watching the church go underground After turning away from Christ in the early days of Kim Il Sung’s Communist regime, a North Korean woman was led back to faith by a single Bible verse. Rhee Soon-ja has vivid memories of her father reading the Bible to her and her six siblings when they were children. She remembers that the verses were printed vertically, rather than horizontally. And although now 82 years old, she can still picture the phrase “Christ Is Lord of This House” hanging from a wall in their home. “My parents prayed that God would use me as His servant,” she said, recalling another childhood memory. “I grew up dreaming of becoming an evangelist.” Those were the days before Korea split into North and South, communist and free. Those were the days when the Christian faith flourished in northern Korea. “There were many Christians,” Soon-ja shared from her living room in South Korea. “I attended the Methodist Church. All the congregations gathered every Sunday.” When Soon-ja was a young girl, her family was among the first to experience persecution under the rule of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first leader. Today Christianity is illegal there, and those who

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a dangerous secret Once fearful of even seeing a Bible, a former North Korean border guard now embraces it. Nearly every day for 11 years, Park Chin-Mae dutifully monitored North Korea’s border with China. From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., he watched for North Koreans attempting to defect or smuggle contraband into the country. Chin-Mae took pride in his work as a border guard, even though he was guilty of the same illegal activities for which he arrested others. Like many North Koreans, he relied on illegal smuggling simply to survive. becoming the enemy When another guard reported Chin-Mae’s smuggling ring, he spent 60 torturous days in prison. And he hadn’t even smuggled the most dangerous item into the country — a Bible. “Those who let Bibles into North Korea had a more severe punishment than someone who kills people,” Chin-Mae said. For Chin-Mae, getting caught smuggling meant being reduced from a respected soldier to a worthless prisoner. For the first 10 days, he was forced to stand in a bowing position and was allowed to move only to use the restroom. If he moved, even during the night, he was beaten mercilessly with a wooden baton. For the next

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Choon-yei was born into a comfortable and secure family, by North Korean standards. Her father was a military officer, and her mother was a housewife. Since family background largely determines the future for North Korean citizens, her family could expect a good life. In 1995, however, just a few years after Choon-yei’s birth, North Korea experienced the worst famine in its history. Millions died of starvation. And even though her father was a military officer, Choon-yei’s family received only two fistfuls of corn flour each day — not nearly enough to feed a family of four. In desperation, they gave up on the government’s ability to provide for them and began dealing on the black market. But the extra corn flour that her mother had obtained from a relative and sold illegally still barely provided for their family. “Any North Korean who survived that time period is a living miracle,” Choon-yei said. “North Koreans had to break the law just to eat a meal. State security agents would confiscate anything they uncovered on the black market and eat it themselves.” The famine was just the beginning of Choon-yei’s suffering. Her parents died when she was in her early teens, and

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When Pastor Han answered a phone call one afternoon at his church in Changbai, China, near the North Korean border, his wife saw no particular reason for concern. She knew, however, that for several months both Chinese police and South Korean intelligence officers had been warning her husband that he was at the top of a North Korean “hit list.” Pastor Han, his wife and other Christian leaders had even agreed on security precautions designed to protect him while allowing him to continue his ministry to North Koreans. For example, he stopped driving on the border road, he didn’t leave his house or the church alone, and he kept a very strict schedule. But after receiving the phone call that afternoon at church, the pastor uncharacteristically disregarded those precautions and left the church alone. His body was found that evening in a rural area along the North Korean border. North Koreans on the Doorstep Pastor Han Chung-Ryeol and his wife arrived in the Chinese border town of Changbai in 1993. The 26-year-old recent seminary graduate had been called to Changbai to lead a small church of ethnic Korean Chinese, who make up about a quarter of the population in that

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While growing up in North Korea, “Sang-chul” was taught that the concept of God was a dangerous lie. And the government’s zero-tolerance policy toward any suspicion of Christian behavior reinforced the lesson. As the gospel quietly spread in parts of the country, so did a fear among North Koreans that they might be suspected of Christian faith. “We were really afraid of Christianity because anybody could get executed or killed — even if you were looking at the Bible,” Sang-chul said. But in 2013, Sang-chul witnessed the power of a life devoted sacrificially to Jesus: The commitment of a pastor named Han Chung-Ryeol enabled Sang-chul to let go of his fear. Pastor Han was later martyred, on April 30, 2016, because of his bold Christian work. “I really wanted to know why he helped North Koreans, because it was dangerous for Pastor Han to help North Koreans there,” Sang-chul recalled. “Pastor Han unconditionally loved us and treated us well. I felt his heart. The more I met with Pastor Han, I felt more his heart came from the Lord. Without God, he wouldn’t have helped me. That is why I realized Christianity is a true religion.” Like many North Koreans,

