JABAEGHADA! JABAEGHADA! For 20 days that demand, Korean for plead guilty, was repeatedly barked at Ye-jun by her interrogators. When verbal threats proved ineffective at producing the desired confession, uniformed thugs resorted to torture and sexual abuse.
North Korean border guards had arrested Ye-jun as she returned from visiting her grandparents in neighboring China and falsely accused her of speaking to a South Korean during her visit and smuggling money back into the country on her return—both illegal activities. Ye-jun’s experience incited her to later flee to the safety of South Korea through a modern-day “underground railroad.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Ye-jun, as well as other North Korean Christian defectors, during a recent trip to South Korea. I confess to feeling a bit of awe in their presence, especially after listening to heart-wrenching stories like Ye-jun’s.
Today, Christians in North Korea are heavily persecuted by the rogue communist government, but that was not always the case. In the decades before the nation split into North and South in the late 1940s, revival swept the Asian peninsula. A third of the population of Pyongyang, the current capital of North Korea, were church-going Christians. Even Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s communist founder, grew up in a devout Christian family. When he gained power in 1948, however, he declared himself the nation’s only god and initiated a massive persecution against Christians. Most fled to South Korea.
But many stayed behind, and today an estimated 250,000 Christians still cling to their faith in North Korea. But thousands of these brothers and sisters in Christ are languishing in prisons. Of those not imprisoned, some risk their lives to escape the relentless persecution and grim living conditions in North Korea. Many others, knowing that escape is extremely costly, dangerous, and will likely separate them forever from family left behind, still desperately seek ways to satisfy their basic physical needs—as well as their deep hunger for spiritual sustenance.
For the majority who do not flee, this means occasionally making risky, round-trip border crossings into China to find food and other vital supplies. Others come to be discipled in short-term Bible schools that meet in safe houses operated by brave believers like Ji-min, who puts her own life at risk to help her desperate North Korean brothers and sisters. Ji-min also welcomes those bound for refuge in South Korea. Those guests stay anywhere from two hours to two months, depending on the underground railroad “timetable,” which requires a clandestine dance between her, brokers in North Korea and China, and those who will acclimate the escapee in South Korea. For protection, none of those involved in these risky rescues ever meet face to face.
All those in Ji-min’s protective care receive food, shelter and Bibles provided by the Strategic Bibles Ministry of Heaven’s Family. They are also discipled, or, if they don’t know Jesus Christ, they hear the gospel—often for the first time. For those who come only to find food to bring back to starving family members, we provide them with digital readers (similar to iPads, but much cheaper) and, kept separate to avoid discovery by border guards, micro data cards loaded with Scripture and other resources. Long prison terms or execution await those caught—including the safe-house operators. But for those who intensely crave the Word of God—even passages scribbled onto scraps of paper—it is worth the risk.
That’s why I feel deep admiration and respect for safe-house operators who continue to “carry their crosses” for Jesus in the shadows. I believe their reward in heaven will be great. During my visit, in fact, sad news arrived that one safe-house operator had just been captured by a North Korean spy. Likely facing public execution, he’ll probably be receiving his rich reward in heaven by the time you read this. He had to prepare himself for such a fate when he chose to step into this “lion’s den” work.
In this uncertain world, where terrorists and gunmen slaughter innocent people with little or no warning, I sometimes wonder if I am prepared. Are you?