The sights and sounds and smells on the streets of Seoul’s famed Myeongdong shopping district assaulted us from every angle as we navigated our way through a maze of flashing neon lights, colorful fashion displays, and clumps of endless street vendors selling a delectable mix of sweet and spicy Korean delicacies.
We were in Seoul, South Korea awaiting the renewal of our Chinese visa. When we learned we would be traveling to Korea, I reached out to a friend of mine from high school who had been living in the area for a few years working as a teacher. He knew of our strong interest in North Korea and our concern for its people and was eager to meet up for dinner.
“Would you mind if a friend of mine joins us tonight?” he asked over the scratchy mobile connection. “I think you guys would enjoy meeting her. She’s from North Korea.”
Would we mind?! We were elated! We had never met anyone before who was from North Korea and could not imagine what her experience had been like. The four of us wound our way down a narrow, dark alley running parallel to the posh shops of Myeongdong and ducked into a tiny local restaurant, tucked comfortably away from the public’s view.
As we waited for our food to arrive, we asked J. if she would mind sharing with us a little of her story of how she came to South Korea.
“Of course, I am happy to share,” she replied. “But I really don’t think it is that interesting. Are you sure you want to hear?”
Ok, seriously. You only managed to escape from one of the most oppressive dictatorships on the planet, and you don’t think it will be interesting? “Yes, please share!” we urged her. “We’ve never met anyone from North Korea, and it would be a pleasure to get to know more about you and your country. How did you end up here?”
“I never intended to leave my country permanently,” she explained. “There was no work in my village, but there were opportunities across the border in China. So, like many others from my village, I would cross over to China where I would stay and work for several months in an ethnic Korean region where language was not a barrier. I was able to make so much more money there than if I stayed in North Korea. After a few months of work, I would cross back over the border and bring the money I’d earned to share with my family.”
“How long did you do this?” I asked.
“Maybe two years or so,” she replied. “I did it until I got caught.” She paused. “One day, as I was crossing the river from China back into North Korea to return home to my family, the Chinese guards caught me and deported me back to North Korea.”
“But you were leaving their country anyway. Why would they want to catch you?” I wondered.
“It’s complicated,” she started. “The Chinese don’t want North Koreans fleeing to their country because they know that if they allow it or condone it, North Koreans would flee by the millions. China doesn’t want to have to deal with this mass migration and they don’t want the competition for cheap labor,” she explained. “But that’s only part of it,” she continued. “China needs North Korea. North Korea is the only land and the only regime separating China from ‘the West,’ and by that I mean South Korea. The U.S. has a heavy presence in and influence on South Korea, and so if North Korea were to fall, there would no longer be that buffer between the West and China. So they’re willing to do what they need to do to keep people in North Korea and to keep North Korea happy. And then of course there’s always the informal exchange of money between the Chinese and North Korean guards,” she quipped. “There’s definitely something to be gained on the individual level for reporting defectors, even if they aren’t technically ‘defecting,'” she concluded.
Although we had only spent two months in China at this point, J.’s last remark was not hard to believe, and that saddened me. What hope was there for either nation if both had such little regard for human life that they could so easily trade a life for money? Or, if both nations had created and perpetuated systems that encouraged such behavior in order to survive, how would either ever overcome this mindset?
“So what happened to you once they turned you in to the North Koreans?” I asked, half afraid to learn the answer.
“When they caught me, I was labeled a defector,” she said. “I tried to explain that I did not want to leave North Korea and that is why I was returning. I would never choose to permanently leave my family. But they did not care. They considered me a defector and they had to make an example of me to discourage others from traveling to China for work. So they put me in a labor camp where I was forced to do very difficult work all day, while given little to eat or drink.”
We sat in silence, choking back tears, listening attentively as she shared her story, but unsure of what words we could possibly offer as an appropriate response.
“After six months of the work, it was so difficult for me, I did not think I would survive much longer in there,” she continued. “And so my family –” she stopped abruptly, choking back tears. “So my family got me out.”
“How were they able to do that?” I asked. “I thought once you went into one of those camps, you never came out again.”
“You usually don’t,” she admitted, wiping a tear from her eye. “But my family, they sold everything they owned — their house, everything — in order to pay the guards enough to agree to let me out. And so with enough money, they were able to buy my freedom.”
