Shortly after coming to faith in China, 70-year-old Hea Woo* found herself back across the border in a North Korean gulag.
Like some 25,000 other refugees from the north, Hea Woo now lives in South Korea. “It still feels like I am on honeymoon,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I am free… I know many people don’t like South Korea, but what do they know about freedom?… I learned what freedom is when I was in labor camp.”
It is hard to imagine that a small, fragile, cheerful lady like Hea Woo survived three years of detention in a Nazi-like labor camp. After three years in prison, she was freed. “On the day of my release I had to wait before that enormous, electric gate. Squeezing myself through the narrow opening I began to run. When I came to the road, I kept on running. Not once did I look back. I was so happy to leave this horrendous place.”
Long before Hea Woo’s terrible ordeal in the labor camp, her life was full of trauma. During the Korean War (1951-1953), when she was still a young girl, North Korean soldiers forced the people in Hea Woo’s village to endure an arduous two-month long march to the Chinese border. Many years later, in 1997, Hea Woo’s oldest daughter, who was only in her twenties, starved to death. After her daughter’s death, Hea Woo’s husband left to find food in China. Unfortunately, he was arrested in China and sent back to North Korean where he died in prison six months later.
A few of his former cellmates visited Hea Woo after their release to share with her that her husband had become a Christian in China and that their lives had been changed because of his testimony. “I was shocked to hear that my husband had become a Christian. But instinctively I realized that he had found the truth. I was certain that our leaders were not godlike, so I too fled to China. At first I went searching for relatives; but they had left, so I turned to the only sanctuary I could find – a church.” Hea Woo was given food and shelter, and eventually decided she wanted to follow Jesus Christ. Reflecting on her past while in China, Hea Woo realized that her mother, who died in 1990, had also been a Christian! “Once during the Korean War I noticed a necklace with a cross around her neck. When I asked her about it, she just told me to not tell anybody else. And she always murmured when she made breakfast for us. She was praying, of course. The deepest regret of my life is that I have never been able to talk about faith with my mother.”
Though Hea Woo’s three remaining children managed to join her in China, she was arrested and deported to North Korea before they could escape to South Korea. “I was lucky,” says Hea Woo. “I was only sentenced to a few years in labor camp, despite my Christian faith. But I almost died in prison. The guards were relentless. They hit me with sticks and kicked me. I was so discouraged and I started to doubt God, but one night I heard a loud voice. I looked up, but nobody moved or blinked. I was the only one who heard the voice! It said, ‘My beloved daughter, you are walking on water!’ I knew it came from God. I knew He hadn’t forgotten me. During the years that I spent in prison and labor camp, I heard the voice a few times. Each time it was God encouraging me.”
After five months in prison Hea Woo became terribly ill. When she could barely stand due to bleeding, vomiting, and intense pain in her throat and back, guards took her to a hospital where the doctors gave her just three days to live. “I prayed to God. I begged Him to not let me die before I had a chance to tell the world about the faith of my husband. There were seven cruel guards and I asked God to use them to help me.” Miraculously, the guards began to give her extra food and she was completely healed within five months. “I did not receive any medicine; I slept on the floor with no heating system. Because of the cold I could hardly sleep, my hands and feet were often frozen, rats and bugs were everywhere. It was surely God who kept me alive.” After recovering from her illness, she was taken to a barracks with fifty other women. Every day, with its same monotonous rhythm of scant servings of rice, hours of hard work in the fields and ideological training, began at 5 am and did not end until 10 pm when they fell, weary and hungry, into bed.
“Despite everything, I remained faithful to God. He also gave me a heart to evangelize other prisoners. I was too scared… God persisted and showed me which prisoners I should approach. ‘That person. Tell Him.’ So I went to the person and shared Acts 16:31. It was such an encouraging message for prisoners; they were easily converted. Sometimes I gave them a little rice. When people were sick, I went to them and helped them with washing their clothes. They saw the Spirit in me” And so a secret fellowship of Christians began in the prison. “I tried to teach them the things I knew. On Sundays and on Christmas day, we would gather in secret places, like the restroom. There we would have a short worship meeting. I taught them hymns and we sang softly. All five of us survived the camp, because we looked after each other. We did not get into trouble despite our secret meetings.”
Only once Hea Woo was almost caught. “I was allowed to work alone. So I could sing softly. A nearby guard heard me singing. ‘What did you sing?’ he kept asking. I told him it was a political song. He said he heard something else. ‘You could not hear correctly,’ I answered. ‘I was far away.’ He let me go but remained very suspicious. Each time he noticed me, he looked intently at me. I got afraid and I asked God if He could please take the guard away from me.” Within ten days, God answered her prayers when the guard became seriously ill and was sent to the hospital for two months. Hea Woo was released a few days later.
God used Hea Woo’s son who was already in South Korea, to answer her prayers to escape to South Korea by helping to hiring brokers. “I am so happy here,” Hea Woo exclaims. “I am not rich compared to most people here, but I have Jesus in my heart. He is the Shepherd of Psalm 23, the psalm of my life. I meditated on it every day in labor camp. I realized that the situation I was in had no impact on who Jesus is and felt peaceful despite the circumstances. Even though I was in the valley of death, I did not fear anything. God comforted me every day, especially those few times when God literally spoke to me and told me I was His beloved daughter. I just knew that God was preparing a table for me. He would bless me and glorify me. I will dwell with him forever.”
* Hea Woo is a pseudonym to protect her identity.
Father, thank you for the faithful witness of Hea Woo. Grant that we might all, in our times of trial, whether great or small, remain faithful. No matter how weak or how powerless we are, You are the Good Shepherd, our Shepherd. We pray that You will lavish Your grace and blessing on Hea Woo as she continues to minister Your gospel in South Korea. Thank you for the sure knowledge that she, along with each one of us, will dwell with You forever. In the name of Jesus in whose name we are sustained and come before Your presence, Amen.