When North Korea was established as an independent nation after World War II, its leader, Kim Il Sung, outlawed all religions except the worship of himself as the ‘Great Leader.’ Churches were destroyed, Bibles were confiscated and teaching children about Jesus became very dangerous.
For Hae-won, however, Gospel seeds planted at an early age would not remain dormant.
Something roused 10-year-old Hae-won from her sleep. When she raised up from her sleeping mat and looked around the one-room apartment, her eyes fixed on her grandfather’s white Hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) glowing in the moonlight. His legs were crossed, his eyes were closed and he was swaying back and forth. “How strange,” she thought as she watched his quiet movements. “That must be something old people do.” It was the early 1960s, more than 10 years after Kim Il Sung’s communists had taken control of North Korea, and decades would pass before Hae-won would learn the significance of what her grandfather was doing that night.
As a young girl, Hae-won struggled to understand the conversations she overheard between her two grandfathers. They frequently used unfamiliar terms like resurrection, second coming and Red Sea, terms her teachers never used at school. “They are just old and foolish,” she thought. Hae-won also remembers puzzling over why her grandfather sometimes left the house without saying where he was going. And she distinctly remembers hearing a recurring argument between her father and grandfather: “There is something in the galaxies,” her grandfather would insist. But her father’s reply was always an emphatic, “There is nothing!” Though she couldn’t know it at the time, these mysteries were planting seeds in Hae-won’s young heart. When Hae-won was 16, the secret police broke into her family’s small home one night and ransacked the apartment. They looked carefully through all of the books they found, even school books that belonged to Hae-won’s older brother. She couldn’t imagine what they were looking for. “You cannot hide bombs, explosives or weapons inside a book,” she thought. “This is nonsense!” After the police had finished their search, they issued orders for her grandfather’s arrest. Instead of taking her 83-year-old grandfather, however, they took her father because he was better able to endure prison. Hae-won later learned that about 140 others were arrested at the same time, and her grandfather knew them all. As she watched her father leave the house with the secret police, she worried that she would never see him again.
Released and exiled
Hae-won barely recognised her father when he came to the door six months after his arrest. “My father is so skinny, like a skeleton,” she thought. Only his eyes looked familiar to her. As enemies of the regime, Hae-won’s family was exiled to a remote mountainous area. Although her family never spoke of her father’s imprisonment, she learned that half of her grandfather’s friends were killed after their arrest. Prison had changed her father. Whatever he had experienced and witnessed had shaken him, and he no longer praised the ‘Great Leader,’ Kim Il Sung.
In the early 1990s, North Korea was plunged into a devastating famine as a result of floods, drought and economic mismanagement. Four years later, Hae-won, by then married with children, attempted to flee North Korea with her family. Her oldest son had already left for China in search of work, and her grandfather and father had passed away years earlier.
One cold January evening, Hae-won and her family packed as much as they could carry and began the dangerous trek across the frozen Tumen River. But their hopes of a better life in China were quickly dashed when they were caught and sent to a prison camp. Hae-won and her family were assigned to different barracks in the camp, where they were forced to sit day after day on the hard floor and stare at the other prisoners. Any movement resulted in a beating, and they were fed only corn husks. The only chance Hae-won had to see her husband was when the prisoners were allowed to go outside each day. After he failed to show up for several days, she came to the realisation that he had died. “Almost half of the prisoners died because of hopelessness and depression,” she said.
Hae-won was released six months after her arrest. “I thought I would be sent to some kind of political camp,” she said. But to her surprise, she and her surviving family members merely received a warning, “We are merciful to let you out of prison. Behave yourself.” Hae-won and her family were exiled to an area far from the Chinese border, but several months after their release they again attempted to flee the country. This time their flight across the frozen Tumen River succeeded, and Hae-won was reunited with her son, who had relayed a coded message of his whereabouts through a friend.
After safely reaching China, Hae-won found a job at a restaurant. A Christian co-worker soon invited her to church, where she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the hymns. “I didn’t know the lyrics,” she said, “but it tremendously touched my heart just hearing the songs; I wanted to cry.” She placed her faith in Christ, and some years later she and her family made their way to South Korea. As Hae-won read the Bible and learned more about God, she came to understand what she had seen that night when she was 10 years old — her grandfather had been praying silently while the family slept. The discussions she had overheard between her grandfathers were about the Bible, and the arguments between her grandfather and father were about the existence of the one, true God — Hananim. The secret police, she now understood, were looking for Bibles when they ransacked their home. Her grandfather’s mysterious meetings were with Christians, and the 140 people arrested were members of her grandfather’s house church. Hae-won’s father, who despite being an atheist went to prison for her grandfather’s faith, was forever changed by seeing Christians executed for refusing to deny Christ. Hae-won hasn’t forgotten about her homeland. Through VOM’s office in South Korea, she shares the love of Christ today with North Korean defectors in South Korea and across Asia. Although her grandfather kept his faith from the children in order to protect himself and the house church, he planted seeds in her heart that bore fruit decades later. “I realised that I came to Christ because of my grandfather’s prayers.”