Life in North Korea: Interview with Concentration Camp Survivor

Kim Tae Jin, a Christian defector from North Korea, speaks of four years spent in Yodok concentration camp, his escape to South Korea and his faith in Jesus.

Published 10 November 2006  |  
Kim was born in 1956 in China. When he was young his father divorced his mother. In 1961, he moved to northern North Korea with his father, and then in 1964 to Wonsan, a southern port.

|PIC1|After finishing school, Kim worked in a factory: he had no choice, the Party decided. It was a very simple job but "I still believed that North Korea was the true paradise on earth."

But by 1986, Kim was questioning the regime, and fled to China. "I got a job in a mine. It was not pleasant work, but it was a good place to hide from the authorities." Kim was given a Bible by a Chinese Korean but he didn't understand it. Kim's host family invited him to church, but he didn't want to go. "But I could see that Christianity was something good, especially the love they had. That made me envious. They were so different from what I was used to."

In prison
Then, after just four months, Kim was discovered, imprisoned and repatriated to North Korea. "I was afraid - would I be executed immediately? Even though I had not yet accepted Jesus as my Saviour, I did pray occasionally. I prayed that I would be released. Eventually he did answer my prayers." In prison, Kim was beaten, forced to sit all day in the same position, not allowed to wash and endured fleas, lice and severe cold.

On 31 March 1988, after eight terrible months, Kim was sent to Yodok, a vast labour camp high in the mountains. Prisoners had just one set of clothes. Kim was forced to work from sunrise to sunset. Daily food was just 300 grams of maize - so he ate rats, mice, snakes, frogs or frogspawn to survive.

"I witnessed the execution of five prisoners who had tried to escape. The men were bound and masked, made to kneel down and each shot with three bullets." Kim was desperate. But one day he discovered that a few prisoners were occasionally released on significant dates for good behaviour. He decided to be a model prisoner and be released himself.

Bible stories
"It was forbidden to be a Christian in the camp, but I met the leader of a group of seven Christians which occasionally met in secret. I enjoyed listening to the Bible stories he shared. But I did not want to confess my sins. When he asked me to do so, I closed up and didn't say another word."

The guards regularly appoint prisoners to be informers and one of them betrayed the group of Christians. "The Christians were all horribly tortured and then sent to another camp, with an even stricter regime. After that, I never found another Christian in Yodok."

Released
On 1 April 1992, four years after Kim arrived at Yodok, he gathered with thousands of other prisoners two weeks before Kim Il-sung's birthday. "In honour of the occasion, some prisoners were to be released. My name was read out! I could not believe it. The joy was indescribable."

Nine days later Kim left Yodok by train. He went to his family, but they didn't want anything to do with him. "All I wanted to do was to get away from North Korea. But as a former prisoner, I was watched by the secret police."

During the famine of the 1990s, checks were less strict and no one noticed Kim slip away. He went north to the river Jalou, which forms the border, and ran for his life through the partially frozen water, and made it to China.

Finally, Kim found a hiding place; he had various jobs - and again came into contact with Christians. In 1997, he received a Korean Bible - and made his commitment to Jesus Christ. "God sought me and I accepted His Word as truth. Slowly I began to understand the Bible better and I became the Bible study group leader of some North Korean Christians."

But in China Kim was far from safe. In 2001 he came across an organisation which smuggles North Koreans out of China. Kim was one of eight people taken via Mongolia to South Korea. When they crossed the border, six were caught. "There is little doubt about their fate. They were sent back to North Korea and tortured."

Kim reached South Korea safely. He now works for an organisation which supports North Koreans in China. "Only God can cause a breakthrough in North Korea," says Kim. "But how? Through a war? Through a natural disaster? Let us pray that God will intervene without there being any bloodshed."

"My personal message is: show an interest in my country. Pray for it. We need your support."


[Editor's Note: This article was published in partnership with Open Doors UK]

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