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As Kyung-ja drifted in and out of consciousness, her head bloodied by repeated blows from a club, she heard her guard shouting words she had never heard in her 56 years of life: “Bible,” “God,” “Jesus.” North Korean Guard: an unlikely Evangelist Kyung-ja understood why the female guard had interrogated her about her latest trip to China and about her daughter’s defection to South Korea, but she couldn’t grasp why she kept asking odd questions about something called Christianity. “I first learned about Christianity from my torturer,” Kyung-ja said. The guard’s confusing and persistent questioning piqued Kyung-ja’s curiosity. At the time of her arrest, she had no belief system or concept of God, but now she had to know what made this Christianity so dangerous. Kyung-ja had been detained twice before for illegally crossing into China. This time, however, was worse. Instead of serving only a few months of “re-education” at a labor camp, she endured repeated torture, most likely because of her daughter’s defection. After brutally beating Kyung-ja for two months, the guard realized she did not have any ties to Christians within North Korea. She then sent Kyung-ja, now a fragile 63 pounds, to a labor camp, and

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The young woman settled into her seat in front of a microphone in a closet-sized studio. Hannah skimmed the script, took a breath, and began to read. Once an eager listener on the other side of the broadcast, Hannah is now a familiar voice of forbidden Christian programming that is broadcast into North Korea. When Hannah was a child in North Korea, she spent nearly every night huddled next to the radio with her father. “It was illegal to listen to the radio, but we did it in secret,” Hannah said. Though forbidden, her father managed to purchase one so they could tune in to South Korean radio stations. Even today, the North Korean government attempts to “jam” outside signals and confiscate illegal radios. Citizens caught with one are arrested. Her father was cautious, warning the family to keep their radio a secret. They waited until after midnight, when all the neighbors were asleep, to listen to it. When they did, they heard about a world that was completely different from the one described by their North Korean leaders and by Hannah’s teachers at school. She had a strong relationship with her father, and they often discussed what they heard

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When North Korea was established as an independent nation after World War II, its leader, Kim Il Sung, outlawed all religions except the worship of himself as the “Great Leader.” Churches were destroyed, Bibles were confiscated and teaching children about Jesus became very dangerous. For Hae-won, however, gospel seeds planted at an early age would not remain dormant. Something roused 10-year-old Hae-won from her sleep. When she raised up from her sleeping mat and looked around the one-room apartment, her eyes fixed on her grandfather’s white hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) glowing in the moonlight. His legs were crossed, his eyes were closed and he was swaying back and forth. “How strange,” she thought as she watched his quiet movements. “That must be something old people do.” It was the early 1960s, more than 10 years after Kim Il Sung’s communists had taken control of North Korea, and decades would pass before Hae-won would learn the significance of what her grandfather was doing that night. Gospel Seeds As a young girl, Hae-won struggled to understand the conversations she overheard between her two grandfathers. They frequently used unfamiliar terms like resurrection, second coming and Red Sea, terms her teachers never used at

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Jong-su grew increasingly nervous as she sped away from the North Korean border in the smuggler’s vehicle. She had crossed the Yalu River into China the previous night, after her boyfriend had threatened to report her illegal trading business because she had rejected his marriage proposal. If convicted of illegal trading in North Korea, she faced the possibility of 15 years to life in a concentration camp. Although Jong-su also had a legitimate job, the devastating famine that had begun in 1993 as well as her country’s poor economic policies meant she had to earn additional money illegally or starve. “Leave the country for two years,” her mother insisted, hoping Jong-su could return after her boyfriend got over his anger. Taking her mother’s advice, Jong-su turned to the only person she knew who could help her — a next-door neighbor who was in the smuggling business. The neighbor assured her that she could arrange to smuggle her into China and that Jong-su could live near the North Korean border so she could occasionally see her mother. In addition to leaving her family behind, Jong-su was sacrificing the honor of singing for Kim Jong Il twice a year in Pyongyang. Her

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