Hea Woo isn’t her real name, but it’s what we’ll call her to protect her identity. While her ability to laugh and reminisce might not seem remarkable at first glance, it’s in the moments where she breaks down that it becomes clear her daily life is a courageous act.
That’s because Hea Woo is North Korean. Her life, like so many people who have managed to escape from her home country, has been marked by brutality, agony and tragedy. And there is one other factor that adds to the suffering Hea Woo has experienced: She is a Christian. In North Korea, that is enough to get you killed.
Hea Woo was born during the regime of Kim Il Sung, the first ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea after its establishment in World War II. The eldest Kim would rule until his death in the early 90s.
“When I was a child, the circumstances were not too dreadful,” Hea Woo remembers. “Maybe I did not realize [it] because I was way too young. If somebody [got] seized and disappears at night, if a family member disappears, a rumor would spread—’he/she was a spy, an American spy, a spy from South Korea.’ After capturing the person, they would spread those kinds of rumors. And the people in the town would accept that as the truth.”
A rising tide of suspicion
Even as a child who remembers things not being “too dreadful,” Hea Woo experienced the beginnings of a totalitarian regime that was dedicated to stamping out dissent and free thought. “As a child [in North Korea], something that you hear often is ‘North Korea is the happiest country to live in.’ Children are told that all other countries praise Kim Il Sung as the master,” Hea Woo says. “And they are told that everyone in the world worships Kim Il Sung as the sun.”
But things changed the last years of Kim Sung Il’s life. His son, Kim Jong Il, began to take control of the country and oversaw a tightening of security. “It gradually became more and more serious as I went into the society and aged,” Hea Woo says. “And with the change of regime, there was more and more surveillance.
There was also an increased effort to make people fall in line with what the ruling Kim was doing—and an effort to create a cult of personality around him. “People do not even realize that they are brainwashed because they are born and raised that way,” Hea Woo says.“They are used to that environment but at the same time, they live in fear. Saying one word could put them or their family members in prison for life. So everyone is extremely careful about what they say.”
A threatening religion?
One of the things the Kim regime paid particular attention to was anything that might sit outside of the acceptable Party line of thinking, or that might present a challenge to the ruling powers. Naturally, any religion that gave people an alternative allegiance than the Kim dynasty was deemed to be dangerous to the State.
This reality affected Hae Woo profoundly because her husband was a Christian, and he carefully revealed his faith to his family and they came to Christianity as well. “My husband escaped from North Korea in 1996,” Hea Woo says. “He went to China and became part of a Korean church in China. However, one of the deacons within the same church reported my husband to the public security officer. While the pastor was away for a break, my husband was reported and was captured. My husband was forcefully brought back to North Korea.
“He was imprisoned, [labeled] as a spy by the North Korean agency for national security planning. He was tortured to [confess] his responsibilities as a spy. The torture he went through was so gruesome that it is unimaginable. My husband was tortured every single day in the prison, with blood everywhere.”
Hea Woo believes her husband’s faith gave him the strength to be compassionate—and to face the brutal torture with courage and bravery. “Even in the midst of these horrible tortures, he just had compassion for those who did not know about Jesus Christ,” Hea Woo says. “He went into the prison walking but after all the torture, he was dragged loose on the ground. Even in this situation, although his body was all torn apart, he handed the last pieces of rotten corn that he had to his prison-mates. He spread the gospel to the inmates. He prayed for the sick [and] as he continued the good work, God built an underground church in the prison through my husband.”
While Hea Woo’s husband was in prison, their children visited him. He wanted to pass on his faith, but there were guards everywhere. So, he did something simple and profound. He wrote three words on his hand: “Believe in Jesus.”
Hea Woo’s husband was later killed in prison for refusing to renounce his faith.
“The worst of times”
The transition from Kim Sung Il to Kim Jong Il came with security changes. But as Kim Jong Il began to take over, a brutal famine began to take root. The famine’s root causes are several. First, the Soviet Union fell in 1991, ending economic and agricultural support to North Korea. The country also experienced a wide-ranging and destructive flood, ruining the ability to grow crops. The flood also destroyed much of the electrical infrastructure in North Korea, leaving farmers with no way to irrigate their crops during a drought. These factors all led to a famine that is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people.
This was the era Hea Woo lived through.
“That time, in the 1990’s—I believe that was the worst of times,” she remembers. “Before, people used to get salaries and receive rations. Rice soups were distributed in very small quantities for the government to save up, [so] it was for bare maintenance. But even that stopped being distributed. Everyone depended on those soups and the government stopped the distribution.”
“And people were just so worried about how to continue their lives. At that time, parents did not have the ability to feed their children. So families laid on the ground for weeks because they did not have the energy to stand up. It was not the matter of whether something was tasty or not. We simply had nothing to cook with.
