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I escaped from North Korea

Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea this Saturday, Timothy Cho explains how he escaped the North Korean regime, and how God helped him to dream again - for himself and for the nation of his birth

North Korea portrays the Workers’ Party as the ‘mother of the country’. The idea is that as long as the party exists, everything will be okay.

However, it has been a neglectful mother that has forsaken, persecuted, starved and killed millions of her ‘children’, the people of North Korea.

I was one of those children. I lived on the streets for years and was imprisoned four times for pursuing my hopes and dreams.

Hoping and dreaming is the most beautiful thing we can do. But in order to conceive a dream, we need to keep our hearts open. For many years I had closed off my heart. However, God has been at work in me.

When I was still a child, my parents escaped from North Korea, but it was several years before they could help me escape too. One of the last times I saw my mother, she was on a train, waving at me, and I just stood there full of tears.

When I first saw my father after nine years, I didn’t realise he was my father. Even then, I didn’t know how to react; my heart had frozen over after many years on the streets of North Korea.

It took many years to re-open my heart and dreams - both for my own life and for North Korea. It comes after several years living in a democratic society, and more importantly, through lots of prayer and acceptance of God’s love, melting down my frozen heart.

A heart frozen by hardship

North Korea was a dark place to grow up. From my early education the Kim family were like my gods. I had to think about them, bow to them, and speak about them every day.

It was several factors that caused my heart to close up. The dynasty’s oppressive politics and persecution, my parents’ escape to China, the daily struggle for survival and witnessing mass starvation.

My last hope was to become a normal man in society, but I wasn’t qualified to join the army or the communist party, because I belonged to the ‘hostile class’, the group that face the most discrimination in North Korean society.

The nation of my birth had blocked every young person’s hopes and dreams and I was embittered.

My survival instinct led me to attempt an escape to China. My first time entering China, however, was an awakening. It was full of lights, abundant food, and different fashions for young people, things I had never seen before. This ‘light’ directed me to pursue democratic freedom, opportunity, and human dignity.

All North Koreans in China risk being caught and repatriated to North Korea. I was arrested at the Mongolian border and repatriated to North Korea, where I was imprisoned and interrogated. I survived the ordeal, but saw unspeakable atrocities, horrific torture, and acts of inhumanity.

When I escaped to China for a second time, I was arrested and imprisoned in Shanghai. There was a deep darkness in my heart as I knew my fate was to live my remaining years in a political prison camp or to face public execution.

I even attempted to kill myself with sleeping pills rather than face death – either slow or rapid – at the hands of the regime.

Hope in God

In spite of my hopelessness, God was already deeply involved in my life.

It began in my prison cell. One of my fellow inmates was a South Korean gangster. He suggested that I should read the Bible and pray to God for my survival. It was my first time praying and I didn’t even know how to do it. He told me: “Just say ‘amen’ at the end of your wishes.”

Every time I knelt to God in prison, I was full of tears for my desperate situation. I asked him for his freedom and liberation. God was the only one who I could turn to and put my hope in. I didn’t even know who or what God was, or even if he existed. But I had nowhere else to turn.

I told God that if he gave me his freedom, I would devote my whole life to him. But if I was sent back to North Korea I told God in no uncertain terms that I would deny his existence.

After some time in the prision, two men came to visit. They were from the international community. They told me that there was an international petition putting pressure on China not to repatriate me. I was one of the few people who China had decided to deport to a third country, instead of North Korea. It was an answer to all my prayers.

The American President Roosevelt once said, "Freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved." Looking back, it makes me think of how I escaped from life North Korea twice, and endured imprisonment.

Ultimately thought, it was also God who bestowed true freedom on me and answered my prayers for survival.

An impossible dream

God makes impossible things happen. I am a free man and able to hope and dream again. And I believe that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

My dream for a free North Korea sends me to my knees every day. I pray to God to tear down prison camps and free hundreds of thousands of prisoners, including tens of thousands of Christians.

I long to see North Korea become a land filled with thousands of beautiful churches where everyone can worship God freely. And this freedom of religion would show it is truly a free North Korea and the frozen hearts of the two Koreas’ have been melted by God’s love.

There is a beautiful architect of a new country of North Korea and a united Korea, and his name is Jesus.

Every North Korean is going through the same process of life and death that I did. It is because the current Workers’ Party has forsaken their primary responsibility: to protect their own citizens from starvation, oppression and persecution.

However, God has not forgotten the people of South Korea.

His people and community continue bringing hope to North Korean people. I experienced this hope firsthand. When I first went to China, believers gave me bread, soup, clothes, and prayer. While God and his children are at work in this way, I know there is still hope for the nation of North Korea.

Timothy Cho was born in North Korea but now lives in the UK. He now works for the anti-persecution Christian charity Open Doors

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