Eun Hye’s encouraging story of God’s faithfulness
16-year-old Eun Hye closed the toilet door behind her. She was now in the safest and the dirtiest place in the kotjebi camp – a camp for North Korean street children. Her parents and sisters were in China, her younger brother with an uncle. She had survived the Great Famine of the 1990s, when three out of every five of her classmates died. She wished she had died too. At least she would not have been this alone. This camp was nothing more than a waiting room before death came to collect here. There was nothing left to live for. Not even someone to talk to. Nobody. Except for the God of her grandmother. Could this invisible Father save her? Or would He require her life?
Standing above the dirty hole and resisting the terrible smell, her life flashed in front of her eyes. She saw her grandmother outside the house, finding cover, finding a place to kneel and speak to the One she called ‘Hanonim’. She always thanked Him and asked Him for help. Eun Hye remembered her fear. There was always a chance grandmother could get caught. They would take her away to a political prison. Probably Eun Hye and the rest of the family too.
Now, in this orphanage of death, she whispered the words she had heard her grandmother whisper on so many occasions. “Hanonim, please save me. Please rescue me. Bring me back to my family.”
Months before her parents had brought Eun Hye and her brother to an uncle, while they followed their oldest daughters who had gone missing in China. With his niece and nephew under his roof, the uncle now had to take care of five people. At first there was rice soup, but that was soon gone and the family had to eat grass soup.
Because Eun Hye’s parents didn’t return, the uncle told Eun Hye he could only take care of one of them. There simply wasn’t enough food for everyone.
A prayer of despair
Eun Hye did what every other loving older sister would do: she left the house and tried her luck on the streets. She had no home and no plan. There was nowhere to go. She sat down and prayed to the God of her grandmother for the first time. “Father, I am left without my parents, my siblings and my house. My life is so dark. Please save me from this hardship, death, and suffering.”
It was a prayer without conviction. Not a prayer of hope, but a prayer of despair.
Only a few weeks later she was caught by the police and brought to the camp for street children. It was a crowded place with over 2,000 children. Eun Hye had to stay in a barrack that housed 200 children. There wasn’t even enough room to sit. She had to stand day and night, making her legs swell up. She’d receive five potatoes three times a day. The potatoes were tiny, the size of candies. Eun Hye quickly learned how to catch and eat a rat. There were plenty of rats in the barracks.
With no opportunity to wash themselves, the children’s bodies were filthy and tormented by maggots. Every day, children passed away because of the malnutrition. Their corpses were dragged out of the barracks.
Nobody wanted to go to the bathroom unless they had no choice. But Eun Hye came to appreciate those precious moments alone with the God of her grandmother. “Lord, save me from this pain, sadness and death.”
Two months after her arrival in the camp, the guards asked for volunteers to collect chestnuts by climbing up trees in the mountains. It meant a long, difficult journey. Eun Hye and the other children were very weak and she had no intention of participating in what could become a walk of death. But then she heard a voice in her head she didn’t recognize.
Somehow she knew that this was the answer to her bathroom prayers and she joined the group. They walked for several days (and part of the nights) and traveled about a 100 kilometers until they reached the mountains. Then they were divided into groups of thirty and sent into the mountains with a supervisor. At some point, they had to cross a large reservoir with small boats. Then she was placed in a unit of four children. Two went up the trees to pick the chestnuts, while two others stayed down to collect them.
Eun Hye made sure she didn’t have to climb up the trees. There was no way to escape from there. Instead, she looked at the older girl next to her. “Do you want to escape?”
“Yes”, the girl replied.
They would get caught if they tried to steal a boat and take it to cross the water.
“Can you swim?” Eun Hye asked. The girl shook her head.
Once again, Eun Hye prayed for help.
They ran away from the tree and followed the trail down the mountain. They discovered the house of an old woman and with the little money the two had, they bought a rope. When they arrived at the reservoir, the girls tied the ropes around their waists. The girl would try to float, while Eun Hye used all the strength she had to swim to the other side, dragging her friend through the water.
They reached the shore safely and walked all the way to a big city. Afraid to be caught again, they decided to illegally board a train. Because they didn’t have train tickets nor travel permits, they dug a hole under the wall with their bare hands – which became dirty and bloody – and accessed the railway track that way. Then they decided to go to their separate ways.
Finally, Eun Hye reached her hometown. She went to an older couple she had known before. They had lost a son due to starvation and could take care of Eun Hye only for a couple of days. Then she left again. She prayed, “God, I have no place to go. My future looks so bleak. Please guide me.”
Walking in the countryside, she stumbled upon piles of corn husks, each with a few acorns inside. It helped her to survive the next three months. All this time she visited people she knew and contacted strangers as well. “Help me”, she asked them. “I will do anything for food and shelter.”
A farmer’s family took her in. At least she was safe for a while and now her prayers shifted from survival to finding her family. “Thank you, Lord, for what you’ve done for me. May I please continue to live here? And please help me find my family.”
