years withheld for security reasons) and she says she shared her faith with other prisoners.
“God encouraged me to tell some people about him. Five people came to faith and we held secret gatherings in a hidden place. Though I was extremely hungry, I gave some of my portion and shared it with others.”
Hae-Woo says all five converted prisoners survived the labour camps because “we looked after each other.”
Hae-Woo now lives in South Korea. She says she’s telling other people what it’s like to be a Christian in North Korea “because I want people to pray for my people in North Korea…and how I was blessed in the darkest moment in my life.”
From the outside, it’s difficult to understand the paranoia about telling Hae-Woo’s story; to grasp the desperate situation affecting so many people only 10 hours away by plane from Australia. Yet the danger for those who have escaped North Korea – and particularly for those still working to protect and hide escapees in bordering countries – is very real.
Last year, the world’s media reported suspected assassinations of human rights activists working to absorb North Korean defectors into China and other bordering nations. A 46-year-old pastor, known as Patrick Kim, involved in assisting defectors, was killed in August 2011, of a suspected poison needle attack instigated by North Korean agents. According to the Washington Post, last year Seoul’s top spy agency said it arrested a North Korean agent who allegedly had been plotting to assassinate a leading South Korean human rights activist, known for floating anti-North Korean leaflets across the border.
Open Doors Australia says there are up to 400,000 Christians in the underground church in North Korea. They also estimate there are approximately 70,000 Christians being held in labour camps in the country. Christians face execution if caught evangelizing. The consequences for being found with a Bible, or worshipping, flow through entire families.
Christians from around the world have already visited North Korea as tourists, now that the country has opened the door to restricted tourist visas. As Christians, they are moved to go and pray for the nation and see first hand the country that is listed as Number 1 on the Open Doors World Watch List for persecuted Christians.
“As Christians, we know that love never fails,” says a senior Open Doors Australia spokesperson. “People go into these places because they know God tells them to love their enemies and to bless those who persecute them.
“But obviously, North Korea is very concerned with the dignity of the nation. So, when tourists go into the country, they’re warned clearly to do what they’re told. The ‘great leader’ is regarded as a deity, and there are rules for tourists, that if they damage an image of the great leader in anyway, they could go to prison.”
The spokesperson adds there are stories of North Korean Christians risking their lives to distribute Bibles in snowstorms, so as not to be detected by police. Or 70 Christians meeting in secret in a cave during the night, worshipping and praying together and dispersing before the sun came up.
He also has no doubt some of the North Korean people that Christian tourists encounter are fellow believers, though no one can openly talk about their faith.
In a Foreign Policy article in 2010, an American business professor explained his journey to one of North Korea’s new ‘Special Economic Zones’, where selected overseas investors are allowed tour. He spoke of bumping into American missionaries, in North Korea as “investors” to build and run an orphanage, bread factory and soy-milk factory. They can’t preach, but they can invest.
“To this day, one of the most popular themes in North Korean propaganda involves evil Christian missionaries who inject Korean children with deadly germs, before the revolution,” the article explains. “They even put the story in comic books for kids. Officially, they’re inhuman monsters. Unofficially, the government invites them in because they’re the only people willing to extend a lifeline.”
The Open Doors spokesperson says not enough Christians in Australia understand what’s happening to their brothers and sisters in North Korea.
“We need to pray for this country, pray for Christians to be sustained, that they would be strong in their witness. And Christians in Australia need to be much more informed about what’s really going on for Christians in places like North Korea.”
Open Doors Australia has launched a new campaign ‘One With Them’, reminding Christians we are all part of the one body of Christ. You can add a prayer or encouraging message to the ‘One With Them’ message board, follow the story of a ‘secret believer’ and donate a Bible to a persecuted Christian. Head to onewiththem.org.au for more.
Featured image: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) national flag.