She Escaped North Korea - Radical

She Escaped North Korea

What is life like for people in North Korea? In this episode of Neighborhoods and Nations, Steven Morales sits down with Grace Jo, a North Korean defector. Grace shares her story of escaping the devastating regime and helps Christians understand what life in this isolated country is like.

A New Day Starts In the Dark

There is an eerie sense of mystery that surrounds North Korea. 

Hardly any outsiders get access in, and even those who do are told very little about what is actually happening within these borders.

There are secrets that North Korean leaders don’t want to get out. Secrets about the unimaginable suffering and human rights violations their people experience. 

Over 40% of its population is malnourished, and you can read reports of widespread food shortages. 

Electricity is in short supply, with most places only getting a few hours a day.

Life in North Korea is extremely regulated. Their dress, their hairstyle, it all needs to be government-approved. There is essentially no freedom of speech, religion, press, or anything else the free world enjoys—and the consequences for those who resist are fatal.

There is a lot North Korea doesn’t want the world to see.

But as hard as it is to get in, it’s even harder for those who want to get out.

On November 13, 2017, Oh Chong Song attempted the impossible and lived to tell the tale. 

It’s a miracle he’s alive. He was shot five times by his countrymen and lost more than half his blood. But he survived.

And he’s not the only one. 

The more we learn about what’s happening in North Korea, the more I begin to wonder: how did it come to this? What drives someone to cross a minefield in hopes of a better life?

I want to get as close as I can, and try to understand what life really looks like in North Korea.

I want to know can the gospel get into a place built to resist it, and what happens to those who can’t get out?

Terror Tours

David Platt: We’re standing here at the border of South Korea and North Korea with the demarcation line between these two countries right behind us… 

Just kind of overwhelmed, my heart’s heavy, just looking out to the reality of persecution, the reality of the unreached, and on top of that, starvation and just major physical needs. It’s pretty overwhelming…”

That’s where we’re heading now. David came here like 10 years ago and since then, things have only gotten worse. 

Various sources report that starvation today is the worst that it’s been since the North Korean Famine of 1990, when anywhere from 250,000 to 3.5 million people starved to death. 

These conditions are staggering, and the only people who are better off are those in leadership. That’s why most North Koreans go through every effort to become members of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party reserved for those who prove their full allegiance, body and soul, to the Kim Dynasty.

You can see why Christians are a major target. The Democratic Republic of Korea treats any sign of Christianity as hostile, with recent reports that being found in possession of a Bible is a crime punishable by execution.

There are tens of thousands of Christians right now in Forced Labor Camps for the crime of believing that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

A report by the United Nations said: “The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

And it’s all behind one border, considered one of the most dangerous places in the world: The Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea. 

We’re about to get there.

Even though it’s called the “Demilitarized Zone”, there are tens of thousands of troops patrolling on both sides, plus another 750,000 soldiers on the North and almost half a million soldiers on the South within 100 kilometers. If that wasn’t enough, there are more than 2 million landmines.

At the end of World War II, having defeated the Axis powers, the United States and Allied Forces forced Japan to surrender its territories, most notably Korea. 

At this point, the Korean Peninsula was split into two, with the Soviet Union controlling the North and the United States governing the South. 

The North immediately began major reforms, including the redistribution of land and property. The communist government was suspicious of anything that could be construed as rebellious thinking, and wouldn’t you know it, Christianity fit that bill, so many Christians migrated south. 

Pyongyang, which was once known as the Jerusalem of the East, a model of how Christianity could transform a nation, was abandoned. 

It would all get worse. 

This division between North and South was only supposed to last for a maximum of five years. The plan was to prepare an official government that was wholly Korean, completely independent, and totally united. 

But things were heating up between America and the Soviets, and it was immediately felt all the way up to this line.

And suddenly, it all came crashing down in 1948. 

The South held elections that resulted in a democratic president, while over in the north a new dynasty would rise. 

One that would transform the peninsula forever. 

And it started with a name that every Korean would soon learn: 

Kim Il Sung.

Thank you, Father…Kim?

There’s this song. It’s called “Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung.” It’s the first thing North Korean parents are supposed to teach their kids. 

Sounds kind of worshippy, doesn’t it?

And it actually kind of is. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that: “The Kim dynasty is much more than an authoritarian government; it also holds itself out as the ultimate source of power, virtue, spiritual wisdom, and truth for the North Korean people.” 

Every home in the country has a portrait of the Kim Dynasty, and inspectors visit the homes and hand out fines if the portraits are not well kept. 

This isn’t just respect—it’s full-on veneration.

They’re not just interested in political power—they want to be worshiped.

It’s not a coincidence. If you dig a little into the history of the Kims, you quickly come to learn that all of this system of worship isn’t very original at all. In fact, it has its origins in a place that you and I go to every week.

It’s hard to understand how important Christianity was to Korea before World War II. As we talked about in Episode 1, Pyongyang was known as the Jerusalem of the East, with hundreds of thousands of Koreans turning to Christ. 

At the time, there were more than 800 Christian schools for Korean children, and missionaries were out on the streets handing out postcards.

Some estimate that one of every five or six Koreans was a Christian at that time. 

Korea was no stranger to the gospel, and neither was  Kim Il Sung.

This is Amazing Grace

Grace Jo: The North Korean regime is built upon Marxism and socialist ideology. But Kim Il Sung, he a little bit modified because he grew up as a Christian child and his mom was the elder lady from the church. So he was growing up full of Bible stories and he had enough knowledge about the Bible. So I think after we become Christians, we can find a lot of similarities, between our regime system and our society activities and all of those church services in America and all those songs in the Bible gospel songs. It just changed the character in the song. So in North Korea, we were praising and we were singing for our Dear Leader. But even if we change it, that leader to God, then we are praising God and praising Jesus.

Steven: So essentially, Kim Il-Sung took what he learned in the Bible and made him himself God. 

Grace Jo: Yes, yes.

Steven: Rather than the one worshiping God, the one being worshiped like a God.

This is Grace Jo Kim. She was born in 1991 in Hamgyong Province in North Korea. She escaped North Korea in 1998 and, with the help of a Korean pastor in Seattle, has been living in the United States as a refugee since 2008, raising awareness of the desperate needs of the men, women, and children forced to live under the North Korean Regime. What’s more, she’s a follower of Jesus who understands how the Kim Dynasty is distorting the Christian faith for personal gain.

Grace Jo: If I go back to 1996, I was five and a half years old at the time and my family was constantly starving. And I remember I was drinking cold water from the nearby river for ten days straight without eating any food or protein. And then for about two years, we were constantly hungry like that and we were trying to search for some food from the government-operated farms, but we couldn’t find any.

And we also lived in the mountains to collect wild vegetables and wild fruits. But that doesn’t help a lot. The winter season is the most difficult season for North Korean defectors because it’s hard to find the natural food from nature too. So after like two years of starvation, we all were suffering from malnutrition.

My father decided to go to China to get help from one of his distant relatives back in 1997. He went to China three times. And the third time when he came back, he got caught and he was detained in the local detention center. And a lot of chaos happened and tragedies happened in that year.

But if I make a short story, we lost our father to our regime, and my grandmother, passed away by starvation and her last wish was to eat one baked potato. My younger brother died of hunger. My older sister was looking for food and she left for the city to find food. But she never returned.

So we lost our sister. She was 17 years old and my mom suspected that she was sold to China by a human trafficking ring. And my mom got tortured and she gave birth to a premