Hea Woo: Imprisoned
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Hea Woo also isn’t her real name, but it’s what we’ll call her to protect her identity. While her ability to laugh and reminisce might not seem remarkable at first glance, it’s in the moments where she breaks down that it becomes clear her daily life is an act of courage.
That’s because Hea Woo is North Korean. And her life, like so many people who have managed to escape from her home country, has been marked by brutality, agony and tragedy.
Hea Woo was born during the regime of Kim Il Sung, the first ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea after its establishment in World War II. The eldest Kim would rule until his death in the early 90s.
“When I was a child, the circumstances were not too dreadful,” Hea Woo remembers. “Maybe I did not realize [it] because I was way too young. If somebody [got] seized and disappears at night, if a family member disappears, a rumor would spread—‘he/she was a spy, an American spy, a spy from South Korea.’ After capturing the person, they would spread those kinds of rumors. And the people in the town would accept that as the truth.”
A rising tide of suspicion
Even as a child who remembers things not being “too dreadful,” Hea Woo experienced the beginnings of a totalitarian regime that was dedicated to stamping out dissent and free thought. “As a child [in North Korea], something that you hear often is ‘North Korea is the happiest country to live in.’” Children are told that all other countries praise Kim Il Sung as the master,” Hea woo says. “And they are told that everyone in the world worships Kim Il Sung as the sun.”
But things changed the last years of Kim Sung Il’s life. His son, Kim Jong Il, began to take control of the country and oversaw a tightening of security. “It gradually became more and more serious as I went into the society and aged,” Hea Woo says. “And with the change of regime, there was more and more surveillance. People got arrested just for saying one word wrong. It became worse when I became an adult compared to my childhood years. The government wanted to prevent people from becoming rebellious. So, they became so vigilant.” That vigilance led to the rise in what have become common anecdotes when reporting about North Korea: Neighbors tell on neighbors, who tell on other neighbors, and so on. Even family members were encouraged to keep tabs on one another, reporting any suspicious thoughts, words or deeds to the authorities.
“The reason neighbors report each other to the government is because they are brainwashed by the government that is fearful of their insecurity,” Hea Woo says. “There is always a town-hall meeting and every time they do a meeting in town or at workplaces, the government would tell people to watch for spies—any suspicious people. They would word it like that [so] people would become more vigilant. Everyone is brainwashed to watch each other and everyone is told that watching each other is the way to stay loyal to the government.
“People do not even realize that they are brainwashed because they are born and raised that way. They are used to that environment but at the same time, they live in fear. Saying one word could put them or their family members in prison for life. So everyone is extremely careful about what they say.”
A threatening religion?
One of the things the Kim regime paid particular attention to was anything that might sit outside of the acceptable Party line of thinking, or that might present a challenge to the ruling powers. Naturally, any religion that gave people an alternative allegiance than the Kim dynasty was deemed to be dangerous to the State.
This reality affected Hea Woo profoundly because her husband was a Christian, and he carefully revealed his faith to his family and they came to Christianity as well. “My husband escaped from North Korea in 1996,” Hea Woo says. “He went to China and became part of a Korean church in China. However, one of the deacons within the same church reported my husband to the public security officer. While the pastor was away for a break, my husband was reported and was captured. My husband was forcefully brought back to North Korea.
“He was imprisoned, [labeled] as a spy by the North Korean agency for national security planning. He was tortured to [confess] his responsibilities as a spy. The torture he went through was so gruesome that it is unimaginable. My husband was tortured every single day in the prison, with blood everywhere.”
Hea Woo believes her husband’s faith gave him the strength to be compassionate—and to face the brutal torture with courage and bravery. “Even in the midst of these horrible tortures, he just had compassion for those who did not know about Jesus Christ,” Hea Woo says. “He went into the prison walking but after all the torture, he was dragged loose on the ground. Even in this situation, although his body was all torn apart, he handed the last pieces of rotten corn that he had to his prison-mates. He spread the gospel to the inmates. He prayed for the sick [and] as he continued the good work, God built an underground church in the prison through my husband.”
While Hea Woo’s husband was in prison, their children visited him. He wanted to pass on his faith, but there were guards everywhere. So, he did something simple and profound. He wrote three words on his hand: “Believe in Jesus.”
Hea Woo’s husband was later killed in prison for refusing to renounce his faith.
“The worst of times”
The transition from Kim Sung Il to Kim Jong Il came with security changes. But as Kim Jong Il began to take over, a brutal famine began to take root. The famine’s root causes are several. First, the Soviet Union fell in 1991, ending economic and agricultural support to North Korea. The country also experienced a wide-ranging and destructive flood, ruining the ability to grow crops. The flood also destroyed much of the electrical infrastructure in North Korea, leaving farmers with no way to irrigate their crops during a drought. These factors all led to a famine that is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people.
This was the era Hea Woo lived through.
“That time, in the 1990’s—I believe that was the worst of times,” she remembers. “Before, people used to get salaries and receive rations. Rice soups were distributed in very small quantities for the government to save up, [so] it was for bare maintenance. But even that stopped being distributed. Everyone depended on those soups and the government stopped the distribution.
“And people were just so worried about how to continue their lives. At that time, parents did not have the ability to feed their children. So families laid on the ground for weeks because they did not have the energy to stand up. It was not the matter of whether something was tasty or not. We simply had nothing to cook with.
