North Korea has enough prisoners in concentration camps to easily fill Wembley, Twickenham and Old Trafford. These prisoners have been stripped of their humanity and are forced to live in gruesome conditions.
Hea Woo* was one of those people. She spent many years in a small labour camp in the north of the country where she was tortured, starved and forced to work 12-hour days.
Growing up, Hea Woo heard lots of stories about Christian missionaries. They infiltrated North Korea and enticed vulnerable citizens, hospital patients and children down into cellars. They locked them away and harvested their organs and blood to sell. Christians, Hea Woo believed, were the enemy working in collaboration with America. They would not hesitate to catch her and kill her.
What Hea Woo didn’t realise was that her mother was a Christian. “She was always mumbling – barely audible,” Hea Woo said. “I realise now that she was praying.” Like most Christian parents in North Korea, Hea Woo’s mother never told her about her faith. It was too dangerous.
North Koreans are indoctrinated from cradle to grave and from morning until evening. Propaganda is poured over citizens, through television, radio channels, newspapers and loudspeakers. One of the first thing parents must teach their children are the words ‘Thank you, Father Kim Il-sung’. At school children are taught to report on their parents, especially if they see them reading a black book at home.
Many children will bow under the scrutiny of interrogation. Others might accidently sing a Christian song or tell a Bible story to their friends. It is safer to keep your faith a secret from your own son or daughter until they are old enough to understand the danger.
Hea Woo’s mother didn’t tell her about her faith, but she tried to guide her daughter to the truth. She said that Kim Il-sung was human like everyone else, that he had to eat and sleep too. But Hea Woo didn’t believe her. The great leader was God.
Many years later, when Hea Woo was married and had children of her own, the famine hit North Korea. What was a good life by North Korean standards quickly deteriorated.
During the famine 3 million people died or fled the country. Families survived on grass and leaves. Like thousands of others, Hea Woo decided they would be much better off in South Korea. Her husband, Geun,* left first, crossing over the Tumen River to China. He planned to find a safe route to South Korea. Hea Woo and their three children would follow when everything was arranged.
But Geun was arrested in China and deported back to North Korea. After six months in a labour camp, he died.
One day a man came to Hea Woo’s door to tell her that he had been in prison with her husband. Soon after another man came, then another. “They all said the same thing,” said Hea Woo. “That my husband had been good to them in prison. He had taken care of them and told them about the gospel. Geun revealed that he had come to faith in China. After I heard the testimony of these men I suddenly realised that Kim Il-sung was not God. I had lived my whole life based on a lie.“Instinctively I realised that Geun had found the truth. Although I was always told Christians were dangerous, because of my husband’s testimony I was no longer afraid.” Hea Woo escaped to China and went to a Korean church there. “They took care of me. They explained the whole gospel to me, but to start with I couldn’t understand it at all. But gradually it began to get through to me that there was a God.
“There’s only one explanation as to why I accepted this incredible tale as truth: my mother and husband had prayed for me. I’m convinced of this.”
Hea Woo was so overwhelmed by God’s love that in the years that followed she studied her Bible meticulously, copying out long portions and memorising psalms. She told everyone she met about the amazing love that had changed her life.
During this time her children came to join her in China and they made plans to travel on to South Korea together. But they would arrive many years before Hea Woo.
“I was staying with a number of other North Koreans in a shelter. One evening after work two of them went to a bar and got drunk. The police arrested them for disorderliness and, of course, it became apparent that they were illegal immigrants from North Korea. They were interrogated, and the police made them say where they were staying. They gave them the address of the shelter. The next day the police came around with the intention of arresting all the refugees. There were none at home. Except me. I was taken away.” Hea Woo and the other two North Koreans were deported.
“The first two days, I was interrogated for hours,” Hea Woo said. The inspectors screamed at me, but fortunately didn’t touch me. That was soon to change. The two other North Koreans said that I’d been teaching them about Christianity. Probably they wanted to get off more lightly. I was taken back to the interrogation room and the guards were merciless from then on.”
All North Korean Christians know that one day they may have to die for their faith. Each year hundreds of Christians are exposed, tortured and sent to camps where they are worked or starved to death. Christians are treated worse than the other prisoners. They are made to perform the most dangerous tasks, given less food and beaten in the hope that they will denounce their faith. If a guard succeeds in making a prisoner recant their faith they are given a promotion. Guards who show compassion are punished. Most Christians will not survive their imprisonment.
Hea Woo was sentenced to a labour camp for ‘illegally crossing the border’. Miraculously, the judge didn’t take her faith into account because she hadn’t practised it in North Korea.
“Every day was torture,” she said. “I often recalled the ten plagues that God poured down on Egypt. Everyday felt like all ten plagues at once.
“Constantly people were dying. Death was a part of our daily life. The bodies were usually burned, and the ashes scattered on the path. Every day we walked down that path and I always thought, one day the other prisoners will be walking over me.
“Despite everything I remained faithful to God. God helped me survive. Even more, he gave me the desire to evangelise. God used me to lead five people to faith. I tried to teach them what I knew. It wasn’t much because we didn’t have access to the Bible in the camp.” On Sundays and at Christmas, Hea Woo and her church would meet in the toilets which were so repugnant that it meant that they were left alone. She would recite Bible verses that she remembered from her time in China and the group would sing hymns under their breath.
There were some near misses with the guards and times they were sure they would be discovered, but every member of that little church survived their imprisonment. Eventually Hea Woo was considered to have been re-educated by the state. “I had never been so happy in my life. I was standing outside the gates that I had been driven through years before. I had seen death and destruction and had almost died myself. But God had taken care of me and now he was allowing me to go out. I sprinted off as soon as the gates set in motion. I wormed my way through the tiny opening and ran away. I didn’t stop running and didn’t look back at the camp. I never wanted to see that horrible place again.”
Like 25,000 other refugees from the north, Hea Woo now lives in South Korea. After being released from prison, Hea Woo lived in a nearby village, praying for people and seeing miracles until, at last, she was able to go to South Korea. By then her children were living there. Through underground networks her son had planned her route and paid people to take her from China to Laos, to Thailand and finally on a plane to South Korea.
Hea Woo immediately fell in love with South Korea. “I was in a terrible place, but I knew that God was preparing a table for me. I would experience goodness and love,” Hea Woo said. “Now I am so happy here. I am not rich compared to most people here, but I have Jesus in my heart.”
North Korea is number one on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the most dangerous places on earth to be a Christian. Open Doors’ goal has always been to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Revelation 3:2, NIV). This verse is especially relevant to the North Korean Church. Without the generosity of Open Doors supporters, many Christians would starve to death. Open Doors works to support the Church in North Korea by supplying persecuted believers with emergency relief aid such as food, medicines and clothes, delivering Bibles, and training through radio broadcasting. Find out more about Open Doors’ work in North Korea and how you can get involved at opendoorsuk.org/sorted.
*Names changed for security reasons