Redeemed by a Radical Command

A North Korean woman finds hope during a life-changing encounter with
God’s Word

Growing up in North Korea, Hyun-Ok could never have imagined gathering with others to study the Bible. Under the communist-inspired dictatorship founded on Juche, it would have been far too dangerous to let others know you were even interested in the Bible. The distinctly North Korean religious ideology of Juche demands worship and subservience to the Kim family alone.

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North Korean UU/UT students update the translation of the John Ross Bible.

“In North Korea, they don’t allow any ideologies except for [Juche],” Hyun-Ok said. “They live in a kind of space where they’re not able to encounter other religions. I had no religion, [and] I didn’t want to interact with any other religions.”


Hyun-Ok left North Korea when she was in her 40s, defecting to China, where she eventually married a Korean Chinese man and started a family. While they lived a comfortable life in China, Hyun-Ok and her husband realized there were better job opportunities in South Korea. So after getting three-month visas, they traveled to South Korea, hoping to save some money before returning home.


Before their visas expired, however, the South Korean government deported Hyun-Ok’s husband back to China because of issues with his legal documents. Hyun-Ok made the difficult decision to stay in South Korea, hoping her family would eventually be able to join her.


Separated from her husband and son, Hyun-Ok suffered severe depression and also began to experience problems with her physical health. She searched for help anywhere she could find it.


“I was having a difficult time and needed something to rely on,” she said, “so I turned to Buddhism. I went to a temple, where they told me to do a shamanistic ritual. I did it three times; it didn’t help anything.”


As her despair increased, Hyun-Ok isolated herself, rarely leaving the house or communicating with friends. Then, a North Korean friend persuaded her to try something new — John Ross Bible translation.


The John Ross Bible was the first portion of scripture ever translated into the Korean language. The Gospel of Luke was published in 1882 and smuggled into Korean from Moukeden, China (today’s Shenyang). UU/UT students are now creating a “Contemporary Reader’s Edition” of the full Ross New Testament.


“All of my closest friends were doing the Ross Bible translation, and one of my friends kept encouraging me to go,” she said. “She told me there was a camping event that I could attend, and if I liked it, then I could sign up for the study. So I went to the camping event, and I ended up signing up for Bible meetings after that.”


Hyun-Ok began by studying and updating the Gospel of Luke. Though she didn’t quite understand what she was reading, she continued to do the homework she received when she signed up for the study.


“Everything looked strange to me [at first],” she said. “[But] I’m the kind of person that if you give me an assignment to do, I’m going to do it, and I’m not going to give it back to you until it’s done. So I worked on that study for one month. I would wake up, eat breakfast and work on that study until 3 a.m. the next day.”


While working through her assignment, Hyun-Ok remembered something she had heard about Christ’s teachings while living in North Korea. She decided to search the Scriptures to better understand it.

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Hyun-Ok learned more about God’s Word during a Christian camping event. Today, she invites other North Koreans to join her for Bible study at similar events.

“In North Korea, the thing I hated most about Christianity is that Christians say if someone hits you on one cheek, you should turn the other cheek,” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense. So when I was reading the Bible, that was something I was most curious about. I studied the part where Jesus said love God, love your neighbor and love your enemy too. I was impressed by this.”


The concept of forgiving those who wrong you was foreign to Hyun-Ok, who had been raised in a culture that promoted paranoia and distrust. The everyday lives of North Koreans are governed by the “Ten Principles,” which demand unconditional obedience to the Kim family’s ideology and promote reporting on those who do not live up to the regime’s standards.


Yet the more Hyun-Ok studied the life and teachings of Christ in the Bible, the more she was drawn to his love and compassion. “As I studied about the death of Christ, I understood that Jesus died for our sins,” she said. “So if there is someone like that who would die on the cross for my sins, and he says to turn the other cheek, why would I not listen to him? And I teared up when Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, said, ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless not my will but your will be done.’ Only God can give up his only Son for other people. Nobody else can do that.”


Overwhelmed by God’s love for her, Hyun-Ok placed her faith in Christ.


Today, a little more than a year after her life-changing encounter with God’s Word, Hyun-Ok continues to attend Bible study. She also encourages other North Korean defectors to attend these meetings, which are part of a larger strategy to reach North Koreans with the gospel wherever they may be found.


“There are so many people in the world who are like me, who have been wandering,” she said.


Hyun-Ok asked for prayer that her son will come to know the hope and peace she has found in Christ. Although he now lives in South Korea too, he has shown no interest in the Christian faith.


And finally, she asked for prayer for the people of North Korea. “My heart is always poured out for North Korea,” she said. “In my home, whenever I pray by myself, I pray for North Korea. I pray that [North Koreans’] hearts would turn to God.”