Kang Hyeok (a pen name) remains in hiding in China after his second escape from North Korea. A 28-year-old graduate of Susan College, Sinpo, in North Korea, his experience illustrates why an increasing number of North Koreans are fleeing hunger and oppression, and why many Christians are coming to their aid.

The following is an excerpt from memoirs appearing in the South Korean monthly Sindonga. We enter Kang's story in 1997, as he is waiting for a train between Pyongyang and Keomkol, at Sinseongcheon Station in North Korea.

The waiting room was full of a crowd waiting for the train. A young man was eating bread.

An old woman beside him said, "Excuse me, would you give me some bread? I haven't eaten anything for two days. I am really hungry."

"I am sorry, but look at me," the man replied. "I gave my clothes for food." The old woman dropped her head without saying any more. At that moment someone shouted, "Listen to me, is this the socialism we pursue? No other way but to sit and starve to death?"

Everyone turned their eyes toward the man. How can he dare say that? How will he be treated? A cold silence spread. He closed his eyes and did not move, as if he knew his fate. A security officer appeared and said, "Hey, you, show me your id card!"

Without even looking at the man's ID card and traveling certificate, however, the official handcuffed him—and detained me and everyone else near enough to have heard his comment. Overhearing the ideologically suspicious comment was our crime.

We had waited for three days to take the train in front of us. That moment was the starting point of events that would lead to my attempt to escape to China.

Kang escaped from detention but was apprehended and sentenced to six months of hard labor (reduced to 10 days). Facing food shortages and threats of further imprisonment, in August 1997 he fled to China. Officials there seized him the following year.

March 25, 1998. I will never forget the date for the rest of my life. I was being sent by escort to North Korea on a truck with some other escapees.

Two armed Chinese soldiers were pointing their automatic weapons at us. As soon as we crossed the border into North Korea, the label betrayer or traitor would follow us. My heart seemed to be frozen. Lee Haeyeong, a young woman who had escaped from North Korea five months before I did, touched my hands tenderly. "Can we meet again?" she said. "I am afraid we will be treated harshly." Then she smiled. "Kang Hyeok, I really thank you for the things you have done for me."

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While I was thinking about my fate, she was thinking about our fate. She was remembering the days we had together in China. She stopped speaking for a moment and looked at me softly.

"Lastly, I ask a favor of you," she said. "Please kiss me."

I was completely surprised. We did not know what would become of us, and the Chinese soldiers were aiming their guns at us. She asked me to kiss her even on the way to a closed nation where neither love nor life had any meaning.

I had met Haeyeong when entering a house to find a hiding place after crossing the Duman River into China. Looking ordinary and a little short, she was making a fire in the kitchen to boil down grains into taffy. The owner of the house, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry, allowed me to stay there.

Haeyeong seemed to know that I was North Korean from the beginning. We began to speak to each other one month after I had arrived. She had escaped from North Korea in March 1997 when she was a student at Weonsan Teachers Training College. Since then she had worked for the owner of the house, who made taffy for their living. We felt like brother and sister to each other.

When I decided to leave the house, she followed me. She would have been safe with room and board had she stayed, but she left without hesitation. She seemed to entrust her life to me.

After inquiring secretly, I finally found a job at a factory in Yeonkil City and went to work there as a boiler engineer. On March 10, 1998, I was on my way back from the office around 11 p.m. When I reached the entrance of my apartment, Chinese policemen were forcing Haeyeong into a police car. She was in reddish-purple winter clothes.

According to a neighbor, a policeman had stopped and questioned her on a road to the apartment. There was only one thing for me to do. When the police car was about to depart, I threw myself into the car. I chose to be arrested rather than be apart from her.

As illegal entrants, we could not even dream of freedom in a foreign country. Nevertheless, we were free for the eight months we had been together.

Now, on the truck transporting us back to North Korea, Haeyeong's eyes were tearing but her face was smiling. Knowing that we would not be any freer than at that moment, she had asked me to kiss her. Perhaps she was carefully folding the memories of her life.

