When North Korean authorities caught Min-ji selling South Korean DVDs to earn extra money in 2008, her husband, Kun-woo, feared for his life. As a high-ranking member of North Korea’s State Security Department (SSD), he knew his wife’s crime, which was punishable by death, could implicate him too. In fact, their entire family could be executed because she was selling ‘propaganda’ from the south on the black market. To delay his capture and potentially save his teenage children, Kun-woo fled to Yanji, China. Meanwhile, Min-ji’s relatives, also SSD officials, took in the children and bribed those who oversaw her case to reduce her sentence.
Instead of death, she received a prison sentence.
Kun-woo returned to North Korea following Min-ji’s release from prison, but he was not the same man Min-ji remembered. He could not stop talking about a book called the Bible and a being named God who hears our prayers. A family he met in China had told him about the Good News of Jesus Christ, and now every time Kun-woo ate a meal with his family, he gave thanks to the Lord. “I thought he was crazy,” Min-ji told a VOM worker.
In the four months the family was together, Kun-woo’s prayers became troublesome, as he began praying even with people outside the family. In North Korea, neighbours are required to spy on each other; therefore Christians must pray in secret. Sharing the Gospel is even more dangerous than prayer; a simple mention of Jesus Christ can lead to arrest.
Although he knew his entire family could be severely punished for his bold faith, Kun-woo couldn’t help but share what he had learned in China. “I think he shared with at least 20 other people,” Min-ji said. “At that time, I was so resentful of him. My case had just been closed. Why would he put all the family in danger, a greater danger, again?”
Eventually, someone did report Kun-woo’s activities. One night, authorities came to the couple’s home and arrested them, and Kun-woo was immediately taken to a concentration camp. Under the country’s “no-mercy” law, anyone who elevated God above Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s supreme leader at the time, was taken to the camp without trial.
Christians in North Korea are routinely sent to concentration camps, where they are starved, overworked and tortured. Christian and secular analysts estimate that about 30,000 Christians are currently suffering in various camps throughout North Korea.
Min-ji believes her husband died in the camp. “I still do not know how my husband died,” she said. She never learned who reported him either.
At the time of the arrests, Min-ji’s uncle, who held a chief position with the SSD, knew that Min-ji was in danger of being sent to a concentration camp because of her husband’s Christian faith. So for her own protection, he instead had her sent to a labour camp.
Prisoners in labour camps, known as kyohwaso, spend 15 hours a day working in coal mines, performing farm labour or doing construction work. They receive only a few mouthfuls of simple food, such as corn, porridge or cabbage, twice a day. But despite the torturous work, they at least know they’re likely to be released one day.
Those like Kun-woo, who are found guilty of serious crimes, are sent to concentration camps known as kwanliso. They are typically imprisoned for life if they are not executed. Conditions at these camps are so dreadful that nearly 40% of inmates die of starvation, and those who don’t starve often lose up to half of their body weight. Former prisoners have reported that inmates sometimes eat grass and rats to survive.
“I was the luckiest among my family since I was only in the labour camp,” Min-ji said. Two years into her detention, her uncle was fired for breaking protocol with her case, and all of her relatives faced interrogation. She said her mother and a nephew died from the stress.
Pursued by God
After more than six years in the labour camp, Min-ji was finally released. She said she barely survived its brutal conditions, but she knows it could have been worse. Someone in the labour camp who had known a concentration camp survivor told her that authorities there pack the mouths of Christians full of gravel so they can’t scream as they are beaten to death. “They always beat Christians to death,” Min-ji said. “This is what I heard.”
Later, once released, Min-ji decided to defect. She said she felt it was necessary in order to support her children, who were young adults at the time. “Our family had no future in North Korea after the death of my husband and my own six years of imprisonment,” she said. “I needed to find a way to live, at least for my children.”
Min-ji bribed a border guard to allow her and one of her children to cross the Yalu River into China. Yet after crossing the river, her child decided to turn back. Alone, Min-ji continued the walk toward Yanji, China, where a friend had a car waiting for her. “To get there, I had to walk for ten hours alone, crossing at least five mountains,” she said.
Min-ji stayed in Yanji for a month, earning money by caring for a Christian woman with Alzheimer’s disease who lived with other believers. She found it odd that the women believed in the same God that her husband had worshipped. “They invited me to sing Christian songs together and to pray together,” she recalled.
