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Long Read: Standing firm in North Korea

Hannah’s mother was a secret believer, but Hannah didn’t know much about her faith when she was growing up. All Hannah knew was that her mother was always praying to someone she called ‘Hanonim’ – which means ‘Lord’. Eventually, Hannah was able to hear the gospel, and decided to follow Jesus too – but her faith came at a price. This is Hannah’s story.

I was only a few years old when the Korean War broke out in 1950. I can still hear the air sirens and the planes, and I still see the lights up in the dark sky. I feel my father’s back while I hang on to him. We will spend another night in the mountains. Thank God my father, mother and I survived the war.

In my village there was a church building. It wasn’t destroyed by the bombs. But shortly after the war, parts of the building were torn down and it was changed into a children’s school — my school. I didn’t realise it then, but my mother must have been devastated. She was a Christian, a faithful Christian.

If there’s trouble, you should pray

She prayed every day, often in the living room, quite openly. My father and I had to watch out for our neighbors. If anyone came close, we’d cough and she’d stop praying. Even on her deathbed—in the mid-nineties—she told us to always be thankful and to always pray. “Life is trouble,” she told us. “If there’s trouble, you should pray.” But she didn’t do one thing: she never explained to us how to pray.

All we could make out was, “Hanonim! Hanonim! Lord! Lord! Help.” And then we couldn’t understand the phrases that followed because she spoke so fast. Praying was so important for my mother that she even washed her hair and put on her nicest clothes. “We approach God with the deepest reverence,” she said. We had no idea who this ‘Hanonim’ was. My daughter even asked her one day why she wouldn’t simply visit this guy if he was that important to her. My mother replied, “One day I will.”

But someone told her that if she prayed to Jesus she would have a baby. So she prayed…

Because of my mother’s prayers, I was never as indoctrinated by the Juche ideology as other North Korean people. Especially after she told me how I was born. My father and mother were married during the Japanese occupation. My father had been married before, but he was unable to have any children with his first wife. And my mother was also unable to conceive. But someone told her that if she prayed to Jesus she would have a baby. So she prayed. For almost eight years she prayed. And then, not long after the Second World War, I was born.

As I said, my mother never explained the full gospel to me, but when I got married in my early twenties, she shared this story with me. And I knew I was a gift of faith.

Life in North Korea

Life was hard. I had six children, two of them died very early on. I still have three daughters and a son. My husband used to work in a factory, but when the economy collapsed and there was no more work, there was also no more income. I had to take care of my family.

I had all kinds of jobs. I worked in a factory and also selling stuff on the black market. It required me to travel from the east of the country to the west. Because I was traveling illegally, there were many times I had to jump from the train before it came to a complete stop. One time, my leg got stuck in the train and I was badly injured.

The injury, the heavy work and the hardships affected my spine. I cannot straighten my back anymore. Sometimes I carried heavy, frozen meat up the mountains, so I could later sell it on the black market. This cost me my finger and toe nails. There was never any money for proper medical care.

Escape to China

We couldn’t survive any more in North Korea. After my mother died, my oldest daughters were the first to flee to China, but they were betrayed by the broker. They were supposed to meet with a relative of my husband but were sold into marriage to poor Chinese farmers. Fortunately, they were sold to families in the same village and they were able to stay in touch with each other.

When we didn’t hear from them, my husband decided to go after them. In the meantime, I took care of the two youngest children who were still at home. My husband didn’t come back, and a year later, I went to look for them in China.

At first, I couldn’t locate my husband. I worked on a Chinese farm as a maid, but I didn’t receive any money. I had lost everything that was dear to me. I prayed to God with the only words I knew: “Hanonim, Hanonim! Lord, Lord! Please help!” Finally, I found my husband’s relative and he connected me with my husband. My daughters were still missing.

My husband decided to go back to North Korea and bring the two remaining children, who were staying with family, out. He succeeded. Somehow my husband had also been able to find information about our two oldest daughters. He said he would try to find them, and he did! A few weeks later our entire family was reunited in China.

My husband’s relative brought us to church and this is where we first heard the entire gospel. We had seen the faith in the life of my mother, but now we understood it. All of us accepted Jesus Christ that day. We felt peace in our hearts and unexplainable joy. It was so refreshing, as if the dirt in my eyes had been washed away and I could finally see God. Now I could follow Him like my mother had. The pastor taught us about Christ and the Christian life. Our faith grew very quickly because we had been prepared all our lives for this moment.

