Lee Joo-Chan* (now in his 50s) is one of the thousands of North Koreans who grew up in a Christian family without knowing it. If a North Korean’s faith is discovered, they–and three generations of their families–face prison, physical and mental torture and even death.
In this country (#1 for 18 consecutive years on the World Watch List), parents can’t risk telling their children about their faith–perhaps the saddest consequence of North Korea’s high “squeeze factor.” Some parents wait until the children are old enough, then let them in on the “family secret.” Others, like Lee’s parents, never feel that freedom.
30 years of secrets revealed
“I knew my parents were different. Everybody called them ‘Communist parents,’ because they took care of the sick, the poor and the needy. At night, they read from a secret book, which I wasn’t allowed to read from. But I heard them whisper the words, and I knew it was their source of wisdom. I also knew that if I ever talked about this to someone else, our family would be taken away.”
Lee Joo-Chan’s mother came to faith before the Second World War during the time that Korea was one country and Japan ruled it. When dictator Kim Il-Sung came to power after the war, Christian persecution in North Korea started, and churches were closed down. Lee escaped from his native country in the late ’90s. His mother came out after some time too. He describes their meeting.
“It was a very emotional moment to meet her in China. For the first time, my mother could tell me all these things that she had kept a secret from me for over 30 years.
She took my hand and brought me to an empty house church. There, she told me how she became a Christian in 1935 when she was nine, that her parents had been Christians too, and how everybody served each other during the Japanese occupation of Korea. She longed for those days.
She explained how Christ came to this world and died for us all. She told me everything I needed to know about our faith: that she gave birth to me, but that I was actually ‘God’s child,’” she said.
”He will protect you, and He will give you a place to live. Believe in Him. Be faithful. Your eternal life starts from here.”
Lee’s mother started to pray. Aloud. Shouting even. She prayed for three hours, sweat covering her entire body. “She prayed for me, for North Korea and the people of North Korea,” Lee says. “She pleaded with the Lord to save her people.”
Later, Lee’s mother and his brother, who had also come to China, went back to North Korea. They had no idea someone had betrayed them, and when they crossed the river, four hidden soldiers appeared. One hit Lee’s mother with his rifle and killed her instantly. His brother was stabbed to death with bayonets. Lee witnessed the murders from the other side of the river. He later learned that his father and other siblings were arrested and murdered too.
The young man who had been prayed over by his mother was able to reach South Korea, eventually fulfilling his mother’s wish by becoming a pastor and following Jesus.
Three reasons for silent faith
Based on our secret conversations with North Korean believers, there are three reasons why North Korean parents don’t share the gospel with their young children:
- Ongoing indoctrination: From cradle to grave and from morning till evening, every North Korean citizen is subject to indoctrination. All day, through television, radio channels, newspapers and even loudspeakers, propaganda is poured out on them. One of the first words North Korean parents must teach their children are the words “Thank you, Father Kim Il-Sung.” At school, they learn about the Kim family and their wonderful deeds. They bow in reverence to statues and images. Through books and animation movies, they are taught that Christians are evil spies who kidnap, torture and kill innocent North Korean children, and then sell their blood and organs.
- Too risky: “I was afraid every day for my life in North Korea,” shares Lee Joo-Chan. But children are not always aware of security. They can accidentally sing a song or tell their friends a particular Bible story. At school, teachers may ask if their parents read from a certain black book. Sharing the gospel is extremely dangerous.
- They have nobody to tell them: Sadly, in North Korea, tens of thousands of children (maybe more) have become homeless because their Christian families were torn apart by death, arrests or other tragedies. Sometimes someone is able to reach China but unable to return. The hard, North Korean life has broken up countless families, scaring the surviving children for life.
Are there no Christians in North Korea at all
By God’s grace, there are a few. Oftentimes, they accidentally discover the gospel.
“In our house was a hidden closet,” says Kim Sang-Hwa, who grew up in North Korea. “When I was 12, I accidentally found it. I don’t know why, but I started to feel inside the cabinet with my hand and when I felt a book, I pulled it out. I opened the book and began to read: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
She began to shiver and dropped the book.
“I was so scared. I was taught about the evolution theory, so I knew this book was illegal. My discovery could cost me my life. I was afraid to touch the Bible, but I couldn’t just leave it there. I closed my eyes, picked up the book and put it back. I weighed my options: Should I tell my teacher? Should I visit the local security official? For 15 days, I couldn’t think of anything else. I knew it was my duty to report this illegal book.But it was my family that was involved. And I also had all these questions: ‘Who is this God? Or ‘what’?’”
Finally, Kim Sang-Hwa had the guts to confront her father about her discovery.
