When you first meet him, Seojun Yo (not his real name) will not immediately strike you as someone who has passed through unthinkable trauma. You’ll see a smiling man wearing blue slacks, a lightly printed button-down shirt and his hair parted on the side, who greets you with a humble bow.
Seojun is a pastor in South Korea. But the North Korean secret service would very much like to know who he is. Because Seojun escaped from North Korea. That means any knowledge of his true identity could put him in danger—and bring harm to family members who still live in North Korea. So we meet him at an undisclosed location and disguise his face in images and video.
Seojun grew up in North Korea during some of the most terrible years of famine. If there’s one word to describe his childhood, it’s the word “survival.”
“The economy was [going] downhill,” he says of his childhood. “Because of that, I guess everyone focused on survival. And because I was focused on survival as well, I had a very difficult time. I put every effort to get a warm bowl of rice. I always wondered ‘how am I going to live a happy life with my family?’ It was miserable and harsh.”
“There was some [electricity],” he remembers. “We had radios but there was only one channel provided by Chosun Broadcasting Centre located in Pyongyang. Televisions were also provided. [But there was] only one channel offered by Chosun Broadcasting Centre in Pyongyang.”
Like most North Korean children, Seojun was also warned against the excesses of the West and particularly warned about Christians. The only thing Seojun knew about Christians and Christianity he learned in the North Korean school textbooks. Christians were wolves in sheep’s clothing—and should never be trusted. In official state teaching, Christians were superstitious and weak-minded, a threat to North Korean life. In all of his time inside North Korea, Seojun never met a single Christian. In the government propaganda he saw, “[Christian] missionaries were described as the murderers who pretended to be the lamb,” Seojun says.
There were Christians in North Korea, of course—just like there are today—but they were forced to secrecy and underground networks. To be discovered was to risk imprisonment for one’s entire family, torture or even death.
But the defining quality of Seojun’s childhood was hunger. He recalls roaming the countryside for vegetables and seeking food in the mountains. Often going hungry. That feeling of hunger—and the anxiety of possible starvation—haunted his early years.
“When I was young, in order to get food, I worked in public farms,” he says. “In autumn, I put on lots of clothing to take as many corn kernels in my pocket. And in the spring season, I went out to collect wild herbs and used those to make meals to fill our stomach. And during winter, I went to the mountain to seek medicinal herbs. There were people who exchanged them for food. I took the herbs I collected to exchange them for food to feed my family.”
The rumors of a better place
During the famine, Seojun heard that it might be possible to get food from China.
“The situation worsened from 1994,” he remembers. “[North Korea] did not provide food anymore. And so many [people] died; so many died from starvation. Because people died [of starvation], North Korea received help from China. And there were rumors that said that you can eat lots of food in China.”
Desperate and with nothing to lose, he decided to cross the Tumen River, enter China and bring back food for his family.
So, at the age of 17, wearing only his school uniform and a coat—carrying no possessions—Seojun crossed the frozen Tumen. He was alone on the journey, but he followed in the footsteps in the snow left by others who recently escaped to China.
“It was not that hard for us to cross,” he says. “Because I was familiar with the geography, I escaped during the day. It was winter time, [so] I could easily walk on the frozen river.
“At that time, so many people crossed, there was even a path on the ice. During the season I was escaping, the soldiers knew but they did not say anything. Many [people] went, purchased food and came back to North Korea. The soldiers received money from the people who crossed. I did not cross through those soldiers but, because I knew the geography so well, I just went alone to get food.”
His goal was to go to China, get some food and perhaps some money, and then return home. However, his escape and his journey into China didn’t make life easier. Once he arrived in China, he struggled to make enough money to buy food or secure shelter.
“It was not that easy to earn money in China,” he says. “And I was not very welcome. I looked for jobs and I worked a little. But I did not get compensation. And my return got delayed.
And continuous raids by police—looking for illegal North Koreans—often sent him back into the mountains until it was safe to enter another city and look for work again. “I could not make enough money with [my] illegal status and the threatening condition to be deported back to North Korea always loomed over me,” Seojun says.