My hands bound with handcuffs behind my back, I kissed her. We were shedding tears but smiling.

Harrowing Homecoming

The truck slowed down and stopped. Soon we would be transferred to North Korea. Dead silence reigned until the Chinese authorities drew back the cover of the truck bed.

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"Get off."

North Korean security personnel were waiting for us, wearing black glasses and silk jackets. We turned pale with fear.

There were 28 captives, and the Korean officials made us kneel down and began to hit us with square bars. Then they took us to the Security Bureau. We were again kneeling down in the prison of the Security Bureau.

"Who is Kang Hyeok?" They fired questions at us like bullets. "Who is Lee Haeyeong?"

"I am Kang Hyeok," I replied. When I put up my head, a security member gave me a hard kick to my eyes. I lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes again, I found that my body had been kicked all over.

I looked around to find Haeyeong. She was lying down on the floor with her hair disheveled. Blood was flowing down from her mouth and nose. I felt my anger boiling up. When I saw my sweet girl being hit and insulted in front of me, I promised myself that I would endure all kinds of violence; I feared nothing anymore.

The more I was hit, the more the fire of my anger blazed. We were hit again and again. I could endure it, but to see Haeyeong being hit was more than I could bear. I wanted to be hit instead of her. They always tormented her in front of me.

Haeyeong and I were put underground, me in a male prison cell and her in one for women.

Security Bureau Prison

I heard a crow cawing outside one morning, when authorities selected me and 26 others from the now 128 people there who had crossed into China. We were put on a truck.

The truck ran along a steep, meandering mountain road into a valley. At last we arrived at a low hill in the valley.

As soon as we were taken down from the truck, we shuddered: Three reddish holes dug in the ground opened their mouths wide. There were muddy shovels and picks here and there. The executioners were wearing black glasses and white gloves, their killing devices shining in their hands. The security personnel glared at us, smoking.

A guard came forward resolutely, throwing away his cigarette. "If you are called, come forward."

Who would be the first? I trembled all over. I became absent-minded with the fear of death. When the three men had been called out, I heaved a sign of relief. One of the three stood with his back toward a rock wall. The executioners assumed their firing posture.

The two gunshots sounded as if they struck his skull. My closed eyes could see the moment between life and death like a nightmare. The bullets had passed through the man's chest and forehead. He leaned forward, as if shaking off something, then the sound of the shots lingered over the dead body.

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The second man also received two shots, one in the chest and another in the belly. Gripping his stomach, he put up his head and glared at the executioners, clenching his teeth. He finally sank to the ground, which was covered with snow.

The third man lost his senses, falling against the rock wall. The security guard approached him like a wildcat, smiling. He held his pistol against the man's head and pulled the trigger. Then he fired at random on the man's body.

The terrible silence returned. The three executed men had tried to escape to South Korea. The South Korean Consulate General in China had rejected them, and they were arrested by North Korean agents.

Crossing the border into China is an ideological and political crime. North Korea tells its people that South Korea is a colony of the United States and that it is full of beggars. If the people cross the border, they naturally find out that this is not true. Knowing the truth is considered antiestablishment. This is why the North Korean Security Bureau treats as spies people who have crossed into China and had contact with South Koreans.

Having contact with South Koreans in China is regarded as having contact with the South Korean Security Bureau, because North Korea identifies all South Koreans in China as members of that agency. So having contact with South Koreans is regarded as the worst crime of all—and therefore leads directly to death.

I had met a South Korean student by chance in China after crossing the border. Haeyeong knew this, and we had to conceal it to save our lives. Soon after we were arrested in China, we'd promised to conceal this at any price. If one of us uncovered it by mistake, both of us would be killed.

Again the security guard broke the silence. "Collect yourself and listen to me carefully," he said. "Reply frankly to what I ask. Understand?"

The security personnel took up the list of the persons who had crossed into China. "Kang Hyeok!" I stopped breathing. Then my body began to tremble. I could not believe that I was walking forward. He began to ask me questions. I replied without thinking. "ok, you stand there," he said. "If it turns out that you told a lie, you will be immediately killed like a dog."

