Otto Warmbier’s Release Is a Reminder of the Brutality of North Korean Labor Camps

June 14, 2017 by Joshua Pease in

Otto Warmbier was evacuated from a North Korean prison this week. Warmbier, a student from Cincinnati, visited North Korea in January of 2016. He was arrested for trying to steal a propaganda sign in his hotel and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Details about his release are still unfolding, but his parents report that he’s very ill and in a coma.

And while the news of Warmbier is making headlines here in the U.S.—it’s only a small reminder of the darkness and brutality thousands of North Koreans are experiencing in hard labor camps under the regime of Kim Jong-un. Right now, an estimated 120,000 North Koreans are being held in prison camps that the head of a U.N. inquiry panel says are “strikingly similar” to the Nazi atrocities in World War II.

While any sort of free-thinking in North Korea is harshly punished, participating in any religious practice—Christianity in particular—results in being sent to one of these prison camps where most end up dying. Here are three things you need to know about what life for a Christian is like in a prison camp, and how we can be praying for our persecuted family in North Korea.


Hyuk Kim, who fled North Korea after three years in a prison camp, said his daily ration was a handful of cornmeal and a few dozen small beans. Others have reported even less. Because of this one of the most common causes of death in a North Korean prison camp are side effects of malnutrition.

Prisoners who work in the fields may attempt to eat grass or leaves. On a good day, a prisoner may catch a rat but would have to eat it raw as the smell from cooking it could alert the prison guards. A lucky few end up on kitchen duty and can sneak scraps of food; however, those caught doing this will be beaten mercilessly.


There are dozens of different jobs prisoners may be assigned but they all share some common traits: prisoners are expected to perform physically grueling tasks for hours on end with no rest. All while starving to death.

Kenneth Bae, a missionary imprisoned in a camp and later released, described working long hours manually tilling rocky soil in a field. Bae would routinely lose dozens of pounds, be sent to hospitals to recover, and then be sent back to camps. Most simply work until they die.


Prisoners are forbidden from any obvious act of religious faith. Even secret prayer meetings are rare as it’s impossible to know who to trust. One of the few ways to receive special privileges is to report on fellow prisoners. Relationships are so fragile some don’t trust their own families.


It’s easy to hear about the prison camps and feel a sense of hopelessness; however, while the situation in North Korea is an atrocity…God’s Kingdom is still present.

While Bae said he was careful to ever actively evangelize, his prisoners knew he was a pastor and would privately ask him questions about Christianity and how he was able to stay joyful as a prisoner. In some cases, Bae would act almost as a marriage counselor and therapist for his guards. Bae said he eventually realized he was still a missionary in North Korea, just in a prison camp.

It’s a good reminder that God’s Kingdom truly will not be stopped. A look at North Korea’s neighbor—China—is a good example of how a horribly persecuted church can still thrive. At one point China attempted to wipe out Christianity from its country, and yet according to some estimates, China is now home to the most rapid expansion of Christianity in the world.


Start with China. One of the major barriers to intervention in North Korea is China’s protection of the country. Pray God would raise up leaders in China willing to take a stand for religious freedom and human rights. Pray China would open its borders to North Korean refugees rather than sending them back.

Pray for the covert missionaries and Christians in the country: that God would give them boldness, favor, protection and power.

Pray that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, would see the light of the gospel—or be removed. Satellite images show some labor camps in North Korea dramatically increasing in size under his leadership with the largest covering an area three times the size of Washington, D.C. God hates injustice and opposes leaders that oppress the poor. Pray that God’s perfect will would be done in the nation of North Korea.

Because in the end, Jesus wins. Chains are broken and captives are set free. So as we pray for North Korea we pray that this would happen, and quickly.

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