A Handful of Rotten Corn–a Day in the Life of 50,000 Christians in North Korean Prison Camps

October 4, 2018 by Ryan Hamm in Asia

[Photo: The photo above shares a rare glimpse of the daily realities of a North Korean prisoner in one of the country’s inhumane prison camps.]

The depth of persecution our brothers and sisters endure is often difficult to read about–and difficult for us to share. Some accounts, like the one of a North Korean prison camp below, are extremely dark. We share this important story to help all of us understand that the darkness is real and that, as the Apostle Paul writes, “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but “against the universal lords of this darkness” (Ephesians 6:12).

Hea Woo is what you can call her. It’s not her real name, but it works. We’re using a false name because Hae Woo wants to protect anyone who might still know and love her in the country she’s from.

She’s from North Korea.

And in North Korea, following Jesus can get you thrown in prison, or even killed. That’s in addition to life under a brutal dictatorship, constant propaganda and monitoring, and harsh living conditions.

Hea Woo, who now lives in South Korea, is no exception to this reality. In 1997, in the midst of a great famine in North Korea, her daughter starved to death. Hea Woo’s husband fled to China, where he became a Christian—but he was caught by the secret police, thrown in a North Korean prison camp. He died there.

It wasn’t long after that Hea Woo also escaped to China. Sadly, that wasn’t the only similar journey of her husband’s she would take. A short time later, she was also caught by secret police, sent back to North Korea and put in a prison camp.

A Handful of Rotten Corn

In the midst of a larger conversation, Hea Woo explained what the conditions were like in a North Korean prison camp. We wanted to bring you this glimpse into a reality that often doesn’t make it outside the walls of these camps.

Warning: The following account contains graphic details that may be disturbing to some readers. Please read with caution.

“There were different parts within the prison,” Hea Woo says. “Some [sectors] did agriculture, some did construction work, some did mining. Men and women were separated; all the inmates seemed like they were about to faint. They were all hopeless and in despair. And plus, they were starving. Each person received one handful of rotten corn [and] there was nothing else to eat. We got something watery—it wasn’t even a soup. We got those as food for the whole year. Nothing else.

“And people are obligated to work more than cows or animals,” she continues. “Because everyone is forced to do labor, people die from malnutrition. People died from accidents while working, too.

“And there was a distinct group composed of only people who tried to escape from the prison. Those people had to carry containers full of feces. The containers were made of thick wood, and it was so heavy that even two people had a hard time carrying one container. Every single day, no matter how the weather was, despite heavy rain and snowfall, they were not allowed to take breaks. It was really life-threatening with the smell of the feces and the poisonous air.

North Korean prisoners are forced to carry buckets full of excrement and mud. Drawing by a former prisoner who was detained in the Chongori prison.

“Plus, because they did not eat much, anyone who became part of that group could not survive for more than months. So many died—and there was no hope in the prison. All [inmates] were on the verge of death. Soldiers were allowed to hit the inmates whenever they showed disobedience [and] to physically abuse the inmates.”

Listen as Hea Woo shares about her and her husband’s time in prison and the prayers that sustained them:

Those who confessed they were Christians were put in cages. Hannah (not her real name) remembers how when their faith was discovered, she and her family were isolated from the other prisoners, forced to live in cells where they couldn’t stand up or lie down. Hannah recalls the nightmare:

“We were separated by gender. My daughter and I were put in the female wing and my husband and son—who was just a teenager—in a cell with males. Shortly after we entered the camp, we saw guards force a prisoner to murder a baby. Almost every day, we were all called for interrogation and questions. They’d beat us so harshly. When there was no interrogation, we had to kneel in our cells from 5 a.m. to 12 p.m. and not speak.

“My husband was treated badly. He told the guards that he had become a [Christian]. Later, he said he had no other choice. After he saw what they did with the baby and the guards threatened to kill his family, he had to tell them the truth.[He knew it would be worse for all of his family if they found out about his faith later.] After his confession, all four of us were locked up in solitary confinement—a small cage. We didn’t receive any food or water and were not able to sleep.

“Breaking” the prisoners

The average day at the prison camp for Hea Woo was filled with back-breaking labor and intentionally brutal schedules—all in an effort to “break” prisoners, she says. She shares what a typical day in a labor camp was like:

“We woke up at 5 a.m. and started with the guards’ count of people. And after a small meal, we started the labor from 8 a.m. At 1 p.m., we ate a little, [and then] we went out to work again. When there was a lot to do during the summertime, we returned inside at night. In winter time, however, because the sun set early, we went back inside at around 7 p.m.

After dinner, we took politics classes [where we] learned about politics for about two hours. When anyone dozed off, he or she was beaten. There was a weekly unification meeting. If anyone was against it, he or she was locked up in a small room where people could not lie down nor stand up straight. The politics classes held at night were the worst of times.”

“Even [the] food [we got was] too little for everyone to eat,” Hea Woo says. “We got one or two small pieces of rotten vegetables. Because there was no salt, we got watery, bland soup. We got three meals like that a day. And if there was not enough food in summer and autumn, we got two meals [per day]. When cows passed by on the street and defecated, people would search for corn kernels [in the excrement] and pick them up to eat.”

And yet, for Hea Woo, even the physical brutality of her experience was not the worst part. “Physical labor was hard, but something harder was that we did not have freedom of faith,” she says. “We could not pray freely but I still prayed in [my] heart. When people were asleep, I woke up to pray. It was so pitiful that we did not have freedom of faith; I really yearned for freedom.”

Answered Prayers

In prison, Hea Woo continued to pray—but not just for what you might expect.

“Something I always prayed about was for those dying souls that did not know about God,” she says. “I prayed that God would protect our underground church. And also for the wicked government to fall apart, and that the freedom of faith would arrive in North Korea. I prayed that the idolatry persisting over generations would disappear and that people could repent. I prayed that the prison would break apart as well. I also prayed for the Christians all over the world to pray for us with sincerity.”

Of course, she also prayed for safety and health. And eventually, God delivered her. She was released and escaped once again to China, through a miraculous series of events. But this time, she was not caught by secret police, and she was able to make her way to South Korea, where she now lives.

Praying With North Korean Prisoners

Father, we pray with Christians like Hea Woo and the 50,000 believers who are currently in prison in North Korea. We pray for their safety and their release–and that their witness in prison would lead to many other people finding Jesus in the camps. We also ask for Your justice, peace and hope to break through the brutal reality of life in North Korea, that Your name might be glorified.

Open Doors’ goal is to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Rev 3:2). This verse is especially applicable to the situation of the North Korean church. We work through our networks in China to support North Korean believers and help the church in this part of the world follow Jesus.

In some cases, representative names and photos are used for security reasons.