A North Korean refugee's account: Life of Poverty and Richness

Border separating South Korea from its northern neighbor

During my trip through South Korea, I visited the border separating South Korea from its northern neighbor. I have been reading and learning about countries such as North Korea – one of the few countries still under the grip of a diabolic doctrine – communism. Growing up in former USSR, I can remember how it was like for people to live under the illusion of freedom.

Well, I was so glad to receive an invitation to visit Seoul. This visit gave me the opportunity to worship at a church that ministers to refugees from North Korea. This church is one of the outreach ministries of the Manmin mega church where Dr. Jaerock Lee serves as senior pastor.

It was an incredible time attending this church's service. I learned that ministers of this church help North Korean refugees not just in a spiritual way but also help them settle in their new home country. You cannot imagine how hard it was for people who lived all of their life under total control and abject poverty - totally removed from basic conveniences of life and benefits that modern life offers. Cars? Computers? Internet? Facebook and Google? Basic needs such as clothes, food, health care? Forget it! And most importantly – freedom. That's what these refugees had had to overcome while living on the other side of the border.

I asked one woman - herself a refugee - how exactly the North Korean government treats Christians there. Her answer was simple and direct to the point: “Shooting”. I was told by the pastor of this church that when refugees cross the border and reach South Korea, usually they experience total confusion about life in their new country and often suffer from sickness. They are in need of much care that only God's supernatural help can provide.

After service had ended, I got the opportunity to speak with one of them who now serves as a church leader. I asked her about her life in North Korea and the dangers faced by Christians living there. I also heard about their experiences since coming to their new home country.

How long have you been living in South Korea?

I came here in September 25, 2002.

How exactly is life in South Korea different than in North Korea?

Oh, totally. Here in South Korea, social life is definitely much better. People live under democratic rule supported by a good economy. At first, it was pretty hard to understand and get used to this new life. Because, you know, North Korean people are very poor and they are probably the poorest compared to any other country. But the biggest difference, of course, is in their political life – total lack of freedom.

How dangerous was it trying to escape from North Korea?

If you want to escape from that communistic system, your risk everything - even your life. But for me, this process was different. It was long and difficult. I was an active member of a communist group enjoying a high position. Because of my job, I moved to China. When I got there, I heard a lot about South Korea. I learned that it is a good country and people that live there are happy.

Those mountains are in North Korea s territory

Tell us a few words about life in North Korea.

Virtually, the entire population, despite the fact that they live under “socialism”, are poor and have a very low level of life. People suffer greatly from hunger. There is always not enough food and basic goods for daily use. The country has inadequate means of production. No finished products are allowed to be imported from the outside, either. That is exactly why North Koreans live below the poverty line.

Are there Christians there? Can people hear the Good News somehow?

When I lived in North Korea, I was a nonbeliever. I never saw Christians. I just heard about underground churches. I first heard the Good News here in South Korea. As for the people of North Korea, the great majority hear nothing about the Gospel. Many of them never hear about Christ as Lord and King. They do not hear of the Bible as God's Word.

As a member of a communist party, was it hard to receive and understand the notion that God exists?

You know, even as a communist I had believed in this ideology. I had this kind of faith. When I came to South Korea, I found no communistic ideology that I had known back home. Some people told me that I ought to believe in something good and took me to a Christian church where I heard Jesus and salvation preached. Since then, I have been attending this church and now truly believe in God.

If we imagine North Korea suddenly opening up and Gospel preaching were possible, wouldn't it be so difficult for people to understand it because of their atheistic background?

Actually, communistic ideology has its own set of doctrines, which is quite similar to what the Bible teaches. It almost has like 10 commandments. They even have something similar to tithing. That's why I believe it may not be so difficult for them to understand the gospel story. I wish I could go to North Korea someday, but I could get killed right away. I have four children that still live there. I pray for them everyday. I dream and hope that someday they could find the way to God and meet Jesus.

I hope so, too. What do the people in North Korea know and think about South Korea?

From childhood, we are taught that life in South Korea is awful. A strong propaganda indoctrinates that belief in us. The government teaches that the best place in the world is North Korea and people just accept it. There is only one government-controlled TV channel that spreads communistic propaganda and ideology. So people there get no chance to believe in something else. If you were known to believe in other things outside of what they teach, you could be fired, sent to jail, or even get killed. People don't really know what exactly is happening in the outside world and how it looks like.

As I told you, once I came to China I saw another reality. I watched TV channels from US and South Korea. I came to realize that all I had known in my life was just garbage and lies. I realized how big and amazing our world is. I was shocked. It was really a tough time in my life dealing with these new discoveries.

And then you went to South Korea?

Yes. Because in China I felt I wasn't totally free. I still lived under someone else's control and so I decided to go to South Korea. When I came here, I was really amazed to see what they have. It seemed to me like real paradise but I soon learned that real paradise is waiting for us in heaven. I am really quite blessed to be here in Manmin church. I have seen so many miracles. I had had difficulties with walking, but I was healed here. I am very thankful to our senior pastor Dr. Jaerock Lee for his kindness and deep dedication to God. I am happy that I can serve God here. When I became a member of this church, there were just 5 people from North Korea. Now we have got 300 people already. I dedicate myself to this work.

While I was listening to this testimony, my heart was crying. I saw in her eyes deep pain. I was thinking that we as Christians sometimes do so many stupid things which have no importance to our faith and lose our focus in how we can best serve our Savior and God's people. I thought about what we could do for Christians that live in North Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Iran and other places where people experience no freedom of religion and free speech. I truly believe that when we realize and accept our responsibility, we could always find the means to help them.

After listening to her story and witnessing the deep tears in her eyes, all I could say was: “Thanks for sharing and thank you that you do what you do. Never give up. You never know when this communism system would be completely broken. Historically, there once lived a monster named Soviet Union - also known as the “Evil Empire”. It collapsed and fell apart. Yet there always remains a grim possibility it could back and reign once again.

Serge Serhiienko from Seoul