“Children were driven outside to pick something up on the street and eat,” she says. “To eat on the ground and live. Every single day, somebody died. So many people died from starvation. When we went to train stations in the morning, people were just lying on the ground, dead. Children were not afraid anymore to see dead bodies because they saw so many.”
When famine strikes close to home
The tragedy of the famine did not leave Hea Woo’s family untouched. The same year her husband died in a North Korean prison camp for refusing to renounce his religious faith, tragedy struck Hea Woo once again. “My daughter, at that time, was twenty-six. She died from starvation in 1997.”
Her daughter’s last wish for Hea Woo to flee from North Korea and go to China. So that’s what Hea Woo and her remaining children did.
Sadly, Hea Woo’s tragedies weren’t at an end.
While in China, Hea Woo was caught—and repatriated into North Korea. And her punishment was to be sent to a prison camp, to suffer in the same conditions that had killed her husband.
Her descriptions of the prison and its conditions are chilling—and bear striking resemblances to descriptions of Nazi-era concentration camps. “There were different parts within the prison,” Hea Woo says. “Some [sectors] did agriculture, some did construction work, some did mining. Men and women were separated; all the inmates seemed like they were about to faint. They were all hopeless and in despair. And plus, they were starving. Each person received one handful of rotten corn [and] here was nothing else to eat. We got something watery—it wasn’t even a soup. We got those as food for the whole year. Nothing else.
“And people are obliged to work more than cows or animals,” she continues. “Because everyone is forced to do labor, people die from malnutrition. People died in accidents while working, too. And there was a distinct group composed of only people who tried to escape from the prison. Those people had to carry containers full of feces. The containers were made of thick wood and it was so heavy that even two people had a hard time carrying one container. Every single day, no matter how the weather was, despite heavy rain and snowfall, they were not allowed to take breaks. It was really life-threatening with the smell of the feces and the poisonous air.
“Plus, because they did not eat much, anyone who became part of that group could not survive for more than months. So many died—and there was no hope in the prison. All [inmates] were on the verge of death. Soldiers were allowed to hit the inmates whenever they showed disobedience [and] to physically abuse the inmates.
And yet, for Hea Woo, even the physical brutality of her experience was not the worst part.“Physical labor was hard but something harder was that we did not have freedom of faith,” she says. “We could not pray freely but I still prayed in [my] heart. When people were asleep, I woke up to pray. It was so pitiful that we did not have freedom of faith; I really yearned for freedom.
“Something I always prayed about was for those dying souls that did not know about God,” Hea Woo says. “I prayed that God would protect our underground church. And also for the wicked government to fall apart, and that freedom of faith would arrive in North Korea. I prayed the idolatry persisting over generations would disappear and that people could repent. I prayed that the prison would break apart as well. I also prayed for the Christians all over the world to pray for us with sincerity.”
Hea Woo believes her prayers are the reason she was able to stand strong in prison—and for her eventual release. She remembers one instance where she was being beaten repeatedly by one particular guard, to the point where she thought she was going to die. “I asked God to do something about the satanic power and God allowed the guard to get sick and to be hospitalized for a month,” she remembers. “So I did not see him for a while. God really listened and afterward, because of the grace of God, we could come out of the prison alive. I survived in the midst of that loneliness with nobody visiting me. Although there was nobody, God protected me with his grace. When I prayed that I could become light and salt, He told me to ‘share and sacrifice.’ And he also told me to evangelize. There were so many answers I got through my prayer.”
Eventually, Hea Woo was released from prison. And God kept her safe then, too. “I asked for a miracle just like the crossing of the Red Sea, and God saved me when I fell in the Tumen River as I was escaping from North Korea [into China],” Hea Woo says. And he provided me with the safe zone, just like the land of Goshen [given to Israel in the Old Testament].”
She fled once again, but this time, made her way to South Korea, where she now lives. Hea Woo bears the scars and the trauma of her experience, but she shares what she’s seen and gone through with the hopes that one day, North Korea will allow freedom to all its people. She also hopes Christians all over the world will continue to lift up their sisters and brothers in North Korea in prayer. “While I was in prison, I could not understand everything, but I felt the Christians in South Korea and in different countries were praying for us who were imprisoned,” Hea Woo says.
“It provided comfort, and it became a source of energy for us. So, I really thank you. Even if we cannot meet each other, let us communicate through the Spirit, in Jesus Christ. Let’s pray together and make good out of it. I hope our Lord will be glorified. I believe at God’s appointed time, all the prayers will be answered and there will be freedom of faith in North Korea. Let us endure in patience and wait until that day comes.”