Usually the prisoners we help at Voice of the Martyrs Korea are those who are jailed for their Christian faith. But that’s not the case with Mr. Lee.
Mr. Lee is a North Korean defector incarcerated in a South Korean prison. It was not his faith that put him there, but rather his attempt to pass counterfeit money here in Seoul.
Our North Korean Underground University (UU) students have been visiting Mr. Lee in his South Korean prison for the past 10 months. A considerable part of UU happens outside of the classroom, as UU students learn to do ministry today, reaching North Koreans with the gospel wherever North Koreans are found—including in prison in South Korea.
Though our students have visited Mr. Lee for ten months, he has remained stone-cold silent and seemingly unreachable.
Until this week. Finally, he opened his heart to share stories of his past with us.
What he shared was difficult to hear—even for our North Korean students.
Mr. Lee was born in North Korea. His mother died when he was an infant, so he does not have any memories of her. Beginning even as a young boy, he was abused by his father in almost inconceivable ways. He showed us a scar on his head where his drunken father had hit him with a beer bottle. His father also stabbed him and stoned him. His father was known to be a good person in the town where they lived, but at home he was always a monster.
Mr. Lee was forced to learn at a very young age how to avoid his father’s violence. He sometimes ran out of his house and lived on the street. When he would return a few days later each time, his father would beat him even more. So, Mr. Lee finally stayed away for a month. Then when he returned, his father no longer beat him.
Mr. Lee and his father went to a village in China when he was ten. He was not allowed to attend school. At age fifteen, his father disappeared. Mr. Lee later heard from one of his father’s friends that his father had been arrested. So, Mr. Lee decided to defect to South Korea.
Mr. Lee was twenty-one years old when he arrived in South Korea. He met a girl on a bus, and they exchanged contact information. They got married a short time later. They now have a five-year old boy.
Mr. Lee was arrested for trying to pass counterfeit money. He says he did not know the money was counterfeit when he received it, and that he did not know how to make a proper defense after he was arrested.
Our Underground University missionary training students have also visited Mr. Lee’s wife several times. It is challenging for her to figure out how to earn money, arrange for a babysitter, and other practical matters that are always challenging to North Korean defectors.
Our UU students cried as Mr. Lee shared his story. Then they told him about his Heavenly Father by sharing the story of the Prodigal Son.
Mr. Lee explained to our North Korean UU students that the reason he shared his painful stories with them is that he thinks they are trustworthy. He believes they are being honest with him, unlike other people.
(The situation is not unlike when we took a different group of our North Korean UU students to a country where North Koreans were being discipled by a very gracious South Korean pastor and his wife. When the pastor and his wife went to bed, the North Korean trainees approached our students privately and asked, “The South Korean says God is real. But you are our countrymen. Tell us the truth!” Always, North Koreans are able to reach other North Koreans for Christ more effectively than any foreigner.)
Our UU students’ consistent care for Mr. Lee and his wife is finally bearing the fruit of trust, after nearly a year of faithful presence. But the real story here is the God who has had his eye on this North Korean sparrow since the start of his very difficult and painful life.
One North Korean woman who became an orphan due to the famine in the 1990s and who was subsequently sex-trafficked to China, told Dr. Foley and me recently, “I have had a lot of difficulties in my life. But it was through those difficulties that I met Christ, so I am thankful for all of it.” Another North Korean met the Lord before defecting, but once he arrived in South Korea he became so focused on making money that he forgot about the Lord completely. Now he is in prison for a murder he committed in a drunken rage—and he realizes that the walls of the prison have been the womb of rebirth.
So-called “more fortunate” Christians seem to call God to account frequently, demanding God to explain why bad things happen to them. But North Korea’s fallen sparrows are far wiser and humbler. Having been knocked to the ground by everyone and everything they know, they are captivated by—and thankful for—the God whom everything must serve, even every evil that assails them.