LEAVING NORTH KOREA: Timothy Cho’s story

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A while ago I read about a teenage boy in North Korea who was executed. He was found guilty under the country’s new “Anti-Reactionary Thought Laws”. If you think that sounds a bit Orwellian, wait until you hear what his ‘crime’ was. 

This boy lost his life for watching and sharing the South Korean TV show Squid Game. That’s all. The story shocked me to the core, not least because that young man could easily have been me. 

When I was growing up in a North Korean town, one of my friends used to get hold of illicit recordings – I didn’t ask how. One day he told me, “Timothy, I’m going show you something very special, but we have to be very careful. We must lock the door and close all the curtains.” It was the James Bond film Die Another Day

It was so exciting that we completely forgot about drawing the curtains! In North Korea there was nothing like it, just programmes about the Kim family. This was a revelation. Afterwards, I was so excited I told my friend all about it. Big mistake. He told his dad, who worked for the government. The next thing I knew I was in the local police station being bombarded with questions. What did I watch? How did it make me feel? And, the most important question of all: how could you forget about your dear leader, Kim Jong-Il? 

In the end, my punishment wasn’t so bad – I would come into the police station, clean the cells and chop wood. If I had been growing up in that town today, I could have been killed on the spot by police, without even a trial. Life has never been easy in North Korea, but since I left several years ago, the screws have been tightened even further. 

I have happy memories of my early childhood; I was surrounded by love from my mother and father. They were teachers and would bring many of their students home. Then, one day, when I was nine years old, they disappeared. They escaped from the country; a decision they made due to political circumstances. I will never forget coming home and finding no one there. It was a feeling of the most intense desolation you could imagine, and something I would not wish upon my worst enemies.

There is no money for social services in North Korea. I had a few relatives I would turn to, but they were struggling to feed and care for their own families. So, I became one of the nation’s street children. It was during a period of famine in the country in the 1990s and hundreds of thousands of such children died on the street from hunger. There was – and still is – a hunger game in North Korea. 

Image: Roman Harak on Flickr

A little gang of us would travel from town to town trying to collect food to survive. We would sneak onto the trains and perch on the steps as we didn’t have tickets – that was very dangerous if you fell asleep. Often it was freezing cold. One night I woke up at a train station and I felt my back itching very badly. I asked one of my friends to take a look. Bed bugs had burrowed under my skin while I was sleeping. It was agony. My back looked like that of a torture victim. 

Despite everything, I still thought that I could make a life for myself in North Korea. I would work hard and rise out of poverty, I figured. I imagined myself with a wife, a family, and a home of my own. There was something I hadn’t fully reckoned with though: my mother and father were considered traitors of the state for escaping. I was also judged guilty, and I too had to pay for their misdeeds. Working hard wasn’t going to atone for their sins. I was now part of North Korea’s ‘enemy class’ and there was a high price to pay for membership. 

I wanted to join the army and was turned down flat because of my inherited status. It’s hard to explain this to people outside North Korea, but I felt like I had been abandoned for a second time, by the regime I had been taught from childhood to love, respect and serve. They had my best interests at heart, I was told.

I was told there was only one place I could go to work – down the mines digging for coal. There was no health and safety in these mines. Often, shafts would collapse, and the young miners would be killed or left disabled. 

Worse still, this was the life my children and even grandchildren would have to inherit. They too would remain part of the enemy class for my parents’ actions, denied all opportunities and treated as expendable. I had no hope and no future. 

Finally, I decided to make a break across the border to China with four friends. We knew we were taking our lives in our hands doing this. If we were spotted by the border guards we could be shot on sight. 

We chose our route carefully, following paths deep in the undergrowth and finally making it across the river border undetected. The four of us split up and, to this day, I have no idea what happened to them. I was now in China and I had no idea what to expect.

As a North Korean I had never been shown what life outside my home nation was like – the rest of the world never featured on television, you only heard how treacherous it was. As I made it to a city, my jaw dropped so wide that I could barely close it again. 

I had never seen anything like it. There were women in high heels and young people with brightly coloured hair and ripped jeans. The market in the city centre was a riot of colour, with exotic smells wafting from the food stalls. All my life I had been told that North Korea was the best country in the world. At that moment I realised that I had been lied to for those 17 years. 

