North Korea is the hardest place to follow Jesus. Ji Ho's story explains exactly why.
Ji Ho* vividly remembers the moment she saw her father for the last time. North Korean security agents had ransacked their house. They didn’t find what they were looking for in the house – but they did discover something by digging deep in the garden.
“They found the book, wrapped in plastic,” she remembers. “One of the policemen came inside, holding the book. He kicked over our small table as we cowered in the corner, flinging dishes everywhere, and threw the book down at my father’s feet.”
She pauses. The memory is still painful.
Ji Ho never learned precisely where her father went. At the time, she didn’t even know what the ‘secret book’ was. “I didn’t see what was so bad about it,” she says. “My father loved to read me stories and sayings out of the book – about a wise man who sat on a mountain and began to teach. Why would a lesson about kindness be so dangerous in North Korea?” Only years later did she realise it was a Bible.
In some ways, Ji Ho was ‘fortunate’. When a Bible is found in the home of a North Korean, it usually means the whole family is in terrible danger. As Open Doors secret fieldworker Brother Simon* explains, “North Korean Christians actually risk their physical lives – not only for themselves, but for their whole family. Because when they practise their Christian activities and one of them is exposed as a Christian, the whole family gets the same punishment. Sometimes that means a whole family is killed or banished to political camps.”
Ji Ho was determined to find out what her father’s secret had been. What had meant so much to him that he was willing to count such a severe cost?
But there was one other hidden thing in Ji Ho’s house that the police agents hadn’t found: her father’s radio.
“He wanted to know if there was anywhere that had food,” recalls Ji Ho. “He thought maybe China had some to offer, and that he could sneak over the border.” After her father was taken, Ji Ho started listening too – hoping to find a source of food. One evening she was turning the dial and found a new station. She realised, with a start, that they were talking about the same ‘wise man’ her father had told her about. The one who was in the secret book. They called Him ‘Jesus’.
"This Jesus was the great teacher that my father had been trying to tell me about." Ji Ho
“From then on, I listened to the station every chance I got,” she says. “I heard other things about Jesus: ‘Man does not live by bread alone’, ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ’ and the most amazing thing of all: ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave us His only son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.’
“As I listened, I became more and more convinced. This Jesus was the great teacher that my father had been trying to tell me about. Jesus wanted to be my Lord and Saviour – and I wanted to follow Him, in the same way my father had.”
It can be almost impossible for a parent to teach their child about Jesus in North Korea. It comes with enormous risk. Children are often trained by their teachers to look out for any clues of Christianity, and encouraged to inform on their parents.
“According to the messages sent from North Korean believers, their main concern is how they can pass on their Christian faith to their children, the next generation of the North Korean church,” shares Brother Simon. “But it’s hard – North Koreans have been taught to hate Christianity their whole lives. They are officially taught that Christians, especially pastors and missionaries, are spies or enemies. Christians are targeted, and must be rooted out and eradicated in North Korea.”
This indoctrination has to be unlearnt. Ji Ho soon began to see Jesus speaking to her through the verses she heard on the radio – and that, far from being enemies of North Koreans, Christians were called to love their neighbours.
"The main problem is the need for daily life necessities to survive." Brother Simon
“I’d come home, exhausted from the work in the fields, my heart still hurting at the loss of my father, and I’d think about the poem I’d heard on the radio: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’,” Ji Ho says. “I’d see a neighbour whom I knew was hungry, and I heard the words of Jesus: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
These words from Psalm 23 and Matthew 25 are particularly significant to anyone living in North Korea, where extreme poverty threatens huge numbers of people. “The main problem is the need for daily life necessities to survive,” says Brother Simon. “Absolute poverty has flourished throughout the country.” Any food that does enter the country is given to the elite and the army, leaving ordinary people – particularly those in rural areas – in dire need of food. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea has estimated that 42% of North Koreans are malnourished due to food shortages.
Many fear a repeat of the ‘Arduous March’ of the 1990s – a famine in which up to 3.5 million North Koreans died of starvation. While the situation has improved a little since pandemic restrictions were eased, and more food has got into the country through official or unofficial routes, believers are often at the end of the line when it comes to distribution of this food. Anyone known to be from a Christian family – if they somehow avoid execution or a prison camp – is treated as a member of the ‘hostile class’. That means they have limited access to food, jobs or homes.
Remembering Jesus’s words about helping her brothers and sisters, Ji Ho has made extraordinary sacrifices. “As I continued to learn more about Jesus, I also found that my life was changing in other ways. I was still hungry, but I started to share my food,” she says. “I knew I could give up some of my food to my neighbours who didn’t have a garden. I hoped this might show them in some way that Jesus loved them.”
Ji Ho shows Jesus’s love with generosity that comes at great cost, given the dire state of the country – but has to keep her faith secret, in order to survive. Otherwise, she might end up like the tens of thousands of Christians held in labour camps across the country. There is no freedom of religion or belief at all in North Korea. For almost all of the past 20 years, it’s been the place where Christians face the worst persecution in the world.
"I know that it would be dangerous to tell anyone about Jesus." Ji Ho
“I know that it would be dangerous to tell anyone about Jesus,” says Ji Ho. “Our leaders don’t want us to worship anyone or anything besides them. I’ve realised that’s why my father was taken – they saw he had a Lord that was bigger than our country’s leaders.”
Despite this terrible cost, more and more North Koreans are encountering Jesus and deciding to follow Him. Even in this desperate situation, the church is growing! Some, like Ji Ho, are hearing about Him through Open Doors’ radio ministry. This is operated outside of the country, reaching thousands of secret North Korean believers every day. North Korea only officially sells radios tuned to state frequencies, so people must find radios on the black market or get radios through Open Doors’ secret networks in another country.
Daily broadcasts include Scripture reading, Bible studies and more. They help disciple and encourage the underground church in North Korea, while sometimes also being the first time someone hears the name of Jesus at all.
Believers in North Korea even want to join in prayer for other persecuted Christians. “They asked us to produce a radio programme about the persecuted church,” shares Brother Simon. “They cannot materially help persecuted churches – but they can join by praying with their brothers and sisters for persecuted churches.”
But the North Korean church cannot flourish if it is on the brink of starvation. “The first prayer request is that we help North Korean Christians physically survive,” says Brother Simon. “Through our networks in another country, we distribute food and medicine, especially in wintertime.”
"I’ll continue to learn more about Jesus and how I can follow Him more closely." Ji Ho
Through these underground networks, Open Doors secret workers are currently sustaining 100,000 North Korean believers alive with vital food and aid, shelter and discipleship training. That’s only possible with the help and prayers of people like you.
“I’ll continue to learn more about Jesus and how I can follow Him more closely – and I’ll continue to be salt to the people around me,” says Ji Ho. She has so little, but is determined to do what she can to show Jesus’s love to the desperate people around her.
Today, will you show the same kindness and generosity as Ji Ho? Will you help keep believers alive as they count the greatest cost for following Jesus?
*Name changed. Ji Ho’s story is based on several true accounts of life in North Korea, to protect any specific person from being identified.
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