"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."
But she still wanted to go home. After a month in the Chinese mission house, she crossed the border back into North Korea, accompanied by the buyer-evangelist. They were caught. North Korean police arrested them and took them to a detention center, where they were interrogated.
Interrogations in North Korea are not mere question-and-answer sessions. More persuasive measures are employed. Pastor Eom was beaten by her interrogators, who kept trying to get her to confess to being a Christian. She denied it. Finally, they gave up. Her denials, coupled with her past record as a model citizen, had an impact, and the police decided to let her go. She was released with only a warning.
When she got home and told her husband what had happened, he was furious. "Christianity is no good," he told her, and berated her for putting their family in jeopardy. She tried to persuade him that her business relationship with the Chinese-Korean man was too important to jeopardize, but he wouldn't listen. She showed him a palm-sized Bible her business partner had given her. Her husband grabbed the Bible out of her hand, took it to the kitchen, and burned it. A few months later, a friend tipped her off that she was about to be arrested again. She fled to China.
Pastor Eom spent several years in China before eventually escaping to South Korea on the new underground railroad. She studied for the ministry in South Korea, and eventually emigrated to the United States. She worked for a while at a church in Virginia before moving to the Dallas area to accept a job at a Korean-American church. She now lectures widely in Korean-American churches, relating her own personal story and discussing the attraction of Christianity for many North Korean refugees.
Asked why so many North Korean refugees become Christians, Pastor Eom cited her own faith journey. "Not a lot of conversions are genuine at first," she said. Refugees are usually desperate, and some falsely claim to be Christians in order to get the aid they need. Pretending to accept their benefactors' religion is also a way North Koreans can show respect and appreciation to the Christians who help them, she explained.
But, as in her case, the message often sticks. "There's a seed planted in their hearts," she said. "And some of the refugees eventually become true Christians. Because they have been exposed to the pastors, to missionaries, to prayer, to the Christian lifestyle, it has a profound effect on their thinking."
"At first they can't believe that someone would want to help others for the sole benefit of helping, just for the purpose of serving God."
But seeing is believing. Once North Koreans realize that the Christians who help them aren't motivated by the hope of personal gain and run serious risks by helping them, she said, they often take a closer look at the religion. The example of Christians who put their faith into action is a powerful recruiting tool.
On one level, North Koreans are ready for the Christian message, Pastor Eom argues. The old socialist system has broken down, and Kim Il Sung, once revered as a deity, has been exposed as a fraud.
A lot of people know that they have been lied to all their lives by the government, she says. At the same time, they are wary. She explained: "They are not ready to put their faith in another unseen force, in another unseen god, like Kim Il Sung, that they cannot see or touch. They don't want to be fooled again." It takes a while for North Koreans to understand that Christian faith is different from worship of Kim Il Sung.
Pastor Eom says the most effective way to spread Christianity in North Korea is through North Koreans who have escaped. That is already happening, as an unknown number of North Koreans have returned to North Korea as Christian evangelists. North Koreans who have left the country talk about Christianity in phone calls to their relatives at home. As North Koreans inside North Korea observe the spiritual transformation of their relatives who have become Christians, it will be the beginning of what Paster Eom calls "the opening of the hearts and minds of all North Koreans for the Gospel, for Christianity."
Protestant missionaries in the Sino-Korean border area are highly successful in winning converts, and the charitable example of the Chinese-Korean Christians who help the refugees sets a powerful example.
Adapted from Escape From North Korea: the Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad. Copyright © 2012 by Melanie Kirkpatrick. Used by permission of Encounter Books.