Pray by name for these 5 Christian prisoners in North Korea

February 5, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

Having any specifics about North Korean prisoners is rare, but our field has compiled information about a few prisoners in North Korea we can pray for by name. We know their names because they actually come from outside of North Korea.

Because North Korea considers itself the only legitimate government of Korea and sees South Koreans as its own citizens, someone with South Korean citizenship is very rarely released. Christians may receive the same cruel and hostile treatment as any North Korean whose faith in Jesus is exposed—including torture, labor camps, and possible execution.

Will you read the short stories of these five Christian prisoners and commit to praying with them as they face unimaginable conditions?

Meet 5 Christian prisoners in North Korea

Kim Jong-Wook (pictured above) is a Baptist missionary who ran underground churches and shelters for North Koreans in China, Kim also helped North Koreans escape to South Korea. According to one of our sources in Seoul, South Korea, Kim went into North Korea looking for information about a group of North Korean women who had escaped to China, were caught and then repatriated back to North Korea from China. He was also seeking information to learn about the food shortages in North Korea. In August 2012, a group of 12 North Korean women were caught by Chinese authorities while they were at Kim’s shelter and sent back to North Korea. His desire to find out what happened to them and learn about a North Korean food shortage led him to enter the country last October, Joo said.

He is accused of allegedly spying, trying to set up underground churches and “malignantly hurting the dignity” of the ruling Kim family. Kim was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to a life of hard labor in 2014. Reports have emerged, indicating that his health situation has deteriorated due to the deplorable conditions he’s facing for his faith—including hard labor, malnutrition and possibly torture.

Kim Kook-Kie, a Christian missionary who ran a shelter in China for North Korean defectors, and Choi Chun-Kil, another Christian missionary, were both arrested in the Chinese border city of Dandong. Accused of “conducting religious propaganda” against North Korea, they were sentenced to hard labor in 2015. Kie’s health is also poor.

Ko Hyon-Chol is a North Korean defector who gained South Korean citizenship, became a missionary and was accused of plotting to kidnap North Korean children who would be sold for adoption in other countries. He was sentenced to a life of hard labor in 2016.

Kim Won-Ho, another North Korean defector who had become a South Korean citizen and a missionary, was abducted in China in March 2016.

A life of ‘hard labor’ in a North Korean prison

Reports (and even drawings) from ex-prisoners give us a glimpse of what “a life of hard labor” in a North Korean prison camp might look like—something reminiscent of what you may have seen in World War II documentaries about the Nazi death camps.

A former prisoner who was detained in the Chongori prison shared several glimpses of prison life in a series of drawings called, “Here is Where We Live, Work or Die.”

In one disturbing illustration, prisoners are carrying a bucket full of excrement and mud to fertilize the land.

In another a starving prisoner pretends to be asleep and uses his measly  food rations to catch a mouse, which he will quickly eat to avoid starvation.

For North Korean prison camp survivor Hea Woo*, torture and deplorable conditions were daily life. Imprisoned in the re-education camp until she was released, Hea Woo recalls the routine:

5.30 am: Roll call in the barracks. “We lined up with our heads bowed until we were all accounted for. Then there was some time to wash ourselves.”

6 am: Breakfast. “We [lined] up again and slowly moved through the barracks where the food was distributed. This took a lot of time. We got only a small cup full of rice. Maybe about two or three spoons in total.”

8 am: Work. “We marched to outside the camp, to the countryside, where we had to do agricultural work until lunch time. There was no break. Prisoners have no right to rest.”

12 noon: Lunch. “About the same amount of food as during breakfast and dinner.”

2 pm: Back to work.

6 pm: Criticism session. “We had to criticize each other and ourselves about the things we did wrong that day. After that, dinner.”

8 pm: Ideological training. “The hardest part of the day. We were hungry and weary. Our eyes fell closed. But we had to stay awake and pay attention or we would be punished.”

9.30 pm: Counting of the prisoners.

10 pm: Go to bed.

“Every day was like torture.,” she says. “People were dying and their corpses were burnt. The guards scattered the ashes over the road. We walked that road every day and each time I thought: One day, the other prisoners will walk over me.” Thankfully, Hea Woo’s premonition didn’t come true, and she was eventually able to escape from the prison, and from North Korea.

Hea Woo shares about a life that an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians imprisoned in North Korea currently live. I know it can be difficult to think about such a vast number of people living this way for the “crime” of following Jesus and sharing the gospel. Maybe that’s why the writer of Hebrews 13:3 encourages such a personal response: “remember those in prison as if you were together with them.”

Watch Prisoner 42's story of life in a North Korean prison
Watch Prisoner 42's story of life in a North Korean prison

The threat of a North Korean prison

In North Korea, the country leverages three types of prisons and the threat of spending your life in one to exert control over its citizens and keep them in line:

Detention centers. After arrest, most prisoners are first sent here where they’re interrogated and tortured. Prison survivor Hannah* remembers her time in one of these centers: “They’d beat us so harshly. When there was no interrogation, we had to kneel in our cells from 5 am to 12 pm and not speak. We didn’t receive any food or water and were not able to sleep.”

Re-education camps. Those who are not considered “political prisoners” are usually sent here. Conditions are poor, but prisoners will usually be sent to a camp close to where they are from, so their families can bring them food and clothes. Prisoners work during the day and attend “re-education” classes at night, learning about Juche ideology and the teachings of Kim Il-sung. The work is exhausting and can be dangerous. For example, prisoners working in a mine have little hope for survival. If they do survive and complete their sentence, they will be allowed to leave, now that they have been suitably “re-educated.”

Political labor camps. These camps are reserved for those who have committed the most “serious” crimes and are considered enemies of the state—including Christians and anyone else who dares to question the authority of the ruling Kim family. Here, there are no re-education classes; prisoners are considered too far gone to re-educate. There is no escape from these camps. For reasons you can imagine, we have no stories of prisoners from political labor camps. However, we do know that prisoners are worked to the bone, literally. When they can no longer work, they are executed. These prisoners are also sometimes used in experiments.

Top image: In this Feb. 27, 2014 file photo, Kim Jung Wook speaks during a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea. .(AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

Pray for the prisoners

While we can pray for these brothers by name, there are tens of thousands more of our North Korean family. We don’t know their names, but God does. And we can pray for them and ask God to be with them, and to bring them justice.

  • Pray for these five South Korean prisoners and the thousands of North Korean prisoners. Ask God to give them strength and comfort.Pray that somehow, even in the darkest places on earth, they would know God’s love and presence with them. Pray that God would shine as a light through them.
  • Pray for the international efforts to negotiate between Pyongyang and Seoul, and that our South Korean prisoners could return to their families.
  • Pray that God would bring change to North Korea, and that one day soon, the people of the nation will have freedom and justice.
  • Pray for protection for those working with Korean defectors in China. Ask God to give them wisdom, and to blind the eyes of those who might seek to find them.


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