“Children were driven outside to pick something up on the street and eat,” she says. “To eat on the ground and live. Every single day, somebody died. So many people died from starvation. When we went to train stations in the morning, people were just lying on the ground, dead. Children were not afraid anymore to see dead bodies because they saw so many.”
For some people, waiting to die wasn’t an option. “As the situation worsened, many people committed suicide,” Hea Woo says. “North Korea is a country hard to live and die in. If somebody commits suicide, that person becomes a betrayer of the government. Because he or she is designated as the traitor, their children or relatives cannot live with dignity. They are isolated from the society. For these reasons, people cannot even freely commit suicide. However, since it is so painful to live, some family members [would] commit suicide all together.”
Suicide wasn’t even the extent of the atrocities during this period. “Because of starvation, people became mentally ill,” Hea Woo says.“Some people ate their own children. It is not because they are evil—it is because they are so mentally ill that their children look like animals.
“In the 1990’s, so many deadly things happened.”
When famine strikes close to home
The tragedy of the famine did not leave Hea Woo’s family untouched. The same year her husband died in a North Korean prison camp for refusing to renounce his religious faith, tragedy struck Hea Woo once again. “My daughter, at that time, was twenty-six. She died from starvation in 1997.
“She did not die because she was lazy,” Hea Woo continues. “She did her best to survive the dreadful reality. But she gradually lost hope and there was no way out. At some point, she started selling everything she owned, and she was heading towards country side to get some food with the money. On the way, she met bad people, and got robbed.
“But once she came home, because of starvation, my daughter became sick again,” Hea Woo says. “The reason why she became ill was because of the old contaminated water pipes. The water pipes [had not been] changed since the time of [the] Japanese regime. North Korea did not have money to change them and they were so rusty with holes on them. Because of these old pipes, the water we got was severely contaminated with bacteria that target intestines. And plagues started spreading because of these harmful bacteria.”
It’s likely that Hea Woo’s daughter’s immune system was devastated by the famine, and once she got sick from contaminated water, her body wasn’t able to fight off the bacteria. “My daughter got sick from the plague as well and she was in bed for days,” Hea Woo says.“And at last, she died from starvation. Before she died, she said, ‘Mom, I want to live more. I am so sad that I have to go at this beautiful age. I know that I cannot live any longer.’”
Her daughter’s last wish was for Hea Woo to flee from North Korea and go to China. So that’s what Hea Woo and her remaining children did.
Sadly, Hea Woo’s tragedies weren’t at an end.
Camps of unimaginable horror
While in China, Hea Woo was caught—and repatriated into North Korea. And her punishment was to be sent to a prison camp, to suffer in the same conditions that had killed her husband.
Her descriptions of the prison and its conditions are chilling—and bear striking resemblances to descriptions of Nazi-era concentration camps. “There were different parts within the prison,” Hea Woo says. “Some [sectors] did agriculture, some did construction work, some did mining. Men and women were separated; all the inmates seemed like they were about to faint. They were all hopeless and in despair. And, they were starving.
“And people [were] obliged to work more than cows or animals,” she continues. “Because everyone [was] forced to do labor, people die from malnutrition. People died in accidents while working, too. And there was a distinct group composed of only people who tried to escape from the prison. Those people had to carry containers full of feces. The containers were made of thick wood and it was so heavy that even two people had a hard time carrying one container. Every single day, no matter how the weather was, despite heavy rain and snowfall, they were not allowed to take breaks. It was really life-threatening with the smell of the feces and the poisonous air.
“Plus, because they did not eat much, anyone who became part of that group could not survive for more than months. So many died—and there was no hope in the prison. All [inmates] were on the verge of death. Soldiers were allowed to hit the inmates whenever they showed disobedience [and] to physically abuse the inmates.”
The average day at the prison is stark and intended to break prisoners, according to Hea Woo’s account. “We woke up at 5 a.m. and started with the guards’ count of people. And after a small meal, we started the labor from 8 a.m. At 1 p.m., we ate a little [and then] we went out to work again. When there was a lot to do during the summertime, we returned inside at night. In winter time, however, because the sun set early, we went back inside at around 7 p.m. After dinner, we took politics classes [where we] learned about politics for about two hours. When anyone dozed off, he or she was beaten. There was a weekly unification meeting. If anyone was against it, he or she was locked up in a small room where people could not lie down nor stand up straight. The politics classes held at night were the worst of times.
“Even [the] food [we got was] too little for everyone to eat,” Hea Woo says. “We got one or two small pieces of rotten vegetables. Because there was no salt, we got watery, bland soup. We got three meals like that a day. And if there was not enough food in summer and autumn, we got two meals [per day]. When cows passed by on the street and defecated, people would search for corn kernels [in the excrement] and pick them up to eat.”
And yet, for Hea Woo, even the physical brutality of her experience was not the worst part.“Physical labor was hard but something harder was that we did not have freedom of faith,” she says. “We could not pray freely but I still prayed in [my] heart. When people were asleep, I woke up to pray. It was so pitiful that we did not have freedom of faith; I really yearned for freedom.”
Eventually, Hea Woo was released from prison. She fled once again, but this time, made her way to South Korea, where she now lives. She bears the scars and the trauma of her experience, but she shares what she’s seen and gone through with the hopes that one day, North Korea will allow freedom to all its people.