It’s easy enough for many Christians to trace their religious lineage. Often, a parent’s or a grandparent’s expression of faith leads to a spiritual curiosity that God can use to bear fruit. Even for those Christians who didn’t have a literal family member have some experience where a believer showed faith in action and helped lead to an eventual understanding of Jesus’ love for them. It’s easy to take this for granted.
In North Korea, the story isn’t usually that simple.
In the country ruled by the brutal Kim dynasty, publicly claiming Jesus as Lord is enough to get sent to one of the nation’s notorious labor camps. That means that sometimes children don’t know their own parents are Christians. Parents and grandparents look for safe occasions to tell their families about God, or give them some partial knowledge they hope will one day lead to faith.
This was the experience for one Christian we’ll call Nari. It isn’t her real name—but even though she currently lives in South Korea, she still has family in North Korea who would be at risk if anyone knew who she really is. Nari’s experience of faith came from some cryptic prayers from her grandmother—and her trust in Jesus came from a series of experiences that seem unimaginable.
From starvation to something worse
Nari grew up in North Korea during the famine of the 1990s. Even the most conservative death toll from the era puts the number of dead from starvation of hunger-related illness in the hundreds of thousands. Some estimates suggest millions of North Koreans died during the famine. That gnawing hunger, and the knowledge that there was no hope of respite, drove people like Nari to try to flee to China, where there were rumors of help—and of food. “I went to China with my second younger sibling,” she remembers now. “Food was so expensive in North Korea that it was hard to eat even a meal a day. There were times we starved for 10 days. And it reached the worst of times. My father had relatives in China and we wanted to get some help.”
Nari and her sister decided to head to the region of Namyang, which borders China along the Tumen river. She hoped she could contact her father’s relatives and find a way to make the crossing into China. Even after they found a courier to smuggle them across the border, the process was not an easy one. The courier had an arrangement with the North Korean border guards, and when Nari and her sister met her at the appointed time, the crossing began.
“It was a rainy night,” Nari says. “Around midnight, when we went out of the woman’s house and crossed the fence from the river, [North Korean] guards came out when we approached a certain location. The guards were already in arrangement with the [courier]. When the guards signaled the woman to cross, the woman placed herself in the middle between me and my sister, crossed her arms with ours. The water was very cold and the height reached around my waist. We experienced so much tension and fear as we crossed the border.”
At first, things didn’t seem so bad. “The woman who had taken us to China put us with a Chinese family,” Nari remembers. “The daughter in that family was Chinese but went to a Korean school. She spoke Korean as well as we did. She translated for us.”
And what she translated would change Nari’s life forever. “She told us that she would take us to a good place,” Nari says. “So we waited. And at some point, the woman who took us to China disappeared. Instead, the Chinese girl kept telling us that she would take us somewhere good. We did not know what decision to make. We had nowhere to go. Then one day, a taxi came and took us. We left early [in the] morning and arrived at some guys’ house in the afternoon.
“A younger guy came for my sister, and for me, a man who was about eight years older came,” Nari says. “We were told to live with them. The woman left us there. We did not have any choice—no option for rebellion. We [had been] sold.”
Later, Nari would find out the woman they had trusted to help them get across the border was a human trafficker known for selling North Korean girls to Chinese men. “We do not know how much money she got,” Nori explains. “She did not have any intention to help. But she wanted to make money out of it. So, without any consent or chance for resistance, we were sold.”
A difficult life
Nari and her sister were in a foreign country and had become victims of human trafficking, sold into marriage. It was an unimaginable circumstance. “We were sold to [men in] the countryside, and we had a small wedding,” Nari says. “We obviously did not like it, but we did not have a choice. [The men] guarded us and told us that they bought us with money. They made us do a lot of labor too. Because it was the countryside, there was a huge field, and we had to do cultivate it. We went out at around 4 to 5 a.m. and came home at 8 to 9 p.m.
“And we had to sleep with them at night because we could not resist or escape to anywhere,” Nari says. “My sister and I both became pregnant with a difference of about 10 days. The husbands we were forced to marry were relatives. My mother-in-law and her father-in-law were relatives. Fortunately, I could see my sister. We were apart by about 1 km. My sister could come to my house and I could go to her house too.
“Because my sister was only 18 years old, the family she was living with was a bit freer about her visiting my house. Because I was older than my sister, they thought that there was a higher chance of me taking her and running away. So they guarded me more. There was one time when I went to my sister’s house. I thought my husband was not home, but somehow he was. I did not speak fluent Chinese so we couldn’t communicate. I told him that I was going to my sister’s house but he did not understand what I said. So he beat me. I fainted after being beaten down. When I was unconscious, he dragged me to the house—I was full of scars and dirt. I was actually pregnant at that time too.”
During this time, Nari also went through an experience that would change her life, and her faith, forever. “The Chinese security officers were always [watching for unregistered North Koreans],” Nari says. “In the middle of one night, about five security officers came into my house and I was seized. I was dragged to a police station. There were also about seven or eight [other North Koreans] in the station. One woman told me that the officers might forcefully abort my child. I was so afraid. I instantly thought that it would be hard for me and my baby to survive.”
