On a sweltering July day, Dongwon held a Bible in his hands for the first time. As a North Korean defector hiding in China, Dongwon had reached the depths of despair: “I cursed myself for being born into this world,” he recalls. Suicidal thoughts clouded his mind. The present felt unbearable; the future looked hopeless.
Yet in this darkness, a flicker of light emerged when a local pastor shared the message of the gospel with Dongwon. “I didn’t even know he was a pastor,” says Dongwon. The pastor simply asked, “Do you know God?” Dongwon replied bluntly, “No.” Sensing Dongwon’s skepticism, the pastor gently explained, “Jesus is the Son of God. He came to this earth for you and me. If you believe in Jesus, you will have salvation.”
At first, Dongwon thought the pastor might be a secret agent trying to extract information. In North Korea, Christianity is deemed “mythical,” he explains. Missionaries are portrayed as “invaders.” Churches are banned, Bibles are forbidden and discovered Christians face torture, imprisonment or execution.
“But suddenly, my heart started pounding,” Dongwon recalls. As the pastor shared the gospel message, Dongwon broke down weeping. “It was the first time in my life that tears poured out uncontrollably,” he says. “I couldn’t stop.”
In that moment, Dongwon surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. Though he had never heard the name of Christ before, Dongwon explains, “I started imitating what [the pastor] said.” A feeling of grace and peace flooded over him.
“I didn’t know there were so many tears in my body,” he recalls. When Dongwon looked outside after the encounter, the clouds seemed brighter than before. He realized, “This was not China. Even now, when I say this, I still feel the emotion from that time. That moment was Heaven.”
Dongwon’s journey to faith began 33 years earlier in the coastal city of Cheongjin, an industrial hub of North Korea. His father held a respected government position, which afforded Dongwon opportunities for education and a comfortable life by North Korean standards. “I lived a very peaceful, calm life,” he shares.
Yet seeds of doubt took root during his teen years. Dongwon wondered about the totalitarian regime and the succession of power from Kim Il-Sung to his son, Kim Jong-Il. “I started to have disappointment towards the government of North Korea,” Dongwon explains. He observed hypocrisy and corruption beneath the facade of virtue.
After graduating from a prestigious university in Pyongyang, Dongwon was assigned to work for a Communist youth organization. But when famine struck North Korea in the mid-1990s, Dongwon witnessed firsthand the regime’s failures. He recalls, “I saw hundreds of thousands of people starving. I started to think that North Korea is not a people’s democracy republic.”
Disillusioned and daring to dream of freedom, Dongwon began secretly watching foreign films and TV shows, which opened his eyes to the wider world. He formed a plan to escape North Korea through China and eventually reach South Korea.
On January 20, 2007, after months of planning, Dongwon seized the chance and journeyed across the frozen Tumen River from North Korea into China under the cloak of darkness. Leaving his family behind, Dongwon entered unfamiliar territory with no money, resources or contacts.
Fearing capture if he sought asylum at a South Korean embassy, Dongwon went into hiding among the ethnic Korean population in northern China. He describes these months in safe houses as a terrifying time, constantly on high alert for North Korean or Chinese security officials who might discover and forcibly repatriate him.
As the tenuous situation dragged on, Dongwon lost all hope: “I couldn’t think of going back to North Korea. I couldn’t think of going to South Korea,” he shares. Thoughts of suicide consumed him. Dongwon fell into deep despair, resenting the circumstances of his birth.
Yet, just as Dongwon reached his darkest hour, he received an invitation that changed the course of his life. A local pastor shared the message of salvation in Jesus Christ—a radical concept in Dongwon’s atheistic worldview. “In North Korea, from age seven, they are going into a political group,” Dongwon explains. “To brainwash them, they are doing self-criticism every week.”
But as Dongwon listened to the gospel, his heart and mind opened to truth. When the pastor invited him to accept Jesus and pray a prayer of repentance, Dongwon says he began “weeping uncontrollably as an unfathomable peace flooded my soul.”
In finding faith, Dongwon also found freedom from fear. Shortly after his conversion, he was arrested by Chinese police while attempting to reach the South Korean embassy. Though terrified of being repatriated to North Korea where he would likely face severe punishment, Dongwon clung to a Bible verse shared by the pastor, Isaiah 41:10: “Don’t be afraid. I am with you. I will be your God.”
Whenever anxiety crept in, Dongwon prayed this verse. “My favorite Bible verse,” he professes. “I forget other verses that I remember, but I will not forget this one.” The promise of God’s presence sustained him as he passed through a year of detention, interrogation and uncertainty.
Today, Dongwon lives freely in South Korea, and he secretly helps the underground church in North Korea.
“It’s a ministry that is one-to-one,” Dongwon, shares. “Small house churches and cell groups meet. Any larger gathering is too dangerous.”
Reflecting on his extraordinary journey, Dongwon says, “The Lord was with me every time … Whenever I hear news about my parents and brothers in North Korea, whenever my heart feels heavy, I pray and call on the Lord’s name, and that’s how he warms my heart and gives me peace and comfort.”
Though banned in North Korea, some estimate up to 400,000 Christians now secretly worship through underground churches. Dongwon sees signs of spiritual awakening. His dream is to someday open 10 physical churches in his North Korean hometown. He hopes to reconnect with classmates from his university days who now occupy senior government positions throughout the country.
“Our mission is to convey to these people the gospel message that Jesus loved the North Korean people and saved them with his blood,” Dongwon declares. He aims to help North Koreans discover their identity in Christ.
Meanwhile, Dongwon offers encouragement to believers worldwide: “Keep believing in God. Keep your hope in Him. As Christians, we are united beyond borders. Our prayers and actions can make a difference.” Despite severe persecution, the light shines on through the darkness in North Korea.
Join us in prayer now for Dongwon and his ministry.
Lord God, what a truth—that You came for all people, no matter the country; You gave your life so all have the opportunity to spend eternity with You. We ask Your blessings over Dongwon and his ministry; help him continue to spread the gospel with all those in need of its hope. Let there be revival across North Korea. Add many to Your number. Use Dongwon and may his story be an inspiration to others. Amen.
About the author
Brian O. writes for Global Christian Relief and makes it his mission to share the stories of the persecuted with the Church around the world. Get the latest blogs and prayer requests at GlobalChristianRelief.org