‘How will I survive this hell?’ Life inside a North Korean prison camp

January 5, 2021 by Ryan Hamm in Asia

Your name is the first thing they take.

Then they take your freedom.


They take your health.


They take away the presence of other people.


They take your clothes.


And your hair.


And finally, they take away the daylight.

Drip by drip, like a faucet slowly running dry, you’re left with nothing but your own mind and body—and both of those will eventually be stamped out by this place.

featured in presence magazineMy name is Prisoner 42. Of course, this isn’t my real name. But it’s the name I was given when I came into this prison in North Korea.

Every morning at 8 am, they call for “42.” When I stand up, I’m not allowed to look at the guards. I have to get up, put my hands behind my back and follow them to the interrogation room. I can see the shadows of the guards, but I’m careful to never appear as though I’m looking at them.

Even though the same thing happens every day, each day, I am still so afraid. Each time they call out for “42,” they beat and kick me. It hurts the most when they hit my ears. My ears ring for hours—sometimes days.

But for now, at least I’m alive.

The interrogation that never ends

I’m in the interrogation room for an hour each morning. Every day, they ask the same questions.

“Why were you in China?”

“Who did you meet?”

“Did you go to church?”

“Did you have a Bible?”

“Did you meet any South Koreans?”

“Are you a Christian?”

After they are done with me, they bring me back to my cell. My cell is warm during the day and cold at night—and in the winter or summer, the temperature can be unbearable. It’s so small, I can barely lie down.

But I’m not allowed to lie down much, anyway. I have to sit on my knees, with closed fists. I’m not even allowed to open them. The place I live now is not fit for any human—but to the guards, I am not a human. I’m less than an animal. I’m locked in this cage, the heavy door and locks slamming closed behind me, echoing in the dim light that never gets brighter in this place.

I am in solitary confinement, because they suspect the truth. They can see through my denials in the interrogation room.

Because I love Jesus.

Am I a Christian? Yes. But I have to pretend. If I admit I was helped by Chinese Christians, I will be killed—either quickly …

… or slowly.

Watch Prisoner 42's story
Watch Prisoner 42's story

A secret heritage of faith

The first Christian I ever knew was my grandfather—even though I had no idea at the time. On Sundays, he often told me to leave the house and play outside. I didn’t understand why and didn’t want to, but he forced me to.

When I fled to China because of the famine in North Korea, I met other Christians for the first time. I was touched by them. They never really spoke about the gospel, but I participated in their worship services. Then, one night, I dreamed of my grandfather. I saw him sitting in a circle with other men. There was a Bible in the middle and all of them were praying.

In my dream, I shouted at him: “I am a believer too!”

I gave my life to Jesus.

Somehow, mysteriously, I realized I came from a Christian family … in North Korea.

One day, I was walking along the street in China and a black car pulled up next to me. I thought the man wanted to ask for directions, but the driver and other men stepped out of the vehicle and grabbed me.

I resisted but couldn’t get away. They pushed me into the car and, when the door closed and the car drove away, I realized my life was over.

After a few weeks in a Chinese prison cell, I was handed over to the North Korean authorities. They brought me to this detention center. I had to strip off all my clothes and they searched every part of my body to see if I had hidden anything, money especially.

They shaved all my hair off and brought me to this prison cell.

I was ordered to put on different clothes that didn’t fit and didn’t match. Probably from a previous prisoner. That’s where my name came from—the number 42 was printed on my prison jumpsuit. I was just another in a line of Prisoner 42s. I wondered: What happened to the previous Prisoner 42? Was she dead? Had she been executed, starved or beaten to death—or simply wasted away, like a faucet finally shut off? I supposed she could have been alive—but that was doubtful. Anyone who has ever heard about North Korean prisons knows merely surviving is a heroic tale.

Alone and never alone

I’m so alone here. I know there are other prisoners. I can hear their voices, but I never see them. The only thing I see are the shadows of the guards, and the light from the sun and moon as they pass over the small window of my cell.

All I can do is pray. Pray and sing in my heart. Never out loud, only in my heart. I sing a song I wrote in my head:

My heart longs for my Father in this prison

Although the road to truth is steep and narrow

A bright future will be revealed when I continue

Without faith, calamity will strike in this road

Allow me to go forth toward the fortress

Although there may be much grief and complications

How could I follow in the footsteps of my God?

