New report must spur us to prayer for North Korean Christians—will you join us?

October 9, 2019 by Lindy Lowry in Stories of Persecution

Today, North Korea celebrates Party Foundation Day (commemorating the foundation of the Central Organizing Committee of the Communist Party of North Korea). The annual holiday includes grand military parades and public performances. Reportedly, citizens receive food rations and electricity on this day. Yet at the same time, while these festivities are taking place, an estimated 50,000 Christians are languishing inside one of North Korea’s inhumane prisons the state uses as both a control and terror tactic.


[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.]

Open Doors has previously reported on life inside North Korean prisons, sharing from conversations with ex-prisoners who escaped the country. But a recent news report reveals an urgent need for mobilizing fervent worldwide prayer for believers imprisoned in North Korea—prisons that have been reported to be on par with historical atrocities like World War II concentration camp Auschwitz.

It is estimated that 200,000 people are trapped in a network of gulags and camps in North Korea. Among them, Open Doors estimates that 50,000 are Christian prisoners; some 75 percent don’t survive. Once believers are discovered (Christians are unacceptable to the Kim regime that calls for total allegiance), their entire families are sent to a prison camp.

But we are people of God, and we can do something about this reality. Will you join us today in a day of prayer for North Korea, even as its leaders mark a day devoted to their brutal rule?

Below, we offer several snapshots of life in North Korean detainment centers and prisons, including this recent news report, to expose the serious and dire situation. They are difficult, little-known accounts but important ones we need to know about. Stories like these drive us to pray, and compel us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3).

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

A ‘process of torture, beating and sleeplessness’

North Korean refugee John Cho escaped his home country but was caught and repatriated from China back to North Korea. He was 15 when he was imprisoned in North Korea’s National Intelligence Center. He describes his experience as a “process of torture, beating and sleeplessness”:

There were over 50 people in one cell. The space was so small that we had to lean on another’s back. We were given a tiny amount of noodle soup for each meal—it needed no spoon or fork. One guard told me: “You can walk into this place on your own. But if you stay alive, on the way back out, you will need someone’s piggyback.”

On my first night, I noticed the man leaning on my back was coughing a lot. In the morning, he was found dead. Torture and sleeplessness caused him to get a high fever. The guards ordered two men to drag him out—it was like he was a dead animal. At that moment, I thought, “I am going to die in this place.”

Praying with Christians in North Korean prisons

Father, we are burdened and sickened over the suffering of 50,000 of our brothers and sisters imprisoned in North Korea. We pray fervently and consistently 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. God, we ask you to break the chains and move in this dire situation.

Sentenced to life in ‘hell on earth’

Cho, who lives in the United Kingdom today, says his heart still lives with his people in North Korea. The village where he was born is about 120 miles away from Yodok Concentration Camp (Kwan-li-so No. 15).The regime imprisons people in this camp for life for “political crimes,” so Christians may be imprisoned here as Christians are considered political prisoners. But most of these prisoners’ families have no clue as to why or how they ended up in this prison—often referred to as “hell on earth.” We know that Christians are often sent to a Kwan-li-so, either Yodok or one like it.

Recently, Cho discovered a tragic report from the Yodok prison that brings us up close to just how dark and serious the situation is—and the dire need for a myriad of specific prayer for our brothers and sisters in these prisons.

In early August, a family of four—a father, mother and their two children (it’s not known if they were Christians)—committed group suicide inside Yodok Concentration Camp because reportedly, they had no hope of being freed due to their political status.

Yodok prisoners are no longer considered human, so guards make no attempt to try and keep families together in the camp. But in this case, one of the parents was involved in a scientific project; and guards “rewarded” them, allowing all four to spend the night together. The family used this opportunity to commit suicide together. The father killed the children, then his wife, and, finally, himself.  They had been there for six months.

North Korean border guard at fence on Yalu Border River between China and North Korea.

North Korean border guard at fence on Yalu Border River between China and North Korea.

‘We were put in small cages’

Drawing by a former North Korean prisoner detained in the Chongori prison.

These conditions are all too similar to descriptions Open Doors workers have heard from North Korean believers who managed to escape. North Korean refugee Hannah (not her real name) remembers how when her family’s 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.

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 malesShortly 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.

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.

‘Each person received one handful of rotten corn’

Similarly, North Korean refugee Hea Woo (not her real name) vividly recalls her time in a North Korean prison camp:

There was no hope. All the inmates seemed like they were about to faint, on the verge of death. 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. When cows passed by and defecated, people would search for corn kernels [in the excrement] and pick them up to eat.

Soldiers were allowed to hit the inmates whenever they showed disobedience [and] to physically abuse us.

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

Does the world know?

To most people, the stories inside these prison camps remain untold. That’s why Open Doors is calling for this day of prayer—to both create awareness of these atrocities and lift up our family to our omnipotent and omniscient sovereign God.

How will this tragic period of history in North Korea come to an end?

Cho, who often shares his story of growing up in North Korea, says that many people have asked him this question. He reflects on his exodus from North Korea to China to the United Kingdom:

“Throughout, I saw that there are the strong Christian roots in Pyongyang [the capital city of North Korea], and I believe this indicates there will be a time of revival, like the 1907 Pyongyang Revival. But the plans and preparation are in God’s hands.”

Cho brings us back to the Exodus story of Moses and how, with God’s power, he led the Hebrews out of the darkness of Egypt’s slavery. “The North Korean people are living in oppression and darkness,” Cho says. “But one day God will lead them into light and freedom.”

Indeed, Open Doors ministry partners tell us they are currently working to prepare the church to share the gospel when the country opens up at some point. As the Body of Christ, we are called to come alongside this secret church both in prayer and support—strengthening them in their faith and equipping them to share that faith both now and in the future.

Through His global Church, God is working in North Korea—even in a dark prison camp. Hea Woo shared how she woke up to pray when everyone was asleep. “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.”

She even started a secret fellowship in the prison outhouse where she led several women to Christ. Hea Woo, Hannah and John Cho are among the millions of Christians—both inside and outside the country—who are praying for revival.

“Please pray for those who prepare for the change to happen in this land,” Cho pleads. “When God provides the wind, His people around the world can help to build the sailboat, and the sails are in the hands of North Koreans.

“Pray as though everything depends on God; work as though everything depends on you!”

*representative names and images used for security reasons

Stand with North Korean secret Christians

North Korea is on the brink of famine. It’s estimated that 10 million people—40 percent of the country’s population—are in urgent need of food. Through secret networks in China, Open Doors helps North Koreans who are able to cross the border with food and emergency aid—along with Bibles and discipleship training. Many of these Christians return to their home to continue serving Jesus in North Korea. But we need your help to continue. Will you give now to come alongside and strengthen this secret church of believers?

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