“He was very surprised and sat next to me. He asked me: ‘Do you see those old trees?’ I nodded. ‘Who made those?’ he asked. I said I didn’t know and he explained the story of creation to me, including how God had made Adam and Eve. Then he turned to me and asked me another question: ‘What is the most dangerous animal?’ I did not know why, but I answered, ‘the snake.’
‘That’s right,’ he replied. He told me how sin came into the world. It was the first of many conversations we had about the Bible, about God, Jesus and the gospel. He explained many Bible stories to me. I was not a real believer yet, but they did make a lot of sense to me. I felt sorry for all those people who didn’t know the truth. Even my older siblings were unaware.”
Slowly, Kim’s family taught her about the Bible. “My mother taught me to memorize Bible verses and the Apostolic Creed and also explained the full gospel to me. My grandfather showed me how to pray: ‘It is just talking to God,’ he said. ‘Nothing more, nothing less.’”
Kim’s grandfather spoke a lot about Jesus’ second coming. He really longed for that, Kim said.
“To me, all those stories and ideas were so interesting. I also read the Bible for myself. But I realized it was dangerous. My father always emphasized not sharing anything with anyone else. Then he would start to pray in whispers, almost inaudibly: ‘Father, help the North Korean people to seek Your Kingdom first.’”
God works through the generations
After helping thousands of North Koreans who come from Christian families, Open Doors continues to discover that God seems to never let go of these families.
“I remember my two grandfathers,” says Choi Yong Sook who also grew up in North Korea. “When I was doing homework, I listened to their conversations and heard them say weird stuff. They spoke about the second coming of Jesus and also how Esau sold his birthright for just one stew meal. I remember thinking to myself: That must have been very, very nice stew. And I also thought that part of growing older meant talking about strange things.
“Later, my grandfather and father were arrested for being part of a Christian network. They were able to talk their way out but had suffered tremendously in prison. We were banished to a remote village. My grandfather told me to believe in God.”
But life was hard, and Choi received no teaching about God. She only rediscovered the Lord after going to prison for trying to escape North Korea. Yong Sook didn’t think much about the God of her grandfather in prison. This changed when an old lady was imprisoned for stealing food. She had also demolished an old pig stable and built a new one without the permission of her mother.
“I could hear her praying. ‘Sweet mother, please forgive me, forgive me…’” Choi recalls. “It was actually out of boredom that I also started to pray to my mother. I prayed that mother would help me get out. Then I realized that my father was probably stronger, so I started praying to him. Perhaps my grandfathers were even stronger, so I started praying to them.
“Then I asked myself: what is the most powerful person I can pray to? I came to the conclusion it was the God of my grandfather. So I prayed and asked Him to release me. I still was not a believer, but I firmly believe that thanks to those remarkable prayers in that dark prison cell, I have been blessed so much ever since. I remembered a novel in my youth. I had actually stolen that book. The main character was a Christian, and he also prayed to God. So I repeated what he said: ‘Almighty, holy, holy Father, merciful, merciful Father…’ I repeated this sentence every morning.”
When she was released after spending several torturous months in prison, Choi was able to escape to China. For the first time in her life, she had the opportunity to read the Bible. She came across some stories her grandfather used to tell.
“Then I realized my grandfather had been right all along. God existed and had answered my prayers.”
The first time Choi went to a Chinese church was an incredible experience for her: “I just wanted to experience church and to see what it looked like,” she remembers. “At the door stood a man, and he greeted me [Hello] in Korean: ‘Annyung haeseo.’ From that moment on, my mind was turned upside down. I felt safe. I felt like I could really trust these people. Grace came over me. When I sat down, I closed my eyes and had an image of myself crying. I knew I was indeed about to cry. If I opened my mouth, I would never stop crying and from my screams, everyone would know that I was a North Korean defector. With all my might did I keep my jaws shut. After the service, my face hurt from the tension.”
Choi told the woman who had taken her to the church what had happened.
“It was because God really loves you,” she explained to Choi. She came to faith and now she says, “I am the fruit of my grandfathers’ prayers.”
Praying for North Korean parents and children
Without a doubt, the most important prayer point for North Korean Christian parents is that one day they are able to share the gospel with their children. Please pray for:
- Opportunities to live out the gospel, even when parents can’t talk about their faith.
- Opportunities to safely share the gospel when children are old and mature enough.
- Protection of Christian families, that children will not be used to lure their parents into a trap.
- That God would continue to hold families in His hands throughout the generations.
Our brothers and sisters need to know they’re not alone. Join us and stand with them—through prayer, advocacy and support.
Representative photos and names used for security