I survived a North Korean Prison Camp

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Image: North Korean border guards on the Yalu River.
By John Choi | 21 June 2018

Someone recently asked me this question: “What is it like to have the freedom to live an open Christian life?”

This seemingly easy question took me back to the North Korean detention centre where I almost died 14 years ago. I was only fifteen at the time. I was arrested for trying to escape the country.

China 2014 0380009721
Image: A border guard house next to the Yalu River.

Though I am happy and free now, my life has been hard and dark. I’ve buried many memories, but certain ‘triggers’ inevitably bring them back to me.

A few weeks ago, I was doing some research about the North Korean gulags—and suddenly I found myself back in the North Korean detention center. That night, when I went to bed in my free country, I couldn’t close my eyes, afraid for what I would see.

But I heard them.

I heard the other prisoners scream and cry.

Prisons in North Korea are not silent, not at all.

Writing about this topic is difficult, but I want you to know what it is like.

Fifty people were crammed in my prison cell. The guards forced us to sit on the floor the entire time. We were back-to-back. One other inmate behind me died during the night. Cause of death? Torture? Starvation? Illness? Lack of medical care? All of the above?

Two policemen came and dragged him out like someone drags a dead animal. Prisoners are not humans in North Korea.

When I was a young boy, I saw a lot of death on the streets. Many died of starvation and were left outside. But at age 15, when I was in a North Korean prison cell, and the prisoner behind me died, that was a new, shocking, experience.

I was overwhelmed with fear. Fear of death. Fear of being dragged away like the other prisoner.

There were hundreds of prisoners like me in this intelligence detention center. That means that all prisoners–like me–were arrested in China or on their way to China. The guards needed to interrogate us so our sentence could be determined.

China 2014 0050100937
Image: On the border of North Korea and China.

Even before my arrest, I had seen many tragedies.

Once I was forced to witness a public execution. After the soldiers were done, I ran to collect the empty cartridges. Later, I felt ashamed of myself.

Why am I sharing all this? Because you need to know where I come from to understand how much I value freedom.

I was released from prison after I almost died of torture. It was a miracle. God used a guard to release me. Eventually, I fled a second time to China and this time—despite many obstacles and dangers—I reached South Korea safely. Now I live in the United Kingdom, and I’m able to study and work in a free, democratic society.

In North Korea, freedom was a concept, an idea. Here freedom is my daily life.

I can walk to church without being arrested. I can read the Bible and not be afraid of spies. I can pray, sing and worship, knowing that God AND others can hear me. I don’t have to be afraid.

But there’s even more to freedom. I have the freedom to express myself any way I want to.

And what to say about the freedom of opportunity? In North Korea, the state decides everything for you. But here we have the possibility to find AND create opportunities.

From these principles stem the gifts of freedom: democratic constitutions, free economic traffic, political and social activities.

I hope you understand from my story how great the gift of freedom and democracy is that you have received. I treasure that gift more than life itself. God saved me from North Korea and gave me that gift. I’m not going to keep it for myself.

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