Editor’s note: Ji Ho’s story is based on several true accounts of life in North Korea. While details have been created or combined to protect any specific person or place from identification, this story is a look at what life is actually like for North Korean Christians.
They came for my father while I was at school.
When I opened the gate to our house that day, I heard shouting and saw men with shovels, digging in the garden. There were more men in our home, screaming at my father. I couldn’t help myself. I yelled “Appa!” (Korean for “daddy!”) and rushed into the room. I saw my dad, huddled in the corner, and I ran to him, hugging him.
As the state security agents—for that’s what they were—hurled questions and accusations at my father, it became obvious what they were looking for. They wanted to know if he had a radio.
And they wanted to know about his secret book. They ransacked the house, looking for both items. They never found the radio—probably because they were too afraid to touch the portraits of the Dear Leaders. My father had always found it a little bit funny that the radio, his illegal link to the outside world, was tucked behind the image of Kim Jong Il hanging on the wall. He also knew the police wouldn’t dare to touch it.
But as they dug outside in our small garden, they found the book, wrapped in plastic. One of the policemen came inside, holding the book, looking triumphant. 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.
My father and I both sobbed. In that moment, we knew we’d never see each other again.
The men pushed my father outside. I staggered after them, too stunned to do more than quietly cry. My last glimpse of my father was through our gate as the police took him away.
The gate slammed shut, and I was left all alone.
Secret lessons from my father
I didn’t know where they’d taken my father. And probably never will. I knew these kinds of disappearances happened; and I knew I was lucky they didn’t take me away, as well.
What I didn’t understand was why
they’d taken him away. I knew the radio was dangerous—my father had somehow gotten the tiny transistor to try to find news from outside North Korea. He wanted to know if there was anywhere that had food; he thought maybe China had some to offer and that maybe he could sneak over the border. He also wasn’t sure if what our state radio told us about our country’s harvest was true. And so he often stayed up late at night, listening to foreign radio broadcasts for new information to help us survive. He said it was worth the risk, even though we both knew he’d be arrested if he was ever caught with it.
But I didn’t see what was so bad about my father’s secret book. He loved to read me stories and sayings out of the book. “A wise man sat on a mountain and began to teach,” my father told me one night. “He said: ‘When salt loses its taste, what good is it?’ People are like salt. If we lose our kindness for others, we lose our humanity. Always keep your saltiness, Ji Ho*.”
I didn’t know what that story or his words meant, but they stuck with me. Why would a lesson about kindness be so dangerous in North Korea?
A surprising message
As I grew up, the pain of losing my father grew dimmer. It never went away, but I had more pressing concerns. Like finding food and surviving.
I began to listen to the radio for news about the outside world, just like my father used to. Maybe there was food outside of North Korea—I didn’t know how I’d get there, but if I could figure that out, perhaps I wouldn’t starve like some of my neighbors.
I also planted a few vegetables in our garden. Technically, I knew this wasn’t allowed, but no one seemed to care very much since we hadn’t received our normal food rations from work in months.
Who was Jesus? Was He the “teacher” my dad had told me about?
As I entered my twenties, my nightly routine revolved around the transistor and the garden. I’d come home from my job on the farm outside our village, check on my garden, harvest a few potatoes or a cabbage, and eat my meager dinner while I listened to the radio. I never heard about any food I could get to, but there was something comforting about listening to the radio like I’d seen my father do so many times.
One night, I was tuning the transistor, looking for stations I hadn’t heard before. I found a station in Korean—but what the man was saying was unlike any state program I’d ever heard.
“… ‘You are the salt of the earth,’” the man on the radio said. “‘If salt loses its taste, what good is it?’ These are the words of Jesus, and they remind us that we must never lose our saltiness—our love for others.”
I nearly dropped my tea. This was what my father had told me, almost word for word, so many years ago. But the radio said someone named Jesus had said this … who was Jesus? Was He the “teacher” my dad had told me about?
Discovering the God of my father
From then on, I listened to the station every chance I got. 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.”
The people on the radio said they were Christians. I’d grown up in school hearing about Western missionaries who kidnapped children and killed people. But the people on the radio didn’t seem like that at all.
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 Savior—and I wanted to follow Him, in the same way my father had.
I began to think about these lessons every day. I’d see a neighbor who I knew was hungry, and I heard the words of Jesus: “As you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” 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.”
I started to try to pray like the person on the radio said—he said you can talk with God any time, and that God wants to listen to you. Sometimes, it felt like God heard my prayers and wanted me to know He was with me.
Following Jesus for the first time
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. I thought about what Jesus had said about being salt—and that my father had told me to never lose my saltiness. I knew I could give up some of my food to my neighbors who didn’t have a garden. I hoped this might show them in some way that Jesus loved them.
I hope that someday, I can meet another follower of Jesus.
I know that it would be dangerous to tell anyone about Jesus. Our leaders don’t want us to worship anyone or anything besides them. I’ve realized that’s why my father was taken—they saw he had a Lord that was bigger than our country’s leaders.
I’m a Christian now, serving the same Jesus as my father and the people on the radio. I might be the only Christian in North Korea. But maybe other people hear the radio broadcasts, too. I hope that someday, I can meet another follower of Jesus. It would be amazing to share my hopes and faith with another person.
For now, I will keep listening to the radio. It helps me not feel so alone. 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. Just like my father told me.
Open Doors works through our secret networks in surrounding countries to provide North Korean Christians with basics like food, medicine and warm clothing. Open Doors also operates a radio broadcast each day to help strengthen the secret church in North Korea and to grow the faith of believers inside the country. Your gift today helps this vital work continue and grow as we seek to strengthen the estimated 400,000 North Korean Christians who follow Jesus under constant risk.
*Representative name; Ji Ho is based on several real accounts from North Korea