For North Korean defectors, there’s one constant on the harrowing journey to South Korea: fear. It clings to you like the dusty roads—embedding itself deep in your bones, as Junghee* and her family discovered.
The decision to leave North Korea was not easy. But after years of back-breaking work and increasing suffering, her father decided it was time to go. He hoisted Junghee’s disabled mother onto his back, took Junghee’s hand, and together they slipped silently into the night.
The Tumen River swirled icy cold around their waists as they crossed the border into China under the cloak of night. Junghee was terrified of being caught. She had heard the warnings that awaited North Korean defectors: “If you try to escape, your whole family will be sent to a prison camp.” Nearly 120,000 North Koreans live in those camps today, facing horrific human rights abuses.
Prior to their arrival in South Korea, Junghee and her family never even knew Christianity existed. “I never met a Christian in North Korea,” she said. For eighteen years, she recalls, “I didn’t even know what religion was.”
Junghee grew up in the northern border town of North Korea. She describes her childhood—playing soccer at school and the whole class cleaning the mandatory portraits of dictators Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il each morning. As student vice-president of her school, it was Junghee’s job to inspect the portraits and report any misconduct from her classmates.
At home, the family would watch banned South Korean dramas in secret after dark, locking the doors and peeking out the windows for patrolling guards. Most citizens have no idea what happens beyond the border of North Korea; television, phones and internet are restricted by the regime. “I didn’t know what was going on in the world,” Junghee said.
Her parents worked tirelessly, juggling multiple jobs, sometimes through the night. Despite backbreaking work, the couple showed Junghee constant love. “The years [there] … were really hard,” the North Korean defector recalls of the time spent in her homeland.
In 2018, a confrontation with a belligerent customer turned violent, ultimately leading the family to make a life-altering choice. When a man refused to pay his bill at the shop managed by Jungee’s parents, her father politely asked him to settle his debt. Enraged, the man beat Junghee’s parents ruthlessly with an iron rod. He struck blows to her mother’s back and arms, breaking bones. When the family sought justice, the police sided with their attacker, accepting his bribe over their plea. Of North Korea, Jungee says, “We thought this is not a righteous government.”
Two months later under the darkness of night, Junghee, her injured mother and determined father embarked on the perilous journey to freedom.
The month-long trek covering over 3,000 miles took them across frigid rivers and over treacherous mountain passes in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Each country brought new fears of getting caught. Junghee remembers the terror she felt when Chinese police boarded their train to check IDs. Without papers, they could potentially be flagged as North Korean defectors and sent back home immediately. “I was afraid of being caught, but I was also afraid of talking to the police,” she said. “It was really scary.”
But the most treacherous stretch was in Laos, where endless rains turned the mountain into a slippery, muddy mess. For hours, her father struggled painstakingly up the steep terrain with Junghee’s mother on his back. Time and again they tumbled to the ground.
“Even though [my father] had strong legs, because he had her on his back, he was continuously falling down,” Junghee recalled. Somehow, they persevered. And after an agonizing 26 days, the trio safely arrived on South Korean soil. Finally, they were free. “Now I don’t have to be afraid, and I don’t have to hide anymore,” Junghee said. “I think that was the best thing.”
In South Korea, Junghee met Christians for the first time. Through their care and witness, she discovered the God who had carried her family through their harrowing journey. She also held a Bible for the first time in her life. “I completely believed that was the answer from the Lord,” she said. “God really always has a plan for me.”
Today, Junghee is a passionate believer eagerly studying the Bible. Her favorite verse reminds her that God opens doors in response to prayer. She clings to this promise as she petitions the Lord to care for her ailing grandmother, still living in North Korea.
Junghee often reflects on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7: “knock and the door will be opened to you.” She knocks earnestly in prayer, believing God will open a way back into North Korea someday. Her hope is to return with two gifts: the gospel and the English language. “There are people who don’t know God,” she said. “I want to let them know God. I want to teach English in North Korea … so they can come to the world and share their stories.”
For now, she studies hard, working toward her dream of teaching English and returning to North Korea with the message of Jesus Christ. Junghee urges Christians in the U.S. to remember North Korean citizens and North Korean defectors alike. “Please pray for North Korea. Pray that the people inside the country can hear the gospel and know the Lord.”
Join us now in prayer for both Junghee and North Korean Christians.
Lord, we know North Korea is a deadly place for Christians. Merely owning a Bible can result in imprisonment, torture or execution. We pray for the estimated 400,000 believers who must quietly pursue their Christian walk. Comfort them and banish all fear as they simply long to be with You and worship You.
We also pray for Junghee and her parents. Thank You for helping them safely defect from North Korea. We praise You for drawing them to the light of Christ in South Korea and providing a loving church family to disciple them. May their testimonies be a powerful witness to other North Korean defectors who are just arriving in South Korea and discovering the Christian faith for the very first time. God, we pray that one day Junghee will be able to fulfill her dream of sharing the gospel in her North Korean homeland. Amen.
About the author
Abigail Hart is a member of the communications team at Global Christian Relief. She strives to inform the Body of Christ on the latest stories of Christian persecution around the world. Catch up on the most recent stories from the persecuted missions field at GlobalChristianRelief.org.