In North Korea (No. 1 on the World Watch List for the 18th consecutive year), the state uses the country’s brutal and intricate penal system as a fear tactic. Anyone who is discovered to be a Christian or is perceived as a “threat” to the spread of the Kim family’s ideology is quickly eradicated from society into detention centers, re-education camps and maximum-security hard labor prison camps known as the Kwan-li-so where political prisoners are often sent. Open Doors estimates there are 250,000 imprisoned North Koreans—50,000 of which are political prisoners jailed for their Christian faith. Here, a North Korean prison camp survivor walks us through her difficult journey in a North Korean prison and shares how God stayed with her through so much brutality. Her story is difficult to read but also important as we pray fervently and specifically with these secret believers in North Korea.
My name is “Prisoner 42.”
The name I was born
Each day begins the same. I put my hands behind my back and follow the guards to the interrogation room. Each day for an hour, 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?” ‘
‘they will murder me’
Am I a Christian? Yes. I love Jesus. But I deny it. If I admit that I was helped by Chinese Christians, I will be killed, either quickly or slowly.
They will murder me in this North Korean prison.
Every day, I’m beaten and kicked—it hurts the most when they hit my ears. My ears ring for hours, sometimes days.
At the end of the day, they bring me back to my cell. It’s warm during the day, cold at night. The space is so small I can barely lie down. It isn’t often that I get to lie down. They force me to sit on my knees with closed fists and never allow me to open them.
‘I am a believer, too’‘
I’m in solitary confinement here in this North Korean prison camp because they believe that I believe in God. My grandfather, he’s the one who really believed in God. 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.
I’m here because I needed to feed myself and my family. During the famine, I crossed the border and fled to China to look for food. It was there that I met other Christians like my grandfather. I was touched by them. They reminded me of him. They never really spoke about the gospel, but I participated in their worship services. Then, one night, I had a dream and saw my grandfather 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 to him: “I am a believer too!”
I always thought I was the first in my family to really follow God, but now I realize I came from a Christian family.
‘I realized my life was over’
One day when I was living in China, 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 car and grabbed me.
I tried to get away, but they pushed me into the car. When that door closed, I realized my life was over.
After a few weeks in a Chinese prison cell, I was brought to this North Korean prison. The first day, 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.
I had to squat dozens of times. Then I was ordered to put on different clothes that didn’t fit and didn’t match. Probably from a previous prisoner.
They shaved off all my hair and brought me to this prison cell.
‘All I can do is pray’
I’m so alone here. I know there are other prisoners. I can hear their voices, but I never see them.
All I can do is pray. And sing—in my heart. Never out loud. In my head, I sing a song I wrote:
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 towards 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 has been a year now. I don’t know how long I will survive in this place. One day they will call me, and I won’t move. I will have died here in a North Korean prison. They will dispose of my body, and the first new prisoner that comes in will be “Prisoner 42.” They will wear my clothes.
‘My Skin Didn’t Touch a Ray of Sunlight’
Two years ago, they called me out of my prison cell and brought me to court.
That was a victory. People who are sent to the Kwan-li-so—a political labor camp—are never sentenced by a judge. They just disappear. No one survives the Kwan-li-so. Most Christians go to these maximum security North Korean prison camps. My persistence has paid off. They have not found me guilty of being a Christian.
No lawyer represented me. I just stood in front of the judge with
The judge asked my husband if he wanted to divorce me.
“Yes,” he said, his voice broken.
He had to do it for his sake and for the sake of our children. If he didn’t divorce me, they would all be punished. Still, his words broke my heart.
Then I was sentenced to four years in a re-education camp. If you think a North Korean re-education camp is the worst that can happen, you have never been to a North Korean prison. I spent one year in prison, and for one year my skin didn’t touch a single ray of sunlight.
Just to be transported from the prison—to be outside and to feel the wind—was amazing.
‘I saw moving, shapeless forms’‘
But any sense of happiness or relief quickly disappeared when I arrived at the camp. I remember seeing moving, shapeless forms. It took me a moment to realize they were people. Some were bent over; others were missing an arm or a leg. I looked down at my own arms and legs, thin like matches. I didn’t look much better than the other inmates.
In the camp, I work 12 hours a day. Sometimes more. Every day is just one long living nightmare. But at least I am not alone in a cell anymore.
The other day, I was sick and was allowed to stay in my barracks. I thought I was all by myself when I noticed a blanket in the corner. It was moving. I studied it and realized that underneath it was a person.
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, praying in tongues. I went back to my mattress and watched her for days.
‘God has been with me’
One day, we were working outside. Nobody was near, and I walked up to her and said, “Hello, greetings in Jesus’ name.”
She was completely shocked. Fortunately, I could calm her down quickly before her gasps alerted the guards.
Inside this North Korean prison, we wound up forming a secret church. When we met and felt safe enough, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.
She was actually much braver than I was. She spoke to others about Christ as well.
That’s why one day a car came to pick her up. When I saw her leave, I knew they were taking her to a maximum-security Kwan-li-so. I knew I would never see her again.
I’m here in my barracks. But not for long anymore. God has been with me every day, every hour, every minute and every second. Yesterday, I learned I would be released. I have only served two years here.
The first thing I’ll do when I get out is find my husband and children. They are much bigger now. We haven’t seen each other in years.
But God has watched over me here in this North Korean prison, and I pray and believe that he also watches over my family every second of every minute of every hour of every day.
I need to tell them about this loving God.
After the third summit between President Trump and North Korea ruler Kim Jong-un in South Korea, both countries agreed to set up teams to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Open Doors has created several resources, including an Info and Action Guide, to help you pray with North Korean believers. We are praying that these upcoming talks will include the critical issue of human rights and the horrific treatment of North Korean Christians.