Finding Jesus on the Border of North Korea
"I didn't want to become a Christian," the pastor said, offering a wry smile. "It was an accident."
North Korean escapee Eom Myong-hui was describing her personal faith journey from atheist to committed Christian, from member of the Korean Workers' Party to Protestant minister. Among North Korean escapees, she is unusual, though not alone, in becoming a pastor. She is far from unusual, however, in her Christian beliefs. A large percentage of the North Koreans who escape to China make the same spiritual journey.
As she tells it, converting to Christianity began as a business decision. In the 1990s, during the famine, she went into the business of selling Korean antiques and specialty foods such as ginseng root across the border in China. Both the business itself and the trips to China were illegal, but times were hard, the trade was lucrative, and she had a husband and two young daughters to feed at home.
Her principal buyer—and the person on whom her livelihood depended at the time—was a Chinese-Korean man who would visit North Korea to pick up the wares she was peddling. After they had been doing business together for a while, he confided to her that he was a Christian. She knew it was dangerous to associate with Christians, but she was afraid of losing his business, so she listened politely.
"When he started talking to me about Christianity, I didn't respond in any negative way," she said. "I just nodded my head and listened. I wanted to be on his good side. My only purpose was making money."
The buyer turned out to be an evangelist working for a South Korean church. He was a bit of a shady character, she said, and in retrospect she believes he was less interested in building a successful business than in recruiting North Koreans to Christianity even at the expense of exposing them to punishment at the hands of the North Korean regime. She later learned that he operated on a quota system, with the South Korean church paying him a bonus for every North Korean he introduced to the church's underground mission in China. She figured this out after he tricked her into visiting the mission house by promising to pay her the money he owed her only if she would come and pick it up. When she arrived at the mission house, he told her that before he would give her the money, she had to complete a "New Believers" course. She had no choice but to comply.
To her surprise, she found herself receptive to the Christian message. After three weeks of studying the Bible, her perspective shifted. "I started sensing that maybe there is a God," she said. "There was a glimmer of light that began to shine on me."