With tears my heart longs for my Father in this prison

Father, please accept this sinful daughter

Please protect me in Your mountain fortress and under Your shield

Take me under Your wings of peace

Father’s voice that comes from the sky

Guide me to Your blessings daily

It’s been a year now. I don’t know how long I will survive. One day, they will call me and I won’t move. I will have died in here, in the dark. They will dispose of my body and the first new prisoner who comes in will take my prison clothes and become the new Prisoner 42 and will wear my clothes.

Will they survive this hell?

Will they be bruised in the same places I’m bruised?

Will they cry out to God—the only One who seems to see what’s happening to us in here?

Will they die here, like me?

Be part of a God-sized vision for North Korea!

North Korean Christians tell us they are ready to share the gospel in North Korea and around Asia as soon as they are able. But they need our support. Through our networks in China, Open Doors helps North Korean believers with emergency relief aid (food, medicine, clothes, etc.), training through radio broadcasts, and more.

You can be a part of this incredible work. Will you help today?

Give now

But Prisoner 42 didn’t die. She lived. Her life was painful and terrifying, but she survived. And eventually, she was called out of her prison cell and taken to court.

Going to court was a victory. People who are sent to labor camps for political “crimes”—crimes like following Jesus—are never sentenced by a judge. They just disappear from the cells. Most Christians go there. My persistent denials have paid off. They have not found me guilty of being a Christian.

At the court, there was no lawyer to represent me. I just stood in front of the judge with guards behind me. But I wasn’t alone. My husband was there, too. He looked at me with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. He had clearly been crying. I wanted to say so much and I know he wanted to talk too, but we couldn’t say a single word.

The judge asked him if he wanted to divorce me. In a broken voice, he said: “Yes.”

It broke my heart. But he had to make this decision for the sake of our family—for our children. They would all be punished if he didn’t divorce me.

I was sentenced to four years in a re-education camp.

That’s where I am now.

In the camp, I work 12 hours a day. Sometimes more. Every day is just one long nightmare. But at least I am not alone in a cell anymore. For an entire year of solitary confinement, my skin didn’t touch a single ray of sunlight. Just to be taken from that cell, to be taken outside and to feel the wind, was amazing.

When I first arrived at this camp, I saw moving, shapeless forms. It took me a moment to realize these were people. Some were bent over. Others were missing an arm or a leg. I looked at my own arms and legs—they were so thin they looked like matchsticks. I didn’t look much better than the other inmates.

Church in a prison

About a month ago, I was sick and allowed to stay in the barracks. I thought I was alone—and then I noticed a blanket in the corner. It was moving. I stared at it, and realized there was a person underneath.

I tiptoed toward the blanket and listened intently. The sounds were hardly audible, yet they sounded familiar. 

Suddenly I realized what was happening. There was a woman and she was praying. I went back to my mattress and watched her closely for the next several days. 

About a week later, we were working outside. Nobody was near, and I walked up to her and whispered: “Hello, greetings in Jesus’ name.”

Her face went white with shock. She knew if anyone overheard us, we’d both likely be shot on the spot. But she saw there was no one around, and gave me a silent smile.  

We formed a secret church inside the camp. When we met and felt safe enough, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer and recited Scripture and the Apostles’ Creed together. 

She is much braver than I was. She speaks to others about Christ, as well. 

That’s probably why, one day, a car came to pick her up. When I saw her leave, I knew they were taking her to a Kwan-li-so—a death camp. 

That’s the last time I saw her.

I’m here in my barracks. God has been with me every day, every hour, every minute and every second. Yesterday, it was announced that I would be released. I have only served two years.

The first thing I’ll do when I get out is find my husband and children. My children are much bigger now. We haven’t seen each other in years.

But God has watched over me. He kept me from giving up, even when it felt like I was being poured out. It turned out I was not merely a faucet running dry—Jesus gave me Living Water, to keep me going when it seemed like I would fail. He kept me from ending my life, He helped me pray and cry out to Him.

I pray and believe He also watches over my kids every second of every minute of every hour of every day. I need to tell them about this loving God.

This story is based on the true life accounts of multiple North Korean Christians. Details have been slightly changed or merged in order to protect the specific identity of any individual believer.

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