The lack of food, lack of shelter and lack of security left Seojun with little hope. All he wanted was to find rest and peace, he says.
Finding a small bit of safety
Through some relationships he had formed in China, someone told Seojun about an Open Doors safe house—but he knew it was run by Christians. Everything he had learned about Christians told him not to go, but he was desperate to stop moving around in China as an illegal immigrant. “I could not understand it because I was so brainwashed by the North Korean education system since I was young. However, deep in my heart, I wanted to encounter the heavenly Father,” Seojun says.
Through the Open Doors safe house, Seojun received food, shelter and protection. Additionally, he was exposed to the truth of Jesus for the first time. “To be honest, I did not like it at first,” Seojun admits. “It was harder than I thought. It was easy to read the Bible every day, but the fact is that everyone was there for the same reason. Everyone came to get out of their harsh realities; everyone believed in Jesus superficially. I personally was half in doubt about the faith. Safety and a chance to have a break were what attracted me. And it was something that I really needed at that time. That was why I went to the safe house.”
But God was not done with Seojun. “I started reading the Bible a little,” he says. “And curiosity arose in me. I started praying as well. I prayed that if God—the God who carries out all the miraculous stories in the Bible—[is alive], that He would save me from being captured. At first, I sought the safety house for security but it was there that I felt more [than an] urge to seek security. There, I got to know who God is and I started to understand Him. My doubts slowly disappeared. And I experienced many events to testify about. God saved me from many critical situations. And those experiences of God gradually changed my thoughts. My needs drew me to God but eventually, I was willing to get to know Him better. My thoughts changed.”
Seojun started to seek God and develop a relationship with Him. He was so convinced in his newfound faith that Seojun wanted to return to North Korea to teach others about Jesus, but he knew he couldn’t bring a Bible with him—so he memorized as much of the Bible as he could. In total, he memorized more than 2,000 verses during his years at the safe house.
However, Seojun’s life took a different turn. He wasn’t able to return to his home country because the North Korean government had completed a census and discovered he had escaped.
“As time passed, my chance of going back went down,” he says. “Because rumors about me were spreading in the neighborhood. Also, I remember[ed] there was an election in North Korea after I came out. When there is an election, they take a census. When they take a population census, they do detailed speculation about who is missing and why that person is absent. So I decided not to go back.”
Instead, he left China for South Korea and attended seminary. Today, he serves as a pastor in South Korea. He hopes to one day share his Christian faith with people in a reunified Korea. “[One of the people in China I met] recommended [to] me that I do something to get ready for the unification of North and South Korea,” he says of his decision to attend seminary. He went from a starving teenager in North Korea to someone with a passion for his newfound faith and evangelism.
Seojun’s story represents the stories of many North Koreans who have been forced to flee the oppression and the harsh conditions of their home country. Even if they make it to China—which is often its own perilous journey—they face the prospect of being sent back to North Korea at any point, where they face punishment for leaving in the first place. And if they are found to be a Christian or other religious minority, they risk imprisonment in one of North Korea’s brutal labor camps.
Seojun is so thankful for the ministry of Open Doors safe houses. “I could not understand why the safe house would provide what I needed without any compensation,” he says. “At first, I thought they must have had some kind of hidden motivation. However, as time passed, I realized that they served without expecting a return. The only motivation was God’s love. I came to realize that. But it takes some time to realize that. That is why the safe house ministry is so important. People come to fill their needs, and the place that fills those needs is the safe house. And through those needs, people come to seek God and truly experience [His] love. That is why this ministry is necessary.”
As he continues in ministry and deals with the post-trauma of famine and the constant threat of arrest and deportation, Seojun remains grateful for the prayers and support of Christians around the world. “It is not easy to carry on,” he says. “But I am trying my best to work for His kingdom. I try to give all I have to God. He will appreciate those devoted hearts and use them for His work. Because of those precious hearts, many people come to Christ. And many commit their lives to become God’s servants. God is working to make these happen. I am trying to remember all your prayers and effort and I am trying to live as God’s faithful servant. Thanks so much.”