I had gotten through the first inquiries. Haeyeong also got through the inquiries and stood beside me. It was after a long while that I found my trousers were wet.

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Leaving the three dead bodies behind us, we were put on a truck to the prison of the Hyaeryeong Security Bureau.

On March 27 the preliminary investigation began. The officials bombarded Haeyeong and me with razor-like inquiries. Sometimes they persuaded us with sweet words. Sometimes they made us vomit everything in our system as if they wanted to take out even the milk we'd drunk in our childhood. They repeated their questions 100 times, and we repeated our answers 100 times.

The examination continued for six days, and finally they began to torture us. If Haeyeong were to reveal that I had met a South Korean student, she would get out alive. But she did not.

They ordered me to bend my back tight, just like the back of a camel, with my head on the ground. Then they beat me severely with square bars. They called it "camel torture." This continued day after day. Whenever I was taken to the torture cell, the chains connected to the handcuffs on my hands rattled, and I trembled all over. The most terrible period was two or three minutes before the torture began. Once it began, my body was more at ease. My senses would become dull.

Another day, the director of the Security Bureau took Haeyeong and me to the torture cell. Four sturdy torture experts were waiting for us in the torture cell, about five square meters in size.

"Don't even dream of getting out of here alive," said the director, slowly lighting his cigarette. My hands were fastened on a wooden frame. The director seared my fingernails with his cigarette. I screamed with pain. I looked down at my burnt fingernails and cried tears. The torture experts were searing Haeyeong's thin legs with their cigarettes. She writhed in agony.

"Take off your clothes!"

We stripped to our underwear. They heaped cruel abuse on us and tore our underwear with a knife. Haeyeong crouched down, covering her breasts with both hands. The four torture experts began to beat all over my body. They called this torture "baseball game." Bathed with blood, I lost consciousness.

After a long while, I felt someone grasping my hand warmly. I opened my eyes. My head was on Haeyeong's knees. She was holding one of my hands.

"Why is it so quiet?" I said.

"I don't know. When I collected myself, I found no one around except for us. Kang Hyeok, you did a good job. You are really strong."

It appeared that she also had lost consciousness at the end of "baseball game." Her body was covered with bruises. We hugged each other and shed tears.

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The security officers came in again. It appeared that they had taken a rest until we regained consciousness. They fastened me on a board and connected an electric wire to my buttocks. One of them grasped her hair covered with clotted blood, and turned her head toward me.

"Look at the son of a b— with your eyes wide open!" he said.

I heard an electric sound, and after several jolts I lost consciousness. Feeling myself seized by something, I opened my eyes. The security officers were pouring water on me. I sat up against a chair and found that Haeyeong was lying senseless. I cannot explain how they humiliated Haeyeong in front of me.

At last we were transferred to the Hyaeryeong Safety Bureau prison. We had not expected to get out of the Security Bureau prison alive.

Ardent Spirit

We reached the prison, 68 of us singing songs such as My Country Is the Best and Let's Protect Socialism. The prison had 12 buildings.

It was early April. I could see through the bars of the semiunderground cell that the apricot trees were putting forth new shoots. One day authorities ordered Haeyeong to wipe the windows in front of my cell. It had been several days since I had seen her, and she had become very haggard.

Looking at me, she dropped tears without saying a word. When the prison officer went to the toilet, she threw a vinyl bag into my cell. The bag contained a lump of boiled rice and two candies.

There was nothing more shining than her spirit. Her love was stronger than the sword. I felt something warm inside.

The officials told us the election of the Central People's Committee members was scheduled for July 1998. It was the first election after Kim Il Sung died. We prisoners were also included in the electorates, so we were to be transferred to another prison. We were bound up and boarded for the Cheongjin Labor-Training Site of the Hamkyungbuk-do Safety Bureau. At the Labor-Training Site, the chief director told us, "Rebuild your ideology through high-intensity labor. This is the demand of the party."

