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Finding faith on the run from North Korea

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WORLD Radio - Finding faith on the run from North Korea

North Korean women who defected found healing in the gospel


This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says is a ballistic missile in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, on March 19, 2023. Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up, escaping North Korea. Last week, the communist regime in Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile.

It came just hours before a groundbreaking summit between South Korea and Japan was scheduled to take place. Audio here from North Korea’s state-run media.

AUDIO: [MISSLE LAUNCH, MUSIC, BROADCASTER SPEAKING IN KOREAN]

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Meanwhile, food shortages in North Korea are at their worst point since 1990, according to analysis by the Stimson Center’s publication, 38 North. But while the Kim regime threatens surrounding nations and citizens of North Korea starve, there are some who have not only escaped but have found peace.

EICHER: Last week, WORLD reporter Carolina Lumetta met two such women, and she brings us their story.

LEE HA-EUN: Hello, nice to meet you.

CAROLINA LUMETTA, REPORTER: That’s LEE Ha-Eun. She was one of the last women to escape from North Korea before the COVID-19 pandemic. And she’s here in Washington DC to speak to lawmakers and Hill staffers about the human rights abuses she endured.

LEE HA-EUN: First of all, I would like thank you everybody here for giving me this opportunity to speak for the poor women in North Korea who are suffering without freedom and equality.

Lee and two other women, all going by aliases for security reasons, shared horrific stories about the suffering they experienced at the hands of North Korean officials. But what they didn’t tell Hill staffers is what helped them to survive and heal since then their faith.

Ji Hannah first encountered the church in 2010 when she was looking for work across the river in Changbai, China. From a young age, she’d been taught to fear and hate Christian missionaries. Here’s her interpreter, Johnny Park of the Defense Forum Foundation.

JI HANNAH: There's one story that the government officials share with the people of North Korea that a kid North Korean kid just picked up an apple on the ground within the church periphery and the church missionary tied him to the apple tree and wrote the word ‘thief’ with acid on the kid's forehead.

But during her time in China, Hannah realized that the government had lied about missionaries and the church.

HANNAH: When I first saw North Korean defectors kneeling down praying or reading the Bible, I thought that that was ridiculous, because in my case, I left North Korea for food, so I was not really interested in that. And one day a South Korean missionary taught me a gospel song titled “I didn't know Jesus when I was lost.” And as I was just singing that gospel song I don't know why but it really touched my heart.

Just when Hannah thought she’d found a new life at the church in China, disaster struck.

HANNAH: After studying the Bible for about a month and a half, a Korean Chinese person reported us to the Chinese police, accusing us falsely of conducting the act of espionage. So three of us were arrested by the Chinese police officers.

Hannah and her fellow defector were detained and tortured for three months before being extradited to North Korea and sent to prison camps.

HANNAH: After I just went through that experience, I was so afraid. And despite the fact that I I believed in God, I was just so afraid that they might find out and send me to the political prison camp. So I had to hide my faith and had to pull myself away from learning the Bible.

Hannah made two more attempts to escape North Korea via China. Both times, a Chinese-Korean pastor named Han Chung-Ryeol taught her the scriptures and helped her find allies who eventually succeeded in guiding her to freedom in South Korea. But Pastor Han’s help came at a cost.

HANNAH: Whenever North Koreans have managed to leave their country and meet people like Pastor Han, who can help them but also who can teach them the word of God. It became a big threat to the State Security Bureau. So in April 2016, the State Security Bureau sent their people into China and assassinated Pastor Han.

As a Christian, Hannah has wrestled with how God can be good in the face of such evil.

HANNAH: For most North Koreans, it is very hard for for us to believe in God. But then, just considering all the adversities that we all had to go through, sometimes even we're betrayed by our own people. And yet, like God never betrays us.

Lee Hyun, who we met earlier, came to a similar conclusion in her own story. She ran a goods smuggling network in North Korea before the State Security Bureau intercepted her phone calls and arrested her. Lee’s captors tortured her and her husband and forced them to divorce, and she never saw him again. Lee eventually escaped to China and settled down further south in the country of Laos before she encountered Christian missionaries. Through their ministry, Lee found healing and the ability to confront her memories of those who tortured her.

LEE HA-EUN: After I come out of the detention center, I really wanted to revenge, you know, I wanted to hurt them. But now, after I become a Christian, and I accepted Jesus as my Savior, and read the Bible, now, I can forgive them.

Now a member of an organization seeking the reconciliation of North and South Korea, Lee not only wants political peace. She wants peace for the people she met during her imprisonment.

LEE HA-EUN: If I ever have a chance to go back to North Korea, and to meet my old cellmate, I would like to say, ‘everybody, there is God even though you are suffering now. God will help you, God will give you the strength to endure your, you know, suffering.

In the midst of suffering, this passage from Matthew has given Lee, Ji, and other Korean defectors hope.

AUDIO: [Lee Ha-eun reciting Matt. 11:28-29 in Korean.]

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Carolina Lumetta in Washington D.C.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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