After turning away from Christ in the early days of Kim Il Sung’s regime, a North Korean woman in China was led back to faith by a single Bible verse uttered by a mysterious voice that she alone heard.
Rhee Soon-ja (name changed for security reasons) has vivid memories of her father reading the Bible to her and her siblings when they were children. Although now more than 80 years old, she can still picture the phrase “Christ Is Lord of This House” hanging from a wall in their home.
“My parents prayed that God would use me as His servant,” she said. “I grew up dreaming of becoming an evangelist.”
Those were the days before Korea split into North and South. Those were the days when the Christian faith flourished in northern Korea.
“There were many Christians,” Mrs. Rhee shared from her living room in South Korea. “All the congregations gathered every Sunday.”
When Mrs. Rhee was a young girl, her family was among the first to experience persecution under Kim Il Sung. Her father, a mine worker, was known for his Christian faith — well enough that many people, including his relatives, criticized him for it. They thought he was too bold in sharing the gospel. But having read the Scriptures, he knew persecution was simply part of following Jesus.
“He taught us that the more we are persecuted, the more we need to trust in the Lord,” Mrs. Rhee recalled.
At the end of World War II, when Korea was freed from Japanese colonialism and Communism was ascendant in the north, many pastors fled south.
“As the Communists became more powerful, even my father became uneasy,” Mrs. Rhee said. “He sent some of my brothers to South Korea to earn a living. But he did not leave North Korea. When our pastor left, our father took his place and kept the church operating.”
Mrs. Rhee’s brother thought hanging a portrait of Kim Il Sung in his home was idolatrous, so he burned it. (Re-enactment)
The Communists began to occupy church buildings. “We had to begin worshiping in our homes,” Mrs. Rhee said.
Around that time, Mrs. Rhee had to complete an entrance exam to enroll in school. But when administrators saw that she had stated her religion as “Christian,” they denied her application, and her father had to find another school for her to attend.
These subtle forms of persecution quickly became the norm, and life became increasingly difficult for Mrs. Rhee’s family.
“My father used to say, ‘No matter how much persecution there may be, we must persevere; we have to endure persecution even when we don’t have anything to eat,’” she recalled.
Mrs. Rhee’s family continued their underground house worship. They were aware that they could be killed if they were ever caught.
In the mid-1960s, Mrs. Rhee’s brother hosted a prayer gathering at his house. North Koreans were required to hang a portrait of Kim Il Sung in their home, but Mrs. Rhee’s brother determined that such an act was idolatrous. After the prayer gathering, he burned the portrait. One person at the prayer meeting reported the act to authorities, and Mrs. Rhee’s brother was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mrs. Rhee’s family was separated. Her parents were sent to the countryside to work in a hard labor camp.
At that time, Mrs. Rhee had been married for only a few years. She and her husband, whose relatives were high-ranking Communist officials, had two young children.
“My husband asked me to leave,” she said tearfully. “Our 3-year-old was holding my leg and asked me not to go anywhere. They kept asking, ‘When are you coming back?’ To comfort them, I told them, ‘I will come back after a few days.’ That was the last time I saw them.”
After losing her husband, children, and home because of her Christian faith, Mrs. Rhee lost all hope and began to waver in her faith. “I remember standing on the riverside thinking of committing suicide,” she said, “but the words of my father kept me from doing it. He had said that our lives are not our own but God’s. I couldn’t die.”
Her brother, however, did die. A family member saw him only once in prison. It was clear that he was malnourished and had been severely beaten. On the second visit, guards said he wasn’t available. Later, the family learned that he had died.
“The moment I learned that my brother died in prison, I felt there was no God,” said Mrs Rhee.
This VOM file photo from the early 2000s depicts what appears to be a North Korean execution yard near the Tumen River.
Worried that without a husband she would have no future, a family member arranged a marriage for her in China. The man was not a Christian, but that was no longer an obstacle for Mrs. Rhee.
Years later, while walking down a street in China with her family, she heard someone reciting John 3:16, a verse she remembered immediately from her youth. When she turned around to see who it was, no one was there. She asked her husband if he had heard anything, but he had not.
“I stopped praying after I lost my brother,” she said. “I stopped worshiping. I never thought about God, but in that moment I was stunned by the words in my head. In that moment, I said, ‘I have to go to church.’”
Mrs. Rhee soon began an intense Bible study with a pastor she met in China, but her husband never joined them.
When Mrs. Rhee’s children from her marriage in China grew up, they decided to move to South Korea. Mrs. Rhee and her husband eventually followed them.
“I had to start working as a housemaid immediately to survive,” Mrs. Rhee said. “Fortunately, I met a good homeowner who was a deacon at a church.”
Though her husband returned to China and eventually passed away, Mrs. Rhee stayed in South Korea and returned to the Christian faith of her childhood. She graduated from Underground University, a discipleship training school run by Voice of the Martyrs Korea. The school trains North Korean defectors according to the practices of the North Korean underground church, practices which Mrs. Rhee had experienced firsthand as a member of an underground Christian family in North Korea.
As part of the program, she participated in a mission trip to China to evangelize North Korean women married to Chinese husbands.
“I cried a lot when I met them,” she said. “I shared my testimony. They were in their 30s and 40s. For them I was like a mother. I just hugged them, and they were just holding my hand and starting to cry.”
Looking back on her life, she said her biggest regret is that she didn’t listen to her father’s wishes when she was younger.
“If I can meet my parents [in heaven], I want to say sorry to my father because I couldn’t live as a good Christian when I was in North Korea,” she said. “My father kept asking me to be an evangelist, but I didn’t follow this.”
Her regrets are slowly fading, though, in the light of an ever-growing faith that her father once prayed she would have. “God is using me and my vision, and now I am living as an evangelist,” she said. “I think maybe my parents’ prayer is being answered.”
Individuals or churches interested in learning more about North Korean underground Christians and Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korea ministry can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/northkorea/.