How God speaks in North Korea—even to an unbelieving heart

September 17, 2021 by Becca Anderson in Asia

The day So Young* was arrested, strong hands clamped down on her wrists.


She was just inside the door to the Bible study she attended. North Korean soldiers had arrested her teacher and five other women, and then waited for her and the last woman to arrive so they could arrest them, as well.


“Why have you arrested me?” So Young asked.


They laughed and said: “You made the wrong friend.”

As a North Korean refugee in China, So Young knew she’d be sent back to North Korea—and face brutal consequences. And yet: It was the friends at the Bible study that made it possible for So Young to endure the labor camp she was about to face.

Things were different then

It can be easy to assume God doesn’t start His care over us until we trust in Jesus. But in reality, His care and guidance were all part of the gentle leading that brought us to Christ. Psalm 139:16 says, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.”

This is the story of So Young*—God’s hand in her life, even though she’s not sure why. .

So Young’s family lived in North Korea, not far from the Chinese border. She grew up in the brutal famine of the 1990s. There was hardship, hunger and death. “In my area we even ran out of coffins,” she said.

The family became dependent on food from Chinese relatives, but eventually they stopped giving because the family came too often. As the crisis worsened, So Young and a cousin decided to escape to China, illegally crossing the Tomen River. “My cousin couldn’t swim, and held me down. Both of us were screaming loudly. Fortunately, a Chinese fisherman heard us, threw a net and pulled us ashore.”

Many North Korean women are forced to marry in China. So Young was lucky; she found a man she liked and married him voluntarily. Together, they had a son and lived in China for 15 years.

“Sometimes I went back to North Korea,” she said. “I was even arrested once, but because back then they weren’t very strict with defectors, they released me to return to my husband and son in China.”

The sound of the church

In China, So Young’s farm sat across from a Christian church. “To be honest, I hated the sound of the church at the beginning,” she says. Her husband’s family didn’t like Christians, either. “But after some time, I became curious and I went by myself when someone invited me to come.”

Initially, she thought the Christians she saw there were crazy, and she didn’t understand the message. But then a friend took her to a women’s Bible study. There, she was able to understand more as she listened to the veteran leader, Sun-Hi*. . “The teacher could explain the Bible from the beginning to me,” she says. “Her studies were really interesting.”

And then So Young was arrested for being there.

The day after the arrest, knowing the women were to be deported, the Bible teacher begged to be sent in these women’s place, even though she was a South Korean citizen.

“Please, don’t send them back,” Sun-Hi begged. “Send me! They have children and families. Please, send me and let me die in their place.”

Despite her plea, the seven women were all deported while their teacher prayed they would hold on to their faith.

“I just had to accept that these women may be in the valley of the shadow of death, but that God is right there with them,” Sun-Hi says. “He is with all of us. Wherever we are.”

Surviving prison

In the North Korean labor camp, So Young was forced to write a report about her family and the people she knew. To protect her husband and son still in China, she lied and said she wasn’t married . She also didn’t admit she’d gone to church or to a Bible study. Despite those omissions, the judge sentenced her to five years in a labor camp near to where she grew up.

“Without outside help, it’s really hard to survive a labor camp,” she explains. She and other prisoners slept on a dirty floor with no bedding. By bribing the guards, her family could get food and other necessities to her.

Assigned to a crafts factory, the prisoners had a weekly quota of items to produce. If someone made a mistake or didn’t reach quota, all of them were made to stand for hours in the rain, or other, similarly harsh punishments.

So Young remembers the day she was forced to help other prisoners bury a 25-year-old girl who had died: “I was amazed by how light she was,” she says. That day, she saw places in the woods where many others were buried—and determined she would not be one of them.

Every night, the inmates received hours of ideological training. Since they studied on their own, it gave them the opportunity to quietly exchange personal stories, until the guards came near. People were in the labor camp for everything from stealing money to murder to, like her, escaping to China.

‘Jesus hasn’t come to me yet’

After two-and-a-half years of model behavior, So Young was released. Her family would not allow her to return to China for another two and a half years. In China, she called her husband from the home of Chinese relatives,

She remembers the call—the first time she had heard his voice since the arrest: “Are you alive?” I thought you had died.”

“I’m calling you because I’m alive! Please come pick me up,” she laughed.

A few hours later, So Young saw her husband and son for the first time in five years. Her son, 13 at the time of her arrest, was 18. “I hardly recognized him,” she says.

Soon after their reunion, So Young and her husband made the decision to flee to South Korea. He went first legally, and she followed clandestinely with two other women (their son remains in China). The trip took months—over dangerous mountain roads and through the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, waiting in a refugee camp until they could be safely taken to South Korea.

Today, she remembers her teacher and the Bible study. She says she would like to go to church again some day, but her husband doesn’t want her to go to church and she is working hard to support her son who’s studying in China. She is not yet a Christian, she shares.

“Jesus hasn’t come to me yet. I believe there is something out there, or else I would have died. But whether it’s God or something else, I don’t know.”

When told how believers from around the world prayed for her and the other women who were captured and returned to North Korea, So Young is visibly moved: “I can only say ‘Thank you. Thank you. You don’t know my face, but you remembered me.’”

*representative names and images used for security reasons

Pray for So Young and our women’s ministry in China

God is clearly still working in So Young’s heart, as He is in many North Koreans who have grown up fearing Christians and worshipping the Kim family as their savior and supreme leader. Each year through our women’s ministry in China, Open Doors’ partners help around 200 women with similar stories to So Young’s.

  • Please continue to pray for So Young, that she would see God’s hand clearly at work in her life. Pray for North Korean Christians who hear the gospel in China.
  • Pray that Open Doors’ ministry can help women financially, and with clothes, medicine, food, pastoral care and Bible study.
  • Pray for them to embrace Jesus’ salvation and become disciples and eventually leaders in His Kingdom.

Open Doors’ goal is to raise up female leaders of the future who can serve in church positions in North Korea when God opens the door to the closed country.

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