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Wearing blue slacks and a lightly printed button-down shirt, his hair parted on the side, Seojun Yo greets us with a big smile and a humble bow.
Today, Seojun is a pastor in South Korea, but if the North Korean secret service finds out about him, it could place him in danger—and bring harm to family members who still live in North Korea. So we meet at an undisclosed location and conceal his face in images and video.
Seojun grew up in North Korea during some of the most terrible years of famine. If there is one word to describe his childhood, it’s “survival.”
“The economy was [going] downhill,” he says of his childhood. “Because of that, I guess everyone focused on survival. And because I was focused on survival as well, I had a very difficult time. I put every effort to get a warm bowl of rice. I always wondered ‘how am I going to live a happy life with my family?’ It was miserable and harsh.”
“There was some [electricity],” he remembers. “We had radios, but there was only one channel provided by Chosun Broadcasting Centre located in Pyongyang. Televisions were also provided. [But there was] only one channel offered by Chosun Broadcasting Centre in Pyongyang.”
Seojun grew up in a “harmonica house” he describes as a “townhouse with all the rooms attached to each other.” Each unit had a kitchen as part of a room,“[so when] you walk in, you could see a kitchen and an open space without any dividers,” he explains.
Like most North Korean children, Seojun was warned against the excesses of the West and particularly warned about Christians. The only thing he knew about Christians and Christianity he learned in North Korean school textbooks: Christians were wolves in sheep’s clothing—and should never be trusted. In the government propaganda he saw, “[Christian] missionaries were described as the murderers who pretended to be the lamb,” Seojun says. In official state teaching, Christians were superstitious and weak-minded, a threat to North Korean life. In all of his time inside North Korea, Seojun never met a single Christian.
There were Christians in North Korea, of course—just like there are today—but they were forced to live in into secrecy and underground networks. To be discovered was to risk imprisonment for one’s entire family, torture or even death.
But the defining quality of Seojun’s childhood was hunger. He recalls roaming the countryside for vegetables and seeking food in the mountains. Often going hungry. That feeling of hunger—and the anxiety of possible starvation—haunted his early years.
“When I young, in order to get food, I worked in public farms,” he says. “In autumn, I put myself [in] lots of clothing to take as many corn kernels [as I could] in my pocket. And in the spring season, I went out to collect wild herbs and used those to make meals to fill our stomach. During winter, I went to the mountain to seek medicinal herbs. There were people who exchanged them for food. I took the herbs I collected to exchange them for food to feed my family.”
The rumors of a better place
During the famine, Seojun heard that it might be possible to get food from China.
“The situation worsened from 1994,” he remembers. “[North Korea] did not provide food anymore. And so many [people] died; so many died from starvation. Because people died [of starvation], North Korea received help from China. And there were rumors that said that you can eat lots of food in China.”
Desperate and with nothing to lose, he decided to cross the Tumen River, enter China and bring back food for his family.
So, at the age of 17, wearing only his school uniform and a coat—carrying no possessions—Seojun crossed the frozen Tumen. He was alone on the journey, but he followed the footsteps in the snow left by others who recently escaped to China.
“It was not that hard for us to cross,” he says. “Because I was familiar with the geography, I escaped during the day. It was winter time, [so] I could easily walk on the frozen river.
“At that time, so many people crossed; there was even a path on the ice. During the season I was escaping, the soldiers knew but they did not say anything. Many [people] went, purchased food and came back to North Korea. The soldiers received money from the people who crossed. I did not cross through those soldiers, but because I knew the geography so well, I just went alone to get food.”
His goal was to go to China, get some food and perhaps some money, and then return home. “At first, I did not have the intention to leave [North Korea] forever,” he explains. “I thought I could come home any time—and I thought it was safe. If people were absent for a month or two, they were not penalized too much. If they were asked ‘where were you?’ people would say ‘I went to my relative to get some food.’”
However, his escape and his journey into China didn’t make life easier. Once he arrived in China, he struggled to make enough money to buy food or secure shelter.
“It was not that easy to earn money in China,” he says. “And I was not very welcome. I looked for jobs, and I worked a little. But I did not get compensation. And my return got delayed.”
And continuous raids by police looking for illegal North Koreans often sent him back into the mountains until it was safe to enter another city and look for work again.
“I could not make enough money with [my] illegal status, and the [the threat] to be deported back to North Korea always loomed over me,” Seojun says.
The lack of food, lack of shelter and lack of security left Seojun with little hope. All he wanted was to find rest and peace, he says.
Finding a small bit of safety
Through his various friendships, someone told Seojun about an Open Doors safe house—but he knew it was run by Christians. Everything he had learned about Christians told him not to go, but he was desperate to stop moving around in China as an illegal immigrant.
“I could not understand it because I was so brainwashed by the North Korean education system since I was young. However, deep in my heart, I wanted to encounter the heavenly Father,” Seojun says.
Through the Open Doors safe house, Seojun received food, shelter and protection. Additionally, he was exposed to Christianity for the first time in his life and decided to convert to the faith.
Seojun wanted to return to North Korea to teach others about his newfound belief, but he knew he couldn’t bring a Bible with him—so he memorized as much of the Bible as he could. In total, he memorized more than 2,000 verses during his years at the safe house.
However, Seojun’s life took a different turn. He wasn’t able to return to his home country because the North Korean government had completed a census and discovered he had escaped.
“As time passed, my chance of going back went down,” he says, “because rumors about me were spreading in the neighborhood. Also, I remember[ed] there was an election in North Korea after I came out. When there is an election, they take a census. When they take a population census, they do detailed speculation about who is missing and why that person is absent. So I decided not to go back.”
Instead, he left China for South Korea and attended seminary. Today, Seojun serves as a pastor in South Korea. He hopes to one day share his Christian faith with people in a reunified Korea.
“[One of the people in China I met] recommended [to] me that I do something to get ready for the unification of North and South Korea,” he says of his decision to attend seminary. He went from a starving teenager in North Korea to a man with a passion for his newfound faith and evangelism.
Seojun’s story represents the stories of many North Koreans forced to flee the oppression and the harsh conditions of their home country. Even if they make it to China—which is often its own perilous journey—they struggle with the very real prospect of being sent back to North Korea at any point. If repatriated, they face severe punishment for leaving in the first place. And if they are found to be a Christian or other religious minority, they risk imprisonment in one of North Korea’s brutal labor camps.
Seojun found a hopeful ending. But for hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, that ending isn’t quite so encouraging.