About a month later, Min-ji decided to try moving on to South Korea. She first travelled to Beijing, where she met a broker who was going to help her and other North Korean defectors cross into South Korea. But before they could leave China, she and her group of defectors were reported as possible human traffickers because the group included young children.
“The police showed up,” Min-ji said. “Because we had no proof of citizenship or visa, we were taken to a prison.”
Chinese authorities considered sending the group back to North Korea. However, some Christians in South Korea who had been praying for the group of defectors contacted the South Korean embassy in China and explained that the North Koreans were simply trying to reach family members in the south.
At the time, however, the South Korean government was in a state of transition – the president had just been impeached – so they weren’t accepting any refugees. As a result, Min-ji remained in the Chinese prison for nearly two years.
“Interestingly, and thankfully, the Chinese guards treated us well,” she said. “Sometimes, the police even gave us certain foods that we wanted when we asked for them. The hardest part was not knowing whether I would be sent back to North Korea or if I would be able to defect to South Korea. It was very stressful.”
While in prison, Min-ji met many Chinese women who had been detained for their Christian faith. A month into their imprisonment, a North Korean woman from her defection group finally felt comfortable enough to share that she, too, was a follower of Christ.
“If we were sent [back] to North Korea and it was discovered that we had encountered a church and Christianity, we would surely die,” Min-ji said. “So she could not share anything with me for the first month that we were together. But in prison, one has a lot of time.”
After confessing her faith to Min-ji, the woman – filled with joy – grabbed her toothpaste and used it to write ‘Jesus Christ’ on the prison wall. “It was my first time to see the words ‘Jesus Christ’, so I asked her what it was,” Min-ji recalled. “She began to share with me what Christianity is.”
The Chinese guards had allowed the woman to bring a Bible into prison with her, so she began reading it with Min-ji. “The first time I read the Bible, I felt it was odd to do so because it was on account of the Bible that my husband was killed and I ended up there,” she said.
In addition to the influence of her North Korean friend, Min-ji was moved by how empathetic the Chinese Christians were. “These sisters were very nice to us and prayed for us,” she said. “When they prayed, they did so with tears. I wondered why they cried out like this even though it was my problem, not their own matter. I also wondered why they kept their faith even though they were persecuted and imprisoned for it.”
One day their love started to make sense, and so did the Gospel. Min-ji then decided to place her faith in Jesus Christ. “I had received so much grace from them,” she said. “I began to wonder about the God who was consistently intervening in my life.”
When the Chinese Christians were released, they gave Min-ji 1,000 Chinese Yuan (roughly $200) through the guards, who normally did not allow prisoners to receive money from other prisoners being released.
A New Outlook
Min-ji contacted her nieces in South Korea after her release from the Chinese prison, and they arranged for a broker to help her cross into South Korea.
Once there, Min-ji learned about Voice of the Martyrs through another North Korean defector and soon enrolled in VOM’s Underground Technology (UT) programme. Along with other North Korean defectors, she received an academic foundation as well as instruction in life skills, character development, relationship skills and spiritual formation.
“I love UT because the teachers teach me the Bible,” she said. “I see and hear things that I could not see in church. Also, I have never seen any people like [these] students before. The students truly become transformed, so much so that they do not look like the people in North Korea. Also, the school administration is merciful, and the people have kind manners. I want to follow in my husband’s footsteps. I have a heart to follow Jesus like my husband. I want to go to a theological school to do God’s work after I retire.”
Min-ji’s grown children have also now defected to South Korea. One of them, she said, still suffers from the trauma of Kun-woo’s imprisonment and death for his faith. As a result, that child struggles with the Christian faith. “Neither of my children go to church regularly,” she said, “but they believe in God. Please pray for both of my children and for me to faithfully walk in the path that my husband had already walked through.”
Looking back, Min-ji wishes she had considered her husband’s faith when he first shared it with her. “At the time, I did not see with the same eyes that my husband did,” she said. “If I had only had the spiritual eyes that I have now at that time. My concern then was only to earn money for my family and be loyal to my beloved nation.”
Kun-woo’s walk with Christ is never far from Min-ji’s memory. “I lost my husband when we were still young. A long time ago, whenever I thought about my husband, I always began to cry. Now I feel like I am with my husband because I am surrounded by Christians who were like my husband.”
More than a decade after Kun-woo joyfully shared his new Christian faith with her, Min-ji’s own relationship with Christ and her new Christian family grows ever stronger.