Haeyeong waited for me every morning in front of the dining hall. The female prisoners ate earlier than the male prisoners. After eating, she always waited for me and gave me a lump of boiled rice wrapped in a vinyl bag. I rebuked her at first, but it was no use. Perhaps she could not endure prison life without expressing her love in such a way. Whenever she saw me, she smiled with ardent eyes. She was not in a prison; she was together with me.

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Around the middle of July, we were mobilized to gather firewood for the Safety Bureau of the province. Twenty prisoners including me were taken to a steep mountain to gather firewood.

When I came back a week later, I did not see Haeyeong. Since prisoners were not allowed to speak to one another, I could not publicly ask where she was. Four days passed. On the fifth day, I gave a case of cigarettes to the guard (who was also a prisoner) and casually asked him if anything special had happened during my absence.

He said that four women and one man had died. I became fearful and impatient, but I could not ask directly about 326, Haeyeong's prisoner number. I went to the dining hall, pretending to count the number of prisoners to be supplied with food for the day. I checked the register carefully, but I could not find Haeyeong's number.

Returning to the guard, I again took on an air of indifference and asked him if there were any beautiful women among the dead.

"Well, I thought one woman among them was really beautiful," he said. "She is one of the 4-29 group members who came here with you." They called us the 4-29 group because we came on April 29. "She was in purplish winter clothes."

I did not need to ask anymore. I lost consciousness.

Three Miracles

North Korea drives sane people to madness. Those who have not experienced it may not believe it. How can they? But it is true.

The 128 persons arrested for crossing the border were reduced to 34 by the time they were transferred from the Hyaeryeong Safety Bureau prison to the Cheongjin Labor-Training Site. That number dropped to 13 while in the Cheongjin Labor-Training Site, which was for just 60 days. This meant that most of the other 115 people had died.

On July 28, I was released due to a disease. If I recovered from my disease, I would be taken back to prison again. The only way to live was to run away. I raised 3,000 won by selling my house.

On August 1, I went to Nakweon-gun by car. Then, from the fisheries at Nakweon City beach, I intended to stow away on a boat to Cheongjin. It was night. I reached the wharf and hid myself in a case of fish on a conveyor. The bag was moved onto a boat. I reached Cheongjin on the boat. It was a miracle.

I went from Cheongjin to Musan by train and walked eight kilometers from Musan to Samjang. I hid myself on a mountain in Samjang. I could see the Duman River and a guard post below the mountain. Two sentries sat there. I waited for a chance.

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It began to rain in torrents around 1 a.m. Perhaps because of this, the sentries moved to another place. It was the second miracle. I came down the mountain and put my feet into the swift current. I crossed the river fearing for my life.

After crossing the river, I went into a Chinese house. The owner was a Christian, and he wanted to help me.

He asked me if I had any acquaintances there. I remembered the radiophone number of a Chinese person whom I had met during my first escape. This person usually turned off his radiophone at night, but that night he happened to sleep with the phone turned on. The ringing sound of the phone woke him up. It was the third miracle.

It was August 3, 1998, and a new day was breaking.

Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today articles on North Korea include:

Criminal Faith | Going nuclear, North Korea allows worship only of its dictator. (July 08, 2003)
Helping Refugees Run Roadblocks | No nation wants North Koreans, but Christians rally to their cause. (March 17, 2003)
Fleeing North Korea | Christians among the thousands making their way to China. (Oct. 7, 2002)
Persecution Summit Takes Aim at Sudan, North Korea | Christian leaders issue second "Statement of Conscience." (May 2, 2002)
South Koreans Help Neighbors (Aug. 9, 1999)
Famine Toll Exceeds 1 Million (Oct. 5, 1998)
Editorial: North Korea's Hidden Famine | The poor and the weak should not have to starve due to the policies of their government. (May 19, 1997)
Evangelicals Plead for Korean Aid (April 7, 1997)

Bearing the Cross focused on North Korea in 2001.

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