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Why I treasure freedom

John Choi is a Christian from North Korea. He spent time in detention centre after being caught trying to flee – he was just 15 at the time. Read some of his reflections on freedom and following Jesus without fear below…


Someone recently asked me: ‘What’s it like to have the freedom to live an open Christian life?’ This seemingly easy question took me back to the North Korean detention center where I almost died 14 years ago. I was only fifteen at the time and arrested in China for trying to cross the border to Mongolia.

Though I am happy and free now, my life has been hard and dark. I’ve buried many memories, but certain ‘triggers’ inevitably bring them back to me.

A few weeks ago, I was doing some research. I read reports about North Korean prison camps and suddenly I found myself back in the North Korean detention center. That night, when I went to bed in my free country, I couldn’t close my eyes, afraid for what I would see. But I heard them. I heard the other prisoners scream… and cry. Prisons in North Korea are not silent, not at all.

Writing about this topic is difficult, but I want you to know what it is like. Fifty people were cramped in my prison cell. The guards forced us to sit on the floor the entire time. We were back to back. One other inmate behind me died during the night. Cause of death? Torture? Starvation? Illness? Lack of medical care? All of the above?

Two policemen came and dragged him out as if he were a dead animal. Prisoners are not humans in North Korea. When I was a young boy, I saw a lot of death on the streets. Many died of starvation and were left outside. But at age 15, when I was in a North Korean prison cell, and the prisoner behind me died, that was a new – shocking – experience.

I was overwhelmed with fear. Fear of death. Fear of being dragged away like that guy.

There were hundreds of prisoners like me in this ‘intelligence detention center’. That means that all prisoners – like me – were arrested in China or on their way to China. The guards needed to interrogate us so our sentence could be determined.

Even before my arrest, I had seen many tragedies. Once I was forced to witness a public execution. After the soldiers were done, I ran to collect the empty cartridges. Later, I felt ashamed for myself.

Why am I sharing all this? Because you need to know where I come from to understand how much I value freedom.

I can walk to church without being arrested. I can read the Bible and not be afraid of spies.

I was released from prison after I almost died of torture. It was a miracle. God used a guard to release me. Eventually I fled a second time to China and this time – despite many obstacles and dangers – I reached South Korea safely. Now I live in the United Kingdom and am able to study and work in a free, democratic society.

In North Korea, freedom was a concept, an idea. Here freedom is my daily life. I can walk to church without being arrested. I can read the Bible and not be afraid of spies. I can pray, sing and worship, knowing that God AND others can hear me. I don’t have to be afraid.

But there’s even more to freedom. I have the freedom to express myself any way I want to.

And what to say about the freedom of opportunity? In North Korea, the state decides everything for you. But here we have the possibility to find AND create opportunities.

From these principles stem the gifts of freedom: democratic constitutions, free economic traffic, political and social activities.

I hope you understand from my story how great the gift of freedom and democracy is that you have received. I treasure that gift more than life itself. God saved me from North Korea and gave me that gift. I’m not going to keep it for myself.

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