“It is a miracle I am still alive. I thank God for that.” Now living outside North Korea, three former prisoners share how they found God in a country filled with spiritual darkness.
Young Nam lives with his wife outside North Korea now, beyond the reach of the regime. Defecting to China to find food for his family, the indoctrinated Young Nam was too afraid to enter a church that offered to help him. “I stood trembling at the door. I had heard so many bad stories about Christians that I was so scared. Fortunately, the Christians gave me money.”
On his way back into North Korea, Young Nam ran into a patrol. He was brought to a prison, where the inspector took all of his money. After he was released, he again went to China in search of food and aid. This time he was arrested by Chinese agents, who brought him back to the same North Korean prison. “The inspector was furious. He thought I came back to tell the other guards he had taken my money. He wanted me to be dead, or at least he wanted to give me brain damage.”
The official raised a bat to strike him. As the bat came toward his forehead, Young Nam didn’t close his eyes, but focused, and at the last millisecond, he turned his head slightly to avoid a full blow. Young Nam continued to concentrate on the bat throughout the brutal onslaught. He couldn’t allow himself to think of his wife, Bong Sa, and his son. After Young Nam had endured the beating, the guards dragged him to an overcrowded cell. “All the time in prison I could think of only one sentence, ‘I need to survive.’ I kept saying this to me over and over again.”
Amazingly enough, Young Nam survived his time in the North Korean prison. “At one point I told the inspector that he could trust me. Despite the torture, I had not given him away. He was convinced and let me go. I couldn’t go back to my family. That was too dangerous. So I left to China for a third time. I remarried to another North Korean refugee. Both of us came to faith thanks to the teachings of faithful Christians. I pray to God that one day I can bring my son from North Korea.”
Timothy found Christ in the darkness of prison. After his parents were forced to flee the country when he was 8, Timothy had to survive alone on the streets for almost 7 years. After his father reached South Korea and earned enough money to pay people to look for his son in North Korea, Timothy was able to escape the country as well. Unfortunately he was caught in China and repatriated. Now 15 years old, Timothy found himself at the hands of cruel guards. “I was still afraid of Christians, but someone in China once told me, whenever you are in a difficult situation, pray. God listens. So all the time in prison – even though I was not a believer – I prayed that God would let me survive so that someday I could tell other people about this terrible place on earth.”
When he arrived at the prison he was interrogated relentlessly, especially about his father. “They wanted me to tell them where he was. But I knew I couldn’t trust them. So I had already decided I wouldn’t tell them anything, no matter what they would do to me.”
Under pressure to write information about his father, his fingers were broken and he was hung upside down, naked, and beaten with wooden sticks. Whenever he passed out, cold water was thrown in his face and he was tortured again. All the time in prison Timothy kept crying out in desperation to the God he didn’t really know. “Help me! Help me! Save me!”
Then Timothy was beaten with hot pipes, leaving burn wounds on his shoulders, bottom cheeks and one leg. He could hold on only a few minutes each time, before passing out again. When Timothy woke up, an inspector in his mid-forties entered his room. He looked on Timothy with compassion and said, “I have a son your age.” The man inspected Timothy’s wounds. “You are too weak to stand trial. Your court case is in three days, so I will grant you bail for three days. Do you understand what that means? You have three days.”
Timothy knew exactly what that meant; he had three days to leave the country, even though he was half dead. He had to get out somehow. Timothy’s grandmother arranged for a broker to take him to China, where he was arrested a second time at an American school where Timothy and other refugees tried to apply for asylum. “I was sure that this time I would be killed in North Korea, so I tried to take my life in prison, but did not succeed.” Crying out to God, he professed, ‘I will believe in you, if I will survive.” One day he was brought from his cell to a room. “I expected to see North Koreans, but they were American officials who told me I could go to any country I wanted. I have never been so happy. Finally, God had answered my prayer. He rescued me from death and I just knew He loved me.”
Kim Tae-Jin – “The whole system made me desperate,” says Kim Tae-Jin, reflecting on his experiences in the notorious Yodok labor camp. He was interned there after spending eight months in a prison for defecting to China. “In the camp I saw people dying of hunger and sickness and I watched executions. Prisoners were brutally beaten for stealing tomatoes, planting maize slightly different than what Kim Il Sung had ordered, attempting escape and not performing their duties when malnourished or sick. I once witnessed the execution of five prisoners. They had tried to escape. The men were bound and masked, made to kneel down and shot with three bullets. A last shot was aimed at their heart or head.”
While in China, Kim Tae-Jin had heard about God and read the Bible. “But I did not understand much. One day, ‘by chance’ I met a Christian inside the camp. I had never expected that there would be any Christians in Yodok. He was the leader of a group of seven Christians. They called themselves the Community of Love, and occasionally met in secret. He was such an amusing man….sometimes he told me stories from the Bible, and I enjoyed that. But I did not want to confess my sins. When he asked me to do so, I closed up and did not say another word. “How do you know that God exists?” Kim once asked the man. “I don’t know,” the man replied. “Just as you do not know that the sun exists. You feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. The same is true of God.”
One day the group of Christians was betrayed. “They were all horribly tortured….and sent to another camp, with an even stricter regime. You do not get out of a camp like that alive. After that, I did sometimes again try to find some Christians in Yodok, but with no luck.”
Kim often thought of attempting to escape, but realized that he had a better chance of survival if he kept a low profile. After three years of imprisonment, a guard told him, “If you behave well this year too, you will be released next year.” Those words came true. Kim Tae-Jin was released and a few years later managed to escape to China and eventually South Korea. In China he continued his search for God and found Him in the Bible. God opened his eyes through His Word and finally He understood God’s salvation.
Father, thank You for the testimony of these brave men who have dared to tell their stories of life and prison in North Korea that the world might know and help. Thank You for the profound work of Your Holy Spirit in drawing them to Yourself in miraculous ways. We praise You for Your compassion on them and for this clear evidence of Your power to save. We pray for North Korea, longing for the day when the darkness of oppression will be dispelled by the light of Your gospel. In the name of Jesus who redeems and saves, Amen.