In the midst of this, without knowing why, Nari remembered her grandmother’s habit of talking to someone—she didn’t yet realize that her grandmother had been praying. “At that moment, I recalled the scene of my grandmother praying,” she continues. “I clearly heard her voice saying ‘Hananim [God]! Hananim!’ and I recalled her voice, which was so desperate. At that moment, I realized that my grandmother sought salvation and help from God. Other people were all crying but I alone was praying in my mouth, that He would save me and my baby if He was alive. Then after about two hours, the officer called my name, out of all the names of the [other] people in the station. I was called out alone and was put in a separate room. They locked the door from outside; an hour later, all the other people were taken to the prison. [They were later] transported back to North Korea.
“I was told to come out. Then I was let out to go home. At that moment, a thought came into my mind, ‘The God my grandmother prayed or talked to—that God saved me. I kept that thought in my heart.
And yet, even with this powerful experience, Nari was still on her own, unable to understand who the God she had prayed to actually was. Her husband continued to beat her, and her life at home was a series of painful experiences. “At last, I really thought of committing suicide,” Nari says. “My child grew little by little. [When] my child was around 4 years old, I was about to commit suicide with a handful of medication. And at that point, my child ran to me calling me mama. Looking at the child, I realized that if I died, the child would lose his mom. I wasn’t the perfect mom, because I was North Korean. But still, I could not die, leaving him behind. I did not starve as I was starving in North Korea but it wasn’t a human life. I did labor just like cows or pigs. There was no compensation and I was beaten up once every two or three days.”
Hope in a surprising place
By this time, in order to be closer to their daughters, Nari’s entire family had moved to China. “My mom resided at a place that was about 12 kilometers from where I lived,” Nari says. “My mom went to church at that time. I went to visit my mom. My mom, seeing me acting and talking in a weird way, without saying anything, took me to the church. Hearing the hymns and the sermon, I started crying so hard. As I listened to the sermon, I realized the invisible God could help me. I’ve got to live, I thought.”
“I really wanted to keep attending the church,” Nari says. “I desperately wanted to go to church every Sunday. But my family was against it. My family members asked where I was heading and when I told them that I was going to church, they said ‘if you go to church, does the God feed you? Does he give you money?’ There was persecution.”
Even when she was able to go to church, Nari still faced uncertainty—Chinese security offers were known to raid the church services, and Nari didn’t have official identification. Her husband and his family had never bothered to acquire Nari citizenship or even registration papers, which meant she was technically always at risk of deportation and in the country illegally. “Sometimes, the police would come and surround the church, and they would ask for identity cards because they knew that many North Koreans went to churches,” she says.“We did not have IDs, so it was dangerous to attend any Korean churches. When the ministers were notified that the police were coming that day, they would let us know and told us not to come to church. When we could not go to church, we were sad.”
In the meantime, Nari’s family had encountered additional tragedy. Her mother and father and some of her siblings were captured and sent to a North Korean prison camp. While there, they endured brutal conditions and constant beatings which became worse after the prison guards discovered the family’s Christianity. Nari’s family was eventually released—her mother fled for China once again, but her father succumbed to the injuries he received while in the labor camp and died.
After moving to China, Nari’s mother began trying to help her daughters escape their own situations.
“It was always nerve-wracking to reside in China,” Nari explains. “So my mom prayed that I would [get] nationality [papers]. She met a Korean Chinese woman who asked my mom why we did not go to South Korea. [The woman] offered to introduce her daughter-in-law, who was living in South Korea at that time.”
The daughter-in-law happened to be coming to China for a visit, so Nari and her mother met with her. She explained that it would be possible for Nari to get proper government ID if she could get to South Korea. Eventually, she introduced Nari to a broker who could smuggler her to South Korea. “Out of my family members, I was the first to decide to come to South Korea,” Nari says. “It was a long journey and a difficult process. There were many dangerous moments such as the times when we went through the Mekong [River] and the mountains in Laos. Some of the mountains were slanted by 90 degrees and we could have slid down. The road was also so narrow, and the brokers drove us through those paths in rain. If we were to slide, everyone would have died. In those situations, I kept seeking God. [But] we safely arrived in Thailand. It was a miraculous journey for us.”
Eventually, Nari escaped to South Korea from Thailand, where she still lives. Thanks to South Korea’s nationality law, she was able to get official citizenship and finally not live life as an undocumented person.
Her mother was able to join her sometime later, along with one of her other sisters. Her younger sister who fled North Korea with Nari remains in China, living with her husband and child as an unregistered person. Nari’s brother remains in North Korea, and the family has no way of contacting him.
Nari’s faith has grown since she was able to flee her situation in China. One verse that has stuck with her and has provided continued strength is Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
“The Lord’s words [are] the light that guides my feet,” she explains. “When I did not have much knowledge about God’s Word, I did not have clear boundaries about what is right and wrong. But God’s Word is the truth and it is the light for my feet that shines my path. Our lives are in the word. ‘The light for my path’ means that residing in the Word provides light to our lives. Day and night, even in our daily lives, God’s Word is very important and it closely relates to us. As we go deeper into the Bible and [gain more knowledge], I continue to realize that I should prioritize God’s work over anything else in life.”
Nari is proof that God can accomplish the miraculous through something as simple as a faithful grandmother’s prayer to a God she cannot share. Please continue to lift up North Korean believers like Nari in prayer, and ask that God would continue to work in the hearts of His people in North Korea.