Back in the arms of her father
One day, a family who knew about Eun Hye’s whereabouts contacted her. “Your father is with us,” they said. “And your brother too.”
She had prayed but without faith. She thought she had lost her family forever. And now her dad was back to get her! She didn’t waste any time and went to her father, who had come to take his two remaining children with him to China.
“How is mother?” Eun Hye asked him.
“Your mother is fine. And your sisters too. They are married in China. The living standards are so much better.”
“Where do mother and you live?”
“With your Chinese aunt,” he said. “She is a believer and attends church.”
Eun Hye had prayed but without knowledge. She had no clue who this God, whom she called ‘Hanonim’ (Lord), was. Her father, himself only a young believer, explained to her what he knew. That God was the one who could save you from difficulties and that Jesus had forgiven them for their sins. “The only way to live from now on is to pray to God. Ask Him to help us return to China safely, so that our family can be whole again.”
They went to the river and crossed it. Her father tied her brother to himself with a rope and made sure both of them arrived at the other side safely. Eun Hye swam by herself. Behind her, North Korea was pitch black. The Chinese city in front of her burst with lights.
When they finally arrived at her Chinese aunt’s house, there was a celebration. Eun Hye told her mother about her prayers in North Korea. She quickly noticed her father had told the truth about the living standards. There were no street children, no blackouts, every household ate rice and everybody was friendly.
That Sunday, Eun Hye went to church with her mother. For the first time in her life, she saw the cross at the wall. And she could see other people praying. They prayed with the same gestures and the same words as her grandmother had, so many years ago.
She didn’t understand the sermon – it was in Chinese – but she felt at home. She realized that the prayers of her grandmother, of her mother, of her father and the prayers of the church in China allowed her to make it safely to China. “I was so thankful for their prayers. Later, a translator explained more about God to me. He had saved us. Jesus had died and was resurrected to cleanse us of our sins.”
China felt like heaven to her. But China isn’t paradise. Not by a long shot. All North Korean refugees are at risk of being caught and repatriated.
Someone reported Eun Hye’s family. Her parents, her brother and her were arrested and brought to a Chinese prison. Eun Hye cried when they were driven to a bridge that connects China to North Korea. Her parents were shackled together. Eun Hye, almost 17, and her 13-year-old brother as well. It hurt the most to see the handcuff around her brother’s wrist.
In North Korea, they were transported to a detention center near her hometown. Her mother and Eun Hye were put in a women’s cell, her father and brother in a cell with other men. It was winter and the outside temperatures had dropped to -30 degrees Celsius. Eun Hye wasn’t wearing winter clothes. Soon, her feet began to hurt and turned black. Frostbite. The prison doctor said that her feet may have to be amputated.
But that wasn’t the worst part. Soon the interrogations began. Each family member was interrogated individually. They brought out a phone. “Where are your older sisters?” they shouted. “Are they in China?”
Eun Hye refused to answer.
“We can make a call and bring them here if you don’t tell us where they are!”
Even the interrogation wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part was that her father confessed he was a Christian. Eun Hye’s parents were put in solitary confinement and tortured every day. She could hear their screams.
“Why is it a crime to believe in God?” her father asked his tormentors. He said he would continue to believe and pray, even in prison.
Then Eun Hye’s unconscious mother was dragged in front of her cell. She was beaten so badly that Eun Hye hardly recognized her. “You will end up like her if you continue to lie!” they warned her.
Eun Hye wanted to scream and cry, but she kept it all inside. Crying wasn’t allowed and would mean more punishment. She couldn’t do anything for her mother. Minutes later, the security agents dragged her mother’s body away, back to her own cell.
The psychological pressure increased. “Every small detail you don’t tell us will cost you a finger,” the guards told her repeatedly.
Only one possible outcome
Each day was a struggle to survive. Her feet hurt so much that in the five hours she was allowed to sleep (from midnight to 5 am) she couldn’t. Her meals consisted of a small portion of unwashed turnip greens. They tasted dirtier than anything she had ever eaten.
Eun Hye had survived the ‘Great Famine’ and the ‘Orphanage of Death’. Now she found herself heading towards a political labor camp. That was the only possible outcome of this investigation. Eun Hye’s family had – in North Korea’s terminology – ‘problematic political beliefs’. Uncurable political beliefs. That meant re-education was of no use. The family had to disappear into one of the gulags, where they could work and die.
Yet, Eun Hye’s parents didn’t give up. In the moments they were conscious and not tortured, they prayed.
The impossible happened. Eun Hye was taken out of her cell. Her brother, father, and mother too. They were released. Nobody knew how that was possible. There was simply no explanation. It had to be God’s intervention.
Miracle at the river
Eun Hye and her brother brought their badly injured parents to their uncle’s house. They had no other place to go. After a few months, her mother had somewhat recovered and Eun Hye’s frostbite had healed. Her father told Eun Hye to take her mother to China. “Your uncle cannot take care of so many people. We only eat grass here. You have to go first with your mother. I’ll come with your brother as soon as I’m able.”
