The Story of a Hidden Christian
Hee Jin, now 31, grew up in a stalinistic society were Christians are still enemies of the state. Her grandmother was a hidden Christian. Every Sunday, she asked young Hee Jin to lock the door of the tiny bedroom behind them, to kneel down and pray and sing so softly that they could hardly hear themselves. Hee Jin knew that if she accidentally told someone her grandmother followed God, her entire family – Hee Jin included – would be wiped out. She pleads for help for the 200,000-400,000 Christians still serving Jesus under these conditions.
An Open Doors team member met up with Hee Jin, and this is a brief excerpt of that conversation:
Q: Can you tell me what your childhood was like? What was the famine like that happened when you were very young?
HJ: The Arduous March started when I reached puberty, so I was poor as a child. My grandmother received the Word from China and started believing in God, and I too grew up in the faith. Because the Arduous March started in my childhood, I have many memories of going hungry and being poor when I was young.
Many kids could not attend school due to starvation, and they could hardly complete school assignments as well. Not only were assignments hardly turned in, but many kids left school to sell things at the market. I also missed more days of school than I attended.
I remember, my mother sold bean sprouts. She would grow them and sell them at the market. I remember eating soup made out of bean sprout roots. It was a difficult time. I also have bad memories of corpses being carried out of houses next-door, one every few days. Some of these people starved to death, and some froze to death. Most of them starved to death actually, and were left there for days. Often several people in one household passed away.
Q: Can you explain how you were indoctrinated in North Korea when you were young? Did you learn about the ‘great things’ your leaders did?
HJ: North Koreans learn about the three revolutionaries. World history is not a priority in our textbooks, and it is a subject that we can easily pass without studying. We learn mainly about Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-suk2. We are especially expected to do well in this subject.
Whenever we got a gift for Kim Il-sung’s birthday, for example, we were expected to thank him. The schools teach you to thank Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il for everything you get. We learned that Kim Il-sung founded North Korea and delivered us from Japanese rule through his independence movement. Kim Il-sung defended our nation from imperialism, and Kim Jong-il developed our nation so that we can study, grow up, and enjoy our peace. That is the foundation of our education at school.
Q: Can you tell us how your grandmother became a believer in China? What do you know about her trip to China and how she became a believer?
HJ: My grandmother went to China and received the Word through missionaries from South Korea. She accepted Jesus into her heart there. When she returned to North Korea, my uncles and my mother prevented her from ever mentioning God out loud, because our whole family could be killed. But I remember that my grandmother would take me when I was young and pray and sing praise songs every Sunday.
Q: How risky was it to have these secret worship services?
HJ: After coming to faith in China, my grandmother was arrested and forcibly repatriated to North Korea. She survived her time in prison, because she did not admit to being a Christian. After about six months, she was released. Had she been reported for being a Christian or let slip the information, our entire family could disappear in a moment.
[Christians] are not sent to normal prisons, but sent to political prison alongside their whole family. Perhaps if you were only connected to a Christian in China, your family might escape punishment. But if they find certain evidence, such as a Bible in your home, they would take your whole family to political prison.
Once they take you there, it is impossible to make it back out. I once went to one of these places near my hometown. They send people to places where... humans should not live. So it would not have been just my grandmother, but our entire family would be eliminated [because of her faith].
Q: What do you mean by ‘I went to one of these places’? Did you see one accidentally?
HJ: There was a defunct camp in the mountains near where I lived. These [camps for political prisoners] are usually built deep in the mountains. They build these locations and send people there. There is no set period of their sentences like 10 or 20 years. You and your family line have to live there indefinitely. If you die, you die. You stay until your whole lineage is wiped out.
The place I went to had been discontinued. It was an old abandoned camp. I went to the region in order to sell things, so I had some conversations with the people there. I had trouble not shedding tears as I listened to them.
Q: Can you give some examples of things you heard from these former prisoners?
HJ: I heard many stories about how mothers and fathers died. In order to make a living, you have to dig dirt. Anyone who was caught making an attempt to escape or even just showing signs of wanting to escape was shot on the spot.
Q: Terrible. Thanks for sharing these details with us. Looking back to praying with your grandmother. What did that look like?
HJ: My grandmother would lock the door and hold services that were 30-40 minutes long. She started out with praise songs, and we would sing together. After praises, she would make a speech that I did not understand back then. I now think she was reciting the Apostle’s Creed. Afterwards, she would pray for her family, like her sick son or daughter. She seemed to relay her family’s goings-on to someone.
I would sing along and shut my eyes during her prayers, and simply follow along when she said, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.” My grandmother seemed to be free of worries and stress when she sang and prayed. I found it surprising how we would sing songs that were banned in North Korea. The image of my grandmother singing praise songs was simply beautiful to me as a child.
Q: Do you still remember one of those songs?
HJ: My grandmother really enjoyed ‘Father, I Stretch My Hands To Thee’, and that is the one I remember. That is also the first song I heard when I went to an early morning prayer session at church. That was at the first church I went to after I entered South Korea and got out of the resettlement centre. That song made me cry a lot when I first got there.
I feel a path that allows me to continue living. I want to know God more, and why my grandmother prayed so much when my uncles opposed [her prayers] so heavily. That I can pray now is an answer to her prayers. I am so thankful that I can now pray for my family in North Korea and North Korea itself.
That I can praise God is... because I experienced His existence personally, what I can do for Him is to praise Him and acknowledge His path for me. I’m so happy to be able to affirm Him and to follow Him always. As I continued to know God through reading the Bible in South Korea, I realized that my life was very blessed. Despite my hardships in North Korea, my life is a blessed one. I did not know God, but He knew me first. I am so thankful that He allowed me to know how blessed I am.
Q: I’m really struck by your faith after you got to South Korea. So many refugees leave the faith once they come here.
HJ: I sincerely believe in the power of prayer. So many people pray for North Korea. Prayer has power. My grandmother prayed so many times amidst persecution, praising God with a cheerful heart. I remember her always being filled with joy.
She never lost hope during hardship. God listened to her prayers, even though she must have prayed so quietly. I have experienced God’s blessings on my family and me. I am so thankful to the people that pray for North Korea. I am so thankful to the people who pray for the people there. I, too, want to become a person who makes these prayers.
Q: What do you think are the biggest needs of the Christians in North Korea?
HJ: It seems like the path upwards is blocked, but the way is open. It would be nice if the [North Koreans who came to South Korea ] deliver the Gospel to other North Koreans and prepare the country for reunification.
What we can do from here is to do radio broadcasts. I think there are too few at the moment. And we can pray. Pray for the safety of secret believers. That’s the most precious, because they cannot live out in the open, they lead lives that are humanly impossible. What we can do is to send media and provide material support. They really need that.
Open Doors helps North Korean Christians – people like Hee Jin’s grandmother – survive by providing food, medicines, clothes and clothes. We also strengthen their faith by delivering Bibles and Christian material, providing Biblical training and shelter in Chinese safe houses, giving Bible study and pastoral care to trafficked North Korean women in China and by broadcasting Bible programs via radio.