The first person to spot me and try to help me was a missionary. I had been told terrible things about missionaries when I was growing up – that they kidnapped children and stole their blood. That poor man was trying to help me – he took me to a safe house for North Korean escapee children. However, after years of propaganda I was convinced that I was being groomed by a vampire! 

I refused any food in case it was drugged and made my escape when everyone else was asleep. If only I’d known that missionary had been trying to help me, I would have saved myself so much heartbreak. 

I headed north and finally made it to the Mongolian border. There I met 17 other North Korean refugees. However, we were caught by Chinese border guards. I remembered something the missionary said to me: “If you are in difficult, dangerous situations, you can call on God.” So, when I was arrested at the Mongolian border, I screamed, “God, where are you? Help us!” 

God didn’t intervene on this occasion, and I was sent back to North Korea. 

In a detention centre, you cease to be a human being. You don’t have a name, and the guards could treat you in any way they liked without consequences for them. It was probably one of the darkest periods of my entire life. There were atrocities and crimes against humanity committed in that prison cell. And an inmate died while he was leaning against my back. When his body was dragged out of the cell, I expected to be killed too. The sound of prisoners screaming and begging for survival still rings in my ears.

When I couldn’t properly sit down or stand up, I was temporarily sent to my grandmother’s. I begged her to help me escape again. And so, a few days later, I found myself in Beijing looking for a way back to safety. Along with eight women I met on my travels, we climbed a fence into an American school, where we thought we would be safe. However, Chinese police entered the school and we were bundled into a police van. The van was quickly surrounded by a group of students in tears, fighting for our lives.

And so, I found myself in another prison cell. This was the fourth incarceration of my short life. We were told we were going to be sent back to North Korea by helicopter or boat. I would cry every day in my cell – my life was over, I thought. 

One of my inmates was a South Korean gangster who took pity on me and looked after me. He suggested that I tried praying. He told me to make a list of the things I wanted and just say “Amen” at the end. Looking back, it was a bit like making a Christmas list for Santa, but I was desperate. 

My first prayer was “God, I don’t want to be killed.” And for six weeks I kept praying. Nothing happened in those weeks. Then I got bolder. I told God: “If you really exist and you give me my freedom, in return, I will devote the rest of my life to you. But if I am sent back to North Korea, to be killed by the regime, I will deny your existence.”

One morning, two men arrived in the prison to talk to me and the others due for repatriation. One was western-looking, the other was South Korean. They told us we were very lucky: China had made the decision to deport us, but not to North Korea, to the Philippines. It was the first and last time that the Chinese authorities ever agreed to something like this. My prayer had been answered and, deep inside, I knew it. 

Fast-forward 18 years and I am now happily settled in the UK, with a lovely wife and two adorable children. I have been able to study and gain two degrees. And I have been able to speak around the world; about my story and my unshakeable faith in God’s love and hope, but also about the plight of the 25 million who are still trapped inside the fortress that is North Korea. Our story of persecution must be told. All nations have their own stories of persecution, either in their past or present. And in North Korea, persecution is very much happening in the present tense. 

As the tale of that poor executed teenager shows, life there is worse than ever. The Kim Jong-Un regime is more and more paranoid and controlling of its poor citizens. They are afraid that North Koreans will learn about the outside world – the sights, sounds and even the smells of freedom. With mobile phones, SD cards and modern technology, it is easier than ever to smuggle in media and pass it around. 

The authorities hate South Korean TV and American movies, but more than that they hate the message of Christianity. The regime teaches children how to hate one another. And they hate the idea that there is someone more important than the Kim family and their dynasty, someone that really cares about people’s well-being. 

If I was still living in my hometown and someone discovered that I had a Bible, I would either be executed, or sent to a prison camp that rivals the Soviet gulags for brutality. The authorities would probably do the same to my family for good measure. 

The charity Open Doors ranks the levels of persecution that Christians face around the world. North Korea is number one on that list and has been almost non-stop for two decades. 

Since I made it across the border that second time, I haven’t set foot in North Korea again. However, I still believe I will return there one day. It would be so easy to look on the country of my birth and despair, but my faith gives me hope: a belief that change will come. 

Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what do not see (Hebrews 11:1). 

Timothy Cho

Timothy Cho is a North Korean human rights activist and two-time defector. He has been imprisoned four times in North Korea and China. He now lives in the UK and works with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and as a spokesperson for the Christian persecution charity Open Doors UK & Ireland.
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