Since her mother couldn’t swim, Eun Hye prepared another rope before they secretly went to the river.
There were guards approximately every 100 meters. They chose a place between the guards – the river was wide and deep at that point. Both women prayed. Then Eun Hye led her mother into the water.
The current was stronger than expected and the two drifted closer and closer to the guards. Eun Hye tried to swim harder. Swimming harder meant more noise. Her mother screamed when she saw the soldiers. They shouted at the escapees to get out of the water.
Then the first bullet hit the water. And the second. And the third.
I’m going to die! Eun Hye thought while she kept pushing the water away. Centimeter by centimeter and meter by meter she swam further away from her home country, towards safety, towards a future, towards life. Only God decides if I will live or die today, she comforted herself.
Somehow all the bullets missed and they reached the Chinese shore.
“I cannot eat rice without water”
Eun Hye pauses her story. We’re talking to her on the 9th floor of a safe apartment building in the South Korean capital Seoul. Listening to her in this environment is surreal. Eun Hye is the kindest person you’ll ever meet. Yet her soft, dark brown eyes betray the hardships of her life. As if she’s permanently covered by a cloud of sadness. She doesn’t want her real name to be published. “Call me Eun Hye”, she says without hesitation.
There is so much still to talk about. Her father passed away due to his injuries, shortly after Eun Hye escaped from North Korea. Her brother is the only family member still in North Korea. He never made it out and Eun Hye hasn’t seen him for many years. “My mother and I can hardly eat,” she says. “I cannot even eat rice without water.”
In the years that followed, Eun Hye got married to a nice Chinese man. And she was arrested a second time. “Four police officers suddenly appeared at our house in the countryside. They knew where the North Korean women were hiding. They had been instructed to arrest North Korean women without a child.”
Eun Hye doesn’t explain this directive. Perhaps the Chinese police had a quota of refugees they needed to arrest and send back. But they knew that North Korean women who had conceived a baby with a Chinese man would be severely punished. (The fascist regime in North Korea kills Korean-Chinese babies because they want to keep their race ‘pure’.)
The truck came
Eun Hye panicked. She would rather die than going back to a North Korean prison. “The only hope I had, was that I’d see my brother again if I survived. That was far from certain, however, and I considered smashing my head against the wall and killing myself.”
Yet, now she knew the God who she had prayed to. She asked for His help. Then one day the truck came. Or rather: the truck was scheduled to come. But it broke down and Eun Hye’s transport to North Korea was delayed by a day.
“My husband could visit me once in the prison. He told me there was nothing he could do. I’d be sent back to North Korea. But then, the day the truck was supposed to come, a police officer asked me if I was pregnant. I wasn’t, but I knew I had to say ‘yes’. They had been instructed to arrest women without children. So I said I was carrying a baby and they released me. It was another miracle. Out of 30 women, I was the only one released.”
The miracles don’t stop
The miracles didn’t stop there. Eun Hye and her mother prayed for a baby girl, and she received one. When the child was three years old, her Chinese husband allowed them to flee to South Korea. A broker arranged transport to take them from China to Laos and Thailand. From Thailand, they would be sent to South Korea.
But in China, the bus was stopped. The bus driver gave the police officer the IDs of the passengers. When the policemen noticed there were fewer IDs than passengers, he came inside the bus to check everyone. “I could only whisper: ‘God… God…’”
When he almost came to where Eun Hye, her mother, and her daughter were seated, he suddenly turned around and left the bus. They were allowed to travel on.
This was only the beginning of their 4000-kilometer journey. In Laos, they had to travel through the mountains by foot and a small boat took them into Thailand. Along the way, Christian missionaries helped them survive. “That was part of God’s work to keep us safe. We are eternally grateful for them.”
Finally, they reported themselves to the police, were put in jail as illegal refugees and then handed over to the South Korean authorities to be flown to South Korea. Her older sisters followed later. Now Eun Hye’s mother, two sisters, her daughter, and Eun Hye herself live in South Korea. Their father passed away in North Korea and her brother is still in North Korea. “We pray for him each day.”
We tell her that her story, which she so bravely shared with us, will lead to many more prayers for her brother and other North Korean citizens. “Thank you”, she says.
When you were in North Korea, did you know that many people were praying for you even though they didn’t know your name, your face or your story?
“No, I had no idea so many people were praying for us. Those prayers are really important. They will lead more people to Jesus Christ in North Korea.”
What is the biggest need of Christians in North Korea?
“There is a need to spread more news in North Korea so that the people know how other countries prosper. But of course, there is a great need to inform North Koreans about going to church and believing in God, and the impact that faith can have on their lives. They also need material and spiritual resources. I hope that more and more North Koreans are able to receive the Bible and other Christian literature and find salvation through Him.”
Eun-Hye survived the Great Famine, the camp for street children and the prison. She survived frostbite, disease and a shower of bullets. She nearly drowned twice. Yet in everything and through everything, she kept praying to the God of her grandmother, who showed her His Eun Hye – Grace – every step of the way.