It was a shock to Myoung-Hee* when she discovered that most of her family were Christians. Although it was four decades ago, she remembers it well.
One night her father stumbled into the house, pale and weak, and she wondered if he was ill.
Before he spoke, Myoung-Hee’s mother sent her into another room. Her father then cried so loudly that Myoung-Hee thought the neighbours would hear, and might even report them to the police.
Her mother pushed her husband into the bathroom and locked the door. Myoung-Hee thought someone must have died, and she was right – her father’s younger brother had been executed because he was a Christian.
The family secret
Her uncle wasn’t the only one killed, 10 other Christians were murdered too. She was then let in on the family secret: most of her relatives were Christians.
She felt that religion had caused her uncle’s death, and, as other family members were Christians too, she wanted nothing to do with their faith. “I wanted life to go back to normal so I focused on school. I read lots of books translated from Russian that I got from the library. I particularly liked Tolstoy; back then I didn’t know he was actually a Christian.”
The Russian writers taught her what she wasn’t learning at school – that a different world existed outside North Korea.
As her world view changed, she wanted to know more but knew better than to start asking awkward questions. She didn’t want to be one of the people who went missing because they came under suspicion of the state.
“I wanted to leave North Korea. I got the opportunity to go to China on a sponsored student program, but I refused. Going abroad under the umbrella of the state meant they would monitor and control me. No, if I wanted to leave, I had to go by myself without telling anyone.”
Myoung-Hee waited until she had graduated from school and then found an opportunity to leave the country. She went to the Chinese border, swam across the river and left her home behind. She trekked into China until she came to a village.
With some reluctance, she explained what happened next: “I was caught by human traffickers and sold to a Chinese farmer. He wasn’t as bad as most Chinese men who buy North Korean women. I had a child with him, but I could never feel at home in his family.”
Her mother-in-law also lived with them but Myoung-Hee often felt she behaved suspiciously.
“Some days she left without saying where she was going. One night I followed her. It was a long way before she reached a place where some kind of meeting was going on. I called after her. She was surprised to see me, but then invited me to take part. It was a Christian meeting, which made me uncomfortable because I had always been against Christianity. But my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to stay. I actually found myself wanting to learn more about God.”
Myoung-Hee converted to Christianity and kept going to the meetings with her mother-in-law.
Eventually she wanted to tell her family in North Korea that she too had found their faith. Her Chinese family, perhaps less naïve than her, did not want to let her go, but in the end she persuaded them.
The border crossing did not go as planned. She was arrested by a military patrol and sent to prison.
Again, Myoung-Hee found it difficult talking about these events in detail. “When I saw how the other prisoners and I were treated – as if we weren’t human – I felt like giving up. I worried a lot in prison, thinking I would never see my family again.”
She drew on her new faith to give her hope that she could be reunited with her family. Often she repeated memorised Bible verses, especially verses six and seven from Psalm 62, about God being “my mighty rock, my refuge”.
After a few months in the camp, the prison guards found out where Myoung-Hee came from and – as is the custom in North Korea – she was transferred to a camp closer to her home town.
Opportunity to escape
The new camp had less surveillance, and she saw an opportunity to escape. “One night the guards were drunk and they hadn’t locked the doors. I sneaked out and ran. My heart was pounding so fast. I didn’t stop running until I saw a sign pointing to my home.”
Myoung-Hee was reunited with her family. “It was the most joyous experience ever. We were so happy to see each other. For the first time we worshipped God together as a family. I also attended small gatherings of other Christian families.”
She felt her faith helped her find her family again, and she wanted to share that joy with her own husband and son.
“I decided to go back to my Chinese family,” she said. “My husband and son had to hear the Gospel too. It was a dangerous trip. I could have been arrested again and punished. But nothing could extinguish my passion for Christ.”
Myoung-Hee returned to China, thankful to the people who helped her get back there. “I wish more people could have the blessing I received through them.”
Myoung-Hee is now in her mid-40s and lives with her family in South Korea. Her husband and son both became Christians.
“I will never forget my childhood,” she said. “There are so many Christian parents in North Korea who cannot share their faith with their children. It breaks my heart. I was once a victim of this too. But thanks to other people’s prayers I found God in the end. And thanks to the prayers of my mother-in-law, I survived prison. My life story testifies to the power of prayer. I hope it’s a call to all Christians to join in prayer so that God will bring grace and justice to North Korea.”
*Myoung-Hee’s name is protected for security reasons.