Mon, Feb 11, 2019 - Page 8 News List

North Korea’s hidden Christians

Defector accounts paint picture of faithful in the Hermit Kingdom


Most remaining Christians in North Korea likely learned about the religion when they went to China after a devastating famine killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s. Converts were later captured in China and jailed once they were sent back to the North.

Most denied their faith while being interrogated, as H.Y. said she was later forced to do when imprisoned in the North, so they could survive. But not everyone did.

Another defector in Seoul, Kwak Jeong-ae, 65, said a fellow inmate in North Korea told guards about her own religious beliefs and insisted on using her baptized name, rather than her original Korean name, during questioning in 2004.

“She persisted in saying, ‘My name is Hyun Sarah; it’s the name that God and my church have given to me,’” Kwak said. “She told (the interrogators), ‘I’m a child of God and I’m not scared to die. So if you want to kill me, go ahead and kill me.’”

Kwak said Hyun told her about what she did during the interrogations, and Hyun’s actions were confirmed to Kwak by another inmate who was interrogated alongside her. Kwak said she later saw Hyun, then 23, coming back from an interrogation room with severe bruises on her forehead and bleeding from her nose. Days later, guards took Hyun away for good.


Actions like that strike many defectors and South Koreans as extraordinary.

More common are stories like that from another defector, who also insisted on anonymity because of fears for her family in the North. She said she only prayed under a blanket or in the toilet because of worries of being caught.

Another, who was jailed after being repatriated from China, described praying silently in his cell after a hungry fellow prisoner shared some precious kernels of corn.

“We communicated by writing on our palms (with our fingers). I told him I was a Christian and asked whether he was too,” said the man, who asked to be identified only as J.M., citing safety concerns about his siblings in the North.

Some were even more outspoken.

Jung Gwangil, a North Korean defector-turned-activist, said he saw a man praying and singing hymns when they were held together at a detention facility in the northern city of Hoeryong in October 1999. The man was beaten frequently and one day was hauled away, Jung said.

“While leaving, he shouted to us, ‘God will save you.’ I hadn’t encountered Christianity before at the time, and I thought he was crazy,” said Jung. It wasn’t clear what happened to the man.

After H.Y. was sent back again to North Korea, she began evangelical work with money she received regularly from outside missionary groups. She said she first tried to win people’s trust by lending them money, handing out corn and helping at funerals before cautiously telling them about Christianity.

“We sang hymns very quietly, looking at each other’s lips. I ended up crying quite often,” she said of her converts.

Now in her early 40s, she said she regularly sends money to North Korea through brokers to maintain her village’s underground congregation.

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