She shifted in her seat and reached for another bite of her food as the front door flung open and the wind blew in a fresh cohort of customers. J. lowered her voice. “But just because I was free didn’t mean I was safe,” she continued. “Because I was still considered a defector, I had no future in North Korea. I would never be able to work again. I would never be allowed to own property. I would never be allowed to marry. I would have no future, no opportunity.” She paused and looked down at her food, turning her chopsticks over and over nervously. “And so my family told me, ‘You must go. You must go and this time you can never come back. No one in our family has a future now and you are the only hope. You must escape.'”
“So how did you do it?” Justin asked. “What was it like to escape this time, knowing it was permanent?”
“This time was very dangerous,” she admitted.”I knew if I was caught this time — or turned in by the Chinese authorities — I would be executed, because I was already labeled a defector. But in addition to the increased risks of being caught, it was much more difficult to cross the border. It was the wrong time of year. The river was too high and I would have never attempted to cross it at this time unless it was my only option. And it was. So I had to push against the high waters and strong current as the water sloshed over my head much of the time. I was almost swept under several times.”
“Somehow — I don’t even know how — I made it across and into China without being caught,” she recounted. “But then came the nearly impossible task of making it to a South Korean embassy, where I could be granted asylum, without being stopped. That was next to impossible, and I knew it.”
She went on to explain the intricate details of her harrowing journey to eventual freedom — a journey that would take nearly a full year to complete and that would require her to face the threat of death and danger on an almost constant basis. After successfully emerging from North Korea with her life, she fell into contact with a network of dedicated servants, whose love and work knows no border, who sheltered her, fed her, hid her, protected her, and loved her all the way to freedom.
“They never forced me to believe what they believed, or even to listen to it,” she shared. “But I happened to be with them during Christmas time. I had never heard of Christmas before or of Jesus Christ. But they invited me to come join them for their Christmas service, and so I did, because I had nothing else to do really. It was there that I heard the message about Jesus Christ and I chose on that day to follow him.”
“What was it about the message of Christianity that compelled you to believe?” Justin asked.
“I had this feeling of love and acceptance, and I realized that it was true, that I was a sinner and in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. So I chose to follow him,” she explained.
We were stunned. Not only were we sitting across the table from and sharing a meal with a North Korean woman — a people that we in the West really know little about, let alone who most of us have never met — but we were listening to her explain to us how she came to trust in Jesus.
“I’m surprised to hear it was that aspect of the gospel message that compelled you,” I said. “If I had lived through what you have had to endure, I think I might find other aspects of God’s love comforting, but I’m not sure my first reaction would be to admit that I have done wrong when I have suffered so much at the hands of others. That’s amazing to hear — and very humbling.”
“But it’s true!” she countered. “I have done just as much wrong as those who have done wrong to me.” Quite the perspective, given the historic brutality of the North Korean regime.
J. eventually made it to safety at the South Korean embassy in a Southeast Asian nation where she was granted asylum and sent to live in South Korea. She traveled thousands of miles over many months just to end up settling a few hundred miles from her hometown and her family. She now worships openly alongside dozens of other North Korean believers.
We were all tiring from the emotional weight of taking in J.’s story, but Justin and I had one final question we really wanted to know. What happened to J.’s family?
“Have you heard from your family since you left North Korea?” we asked hesitantly.
She shook her head. “No.”
And that’s all we dared ask her about her family. Looking back, we shouldn’t have even asked that. Our friend later explained to us that J’s family dealt themselves a death sentence — and they knew it. They chose to buy her freedom anyway. They were considered worse than defectors now. At best, they were sent to the work camps themselves. More likely, they were executed. But to them, J.’s life was worth it.
As I reflected upon the sacrifice J.’s family made to save her, and the risk taken by those who ushered her to freedom, I was reminded of the thought I had at the beginning of our evening together — what hope was there for these nations if people were willing to trade a life for a meager profit?
But the heroes of J.’s story assure me there is yet hope. For as much as there are those who would trade a life for selfish gain, there are still those who are willing to selflessly lay down their lives for another. And I am confident these brave souls will continue to push back the darkness until only Light remains and these broken corners of the globe are restored. And J.’s story is just the beginning.
**Names and locations in this account have been altered or omitted to protect the privacy and safety of those involved.**