A heritage of faith in hardship
Hannah’s father and mother’s life together began with many challenges. They were married during the Japanese occupation and both were unable to bear children. But one day, someone told Hannah’s mom that if she prayed to Jesus, she would have a baby.
So Hannah’s mother prayed. For almost eight years she prayed. And then, not long after the Second World War, her prayer was answered. Hannah was born.
But despite the blessing of a child, family life was far from perfect. When Hannah was just a few years old, the Korean war broke out. “I can still hear the air sirens and the planes, and I still see the lights up in the dark sky. I feel my father’s back while I hang on to him.” Hannah remembers. It was during this time, she says, that her family would flee to the mountains in hope of surviving the war.
In these days, Hannah recalls her mother prayed openly in the family’s living room. They would often hear her calling out to God: “Hananim! Hananim! Lord! Lord! Help!”
Hannah’s mother became so devoted to praying that when Hannah’s father complained about his wife praying in the house, Hannah’s mother determined to pray outside. Out of deep reverence for God, she would wash her hair and put on her nicest clothes to approach God. Then she would go outside and pray, no matter what the weather. She was so disciplined to remain in prayer that family members sometimes felt the need to follow her and drape Hannah’s mother in warm blankets as she prayed in the snow.
“Life is trouble,” Hannah’s mother told them. “If there’s trouble, you should pray.”
A hardship all her own
Many years later, in adulthood, Hannah’s mother’s testimony ended up being more important than the family ever realized in her childhood. Life quickly revealed that Hannah would experience her own share of severe hardship, a generation after her mother. For a long season, she and her family endured one crisis after another.
“Two of my six children died young.” She recalls sadly. Then, not long after their losses, Hannah’s husband lost his job when the economy collapsed.
Hannah’s family was forced to scrape up any jobs they could–helping in a factory or selling things illegally on the black market. “I would carry heavy, frozen meals up the mountain to sell.” She remembers.
The trudge through the harsh conditions was hard on Hannah’s body and the physical cost she paid was dear. She lost one finger and all her toe nails. And then one day, while selling in this underground market, Hannah was hurt. “I was forced to jump from the train before it had come to a complete stop and I badly injured my leg and spine so that I was unable to stand up straight.”
Not long after, Hannah’s family reached a point where they realized they could no longer survive in their home country of North Korea. Hannah’s daughters were the first to attempt to flee to China. Unfortunately, this was not the path to a better life they had imagined, however. They soon discovered the broker who arranged their travel had actually sold the girls to poor Chinese farmers.
As a result of the broker’s trickery, Hannah and her husband didn’t hear from their daughters and had no idea what had become of them. After some time, Hannah’s husband tried to cross the border to find them. But once in China, things only became more difficult. Hannah’s husband was unable to return or to get word to Hannah.
“My husband didn’t come back, and a year later, I went to look for them in China. At first, I couldn’t locate my husband. I worked on a Chinese farm as a maid, but I didn’t receive any money. I had lost everything that was dear to me,” Hannah recounts.
It was then Hannah’s mother’s prayers came back to her, “I prayed to God with the only words I knew: ‘Hanonim, Hanonim! Lord, Lord! Please help!’”
Miraculously, Hannah was able to find one of her husband’s relatives and he connected her with her husband. But the two parents were still separated from their daughters.
“My husband decided to go back to North Korea and bring the two remaining children, who were staying with family, out. He succeeded.” Hannah says. And there was more good news! “Somehow my husband had also been able to find information about our two oldest daughters. He said he would try to find them, and he did! A few weeks later our entire family was reunited in China.”
The God behind the prayer
It was only once the entire family had arrived in China that they learned the full story behind the God Hannah’s mother had prayed to and who Hannah herself had reached out to in times of hardship.
“My husband’s relative brought us to church and this is where we first heard the entire Gospel. We had seen the faith in the life of my mother, but now we understood it. All of us accepted Jesus Christ that day. We felt peace in our hearts and unexplainable joy. It was so refreshing, as if the dirt in my eyes had been washed away and I could finally see God. Now I could follow Him like my mother had.”
As Hannah’s family learned from the pastor about Christ and walking with God, their faith grew quickly. They began to believe their entire lives had prepared them to follow Jesus.
Unfortunately, although the family was now infused with hope, life quickly delivered more hardship.
Faith in a North Korean Prison
“We were discovered by Chinese secret agents and arrested,” Hannah recalls as she explains how her family was moved from prison to prison in China before being sent back to a North Korean prison.
Conditions at the prison were horrific. Early on, one inmate–a Korean mother who was pregnant by a Chinese man–was ordered to kill her baby upon delivery. When the mother refused, the prison official put the gun to the head of another woman and forced her to strangle the baby while all the other inmates watched.
After this, Hannah’s family knew they had come into the hardest trials they had ever faced.
“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 males. 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 AM to 12 PM and not speak.”
Hannah’s husband, she remembers, continued to witness to the guards even as he was beaten. “He told the guards that he had become a believer. Later he said he had no other choice. After he saw what they did with the baby and the guards threatened to kill his family, he had to tell them the truth. After his confession, 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.”
Prisoners in solitary confinement endured the worst abuse. Most remained silent in an effort to not provoke their captors, but Hannah’s husband became fiercely determined to follow God publicly despite his circumstances. At one point, while being tortured, he yelled, “If believing in God is a sin, I’d rather die! Just kill me! It’s my mission to live according to God’s will!”
Whenever Hannah’s husband spoke out, the guards stripped him of his clothes and beat him up as if he was an animal. His flesh was torn and ripped. “When he lost his consciousness,” she recalls, “they woke him up and started again.”
Both Hannah and her husband came to believe that death was near. “I was dehydrated and beaten until I was unconscious too. When I woke up, I was dragged back to a regular cell with my daughter and other female inmates. Then they beat me in front of them. All my daughter could do was cry silently, which she did day and night.”
The Legacy of Prayer Continues
With no other recourse, the family prayed throughout their time in prison. They prayed God would be present in the prison and that he would, in effect, change the prison into a church.
Then, one day, prison called Hannah and her daughter to the administrative office where they would learn about their fate. “We were in front of the deputy of the prison, waiting to hear our verdict, and in our minds we all desperately prayed for a miracle. We didn’t want to suffer and die in a political prisoner camp.”
When the guards brought in two male prisoners to join Hannah and her daughter, they realized their family’s appearance had changed dramatically. “One I recognized as my son, but the other was in such a bad shape. I didn’t recognize my husband and he didn’t recognize me. That’s how horrendous we looked from all the torture. His ribs and collarbone were broken, so that he could not even stand up straight.”
After a minute, Hannah realized the man in front of her was her husband. Without explanation, the deputy unexpectedly announced he was giving the family special amnesty. They would be released. Hannah knew instantly how this had come about. It was the God who her mother had prayed to, who she had prayed to, and who her children now prayed to as well.
“God answered our prayer,” Hannah says resolutely, “When we walked out the prison that night and were finally free and alone, we quietly sang a hymn.”
Ongoing needs and ongoing prayers
Even after release from prison, Hannah’s life–like that of so many other believers living in hostile territories–continued to be full of difficulty. North Korean life was too dangerous and Hannah and her daughters were forced to flee again to the church in China who had once helped them.
Hannah’s husband had planned to join them in time, but he never showed. “One month went by. No word from my husband. Then, a second month, a third, a fourth… I waited three years. Then I found out that he had died shortly after we left. He was never able to overcome the pain and illnesses from prison. My son was too young to help him. So he died slowly in pain.”
Hannah’s son was unable to cross the river by himself, so he was forced to remain in North Korea. Years later, Hannah learned that her son was still alive and living with a family member. They were able to speak by phone one time.
“I now live in South Korea and serve God here. My first and third daughter are here with me. My second daughter lives with her Chinese husband. She is still at risk of being discovered and sent back. It’s my prayer and hope that I will be reunited in South Korea with my daughter and my son.”
In these bleak moments, as Hannah continues to face hardship and to long for her family’s reunion, she returns to those familiar words from her childhood. “In North Korea, my mother only taught me one prayer. But I still pray it every day, for my family and for my country: ‘Hanonim, Hanonim! Lord, Lord, please help!’”
How to support North Korea’s Hannahs
“Hannah is the nicest grandmother you’ll ever meet,” says the Open Doors field worker who met her. “North Koreans are distant. They don’t trust you instantly. But this lady, even before I had taken off my shoes, gave me hug. Later she told me it was so special for her to have a Caucasian man come to her house and listen to her story. It’s an answer to her prayer. She wants to tell the world her story. Every person who reads it is part of that answered prayer.”
Hannah was able to tell her in-depth story to Open Doors because she now lives in relative freedom. But there are many more Christians in North Korea who continue to face the same hostility and hardship that Hannah endured, but cannot yet tell their stories. Instead, they depend on generous Christian churches like the ones Hannah encountered as well as organizations like Open Doors who provides underground support like food aid, clothes, and medicines.
Open Doors helps believers struggling to survive within North Korea, so they can continue to be a witness there. We also help North Korean refugees by providing shelter, pastoral care, and Bible study and by helping prepare their children to receive the gospel.
“Without your prayers and financial support we cannot continue with this ministry,” A North Korean field worker reports. “God listened to Hannah’s prayers. He will also listen to yours. And a gift of a few dollars makes a massive difference in a country where the average person doesn’t make much then a two dollars per month.”