North Korea: The reality of life in the pariah state

ReutersPeople in Tokyo walk in front of a screen showing news of North Korea's threats.

A North Korean family has spoken about their horrific ordeal and ongoing suffering because of their faith at the hands of the pariah state.

In an extensive interview Hannah Cho (named changed for security purposes) described a life of pain, torture and loss. The harrowing first person account, first published by World Watch Monitor, details the realities of life in North Korea as attention is focused on its threats and dispute with US President Donald Trump.

The story was released on the day Trump appeared to hint again at military action against the communist state, tweeting 'talking is not the answer'.

Cho described how her mother would pray in secret, constantly fearing being caught, after religion was suppressed following the Korean War in 1950. Cho wanted to understand what her mother was saying but all she could make out was: 'Hananim! Hananim! – Lord! Lord! Help.'

Cho said: 'We had no idea who this "Hananim" was. My daughter even asked her one day why she wouldn't simply visit this guy if he was that important to her. My mother replied: "One day I will."'

As the hardships of the regime set in, Cho married but lost two children at a young age, with another four surviving. After permanently damaging her spine, loosing a finger and suffering without medical care, her new family decided to flee to China.

'My eldest daughters were first to flee, but they were betrayed by the broker. They were supposed to meet with a relative of my husband but were sold into marriage to poor Chinese farmers. Fortunately, they were sold to families in the same village, so could stay in touch with each other.

'When we didn't hear from them, my husband went to China to try to find them. Meantime, I took care of my two youngest children at home. My husband didn't come back; a year later, I went to look for them all in China. At first, I couldn't locate my husband. I worked on a Chinese farm as a maid, but didn't receive any money. I had lost everything that was dear to me. I prayed to God with the only words I knew: "Hanonim, Hanonim! – Lord, Lord! Please help!" Finally, I found my husband's relative and he connected me with my husband.'

Describing what it was like to have the family reunited, Cho said: 'We had seen my mother's faith, but now we understood it.

'We felt peace in our hearts and unexplainable joy. It was so refreshing, as if the specks in my eyes had been washed away and I could finally see God. Now I could follow Him like my mother had. The pastor taught us about Christ and the Christian life. Our faith grew very quickly because we had been prepared all our lives for this moment.'

But their joy did not last long.

Reuters/KCNANorth Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA).

'We were discovered by Chinese secret agents and arrested. They moved us from prison to prison until we were finally sent back to North Korea. We'd hardly arrived when we witnessed a terrible scene. A woman in prison was pregnant by a Chinese man. Race is very important in North Korea: the pure race may never be defiled. To mix Korean blood with Chinese blood is a terrible "sin",' she said.

'The woman gave birth in prison, but then the guard ordered her to kill her baby, but she couldn't. The guard threatened another woman, telling her he would let her live if she killed the baby. He put his gun to her head and the inmate had no other choice but to strangle the baby until he died. And we had to watch.'

The family were seperated and once it was discovered they were Christians they were held in solitary confinement.

'Prisoners in solitary confinement were badly beaten. Nobody dared resist because you'd only make the torture worse. But my husband was different. The more they tortured him, the harder he defended his faith. He yelled at them: "If believing in God is a sin, I'd rather die! Just kill me! It's my mission to live according to God's will!"

'Each time he spoke out against them, they stripped his clothes and beat him up as if he was an animal. His flesh was torn and ripped. When he lost consciousness, they woke him and started again.

'I felt close to dying. I was dehydrated and beaten until I was unconscious too. When I woke up, I was dragged back to a regular cell with my daughter and other female inmates. Then they beat me in front of them. All my daughter could do was cry silently, which she did day and night.

'Of course, we prayed throughout our time in prison. One day, our entire family was called out of the prison cell. That was a bad omen. Usually when people are taken from their cells during the night they are transferred to a camp for political prisoners.

'When we got to the office, there were two male prisoners. I recognized my son, but the other was in such a bad shape, I didn't recognize my husband and he didn't recognize me. That's how horrendous we looked from all the torture. His ribs and collarbone were broken, so he couldn't even stand up straight. But I realized it was him.

'We were in front of the prison deputy, waiting to hear our verdict. We all desperately prayed for a miracle. We didn't want to suffer and die in a political prisoner camp. But the deputy gave us a special amnesty. When we walked out of the prison that night and were finally free and alone, we quietly sang a hymn.'

Cho and her daughters fled to China again with her husband telling her he would follow one month later with their son. But a month passed. Then a second. And a third. After three years Cho found out her husband had died from his injuries shortly after leaving prison.

Now living in South Korea, Cho has not seen her son for many years.

'My mother only taught me one prayer. But I still pray it every day, for my family and for my country: "Hanonim, Hanonim! – Lord, Lord, please help!"'