After two weeks, my oldest daughters had to go back home to the Chinese families they had been sold to. They were safer there, but we promised each other to stay in touch. We all needed to figure out where to go from there. Going back to North Korea wasn’t an option, but staying in China was dangerous too. Should we try to go to South Korea? But how?

‘If believing in God is a sin, I’d rather die’

Soon our life completely changed from hope to despair. We were discovered by Chinese secret agents and arrested. They moved us from prison to prison until we were finally sent back to North Korea.

We were separated by gender. My daughter and I were put in the female wing and my husband and son—who was just a teenager—in a cell with males. We were all called for interrogation and questions. They’d beat us so harshly. When there was no interrogation, we had to kneel in our cells not speak.

My husband was treated badly. He told the guards that he had become a believer. Later he said he had no other choice. After he saw what they did with the baby and the guards threatened to kill his family, he had to tell them the truth. After his confession, all four of us were locked up in solitary confinement – a small cage. We didn’t receive any food or water and were not able to sleep.

Prisoners in solitary confinement were badly beaten up. Nobody dared to resist because you’d only make the torture worse. But my husband was different. The more they tortured him, the harder he defended his faith. He yelled at them, “If believing in God is a sin, I’d rather die! Just kill me! It’s my mission to live according to God’s will!”

But each time he spoke out against them, they stripped him of his clothes and beat him up as if he was an animal. His flesh was torn and ripped. When he lost his consciousness, they woke him up and started again.

I too felt close to dying. I was dehydrated and beaten until I was unconscious too. When I woke up, I was dragged back to a regular cell with my daughter and other female inmates. Then they beat me in front of them. All my daughter could do was cry silently, which she did day and night.

Praying for a miracle

I prayed that God would change this prison into a church.

Of course, we prayed throughout our time in prison. One day, our entire family was called out of the prison cell. That was a bad sign. Usually, when prisoners are taken from their cells in the evening they are brought to a political prisoner camp. While my daughter and I were walking to the office where we’d hear about our fate, we prayed silently. I prayed that God would change this prison into a church. I really missed my church friends in China.

When we got to the office, there were two male prisoners. One I recognised as my son, but the other was in such a bad shape. I didn’t recognise my husband and he didn’t recognise me. That’s how horrendous we looked from all the torture. His ribs and collarbone were broken, so that he could not even stand up straight. But I realised it was him.

We were in front of the deputy of the prison, waiting to hear our verdict, and in our minds we all desperately prayed for a miracle. We didn’t want to suffer and die in a political prisoner camp. God answered our prayer. The deputy gave us a special amnesty. When we walked out the prison that night and were finally free and alone, we quietly sang a hymn.

Seperated again

We went to our old home to recover from our prison experience, but we still feared for our lives. Life in North Korea was too dangerous and too hard. My husband suggested that I take my daughter first and go back to China. He said, “Just go to our church. Our brothers and sisters will help you. I will come with our son in about a month. Then we will worship Jesus together.”

I did what he said and reached China and our home church safely with our daughter. One month went by. No word came from my husband. Then, a second month, a third, a fourth… I waited three years. Then I found out that he had died shortly after we left. He was never able to overcome the pain and illnesses from prison. My son was too young to help him.

My son could not cross the river by himself. He is still in North Korea. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in many years. But every day I pray and ask God for His protection. I will never give up hope of finding him.

About two years ago I found out that he is still alive and lives with a family member. We were even able to call each other once. I now live in South Korea and serve God here. My first and third daughter are here with me. My second daughter lives with her Chinese husband. She is still at risk of being discovered and sent back. It’s my prayer and hope that I will be reunited in South Korea with my daughter and my son.

In North Korea, my mother only taught me one prayer. But I still pray it every day, for my family and for my country: “Hanonim, Hanonim! Lord, Lord, please help!”

What you can do…

Pray. For protection and provision for the thousands of secret believers in North Korea, for comfort and strength for those who have been imprisoned for their faith, and that one day soon, the people of North Korea will be free to follow Jesus without fear.
Give a gift. Open Doors workers are able to reach 60,000 believers in North Korea with food, clothes and medicines – but none of our work would be possible without the support of people like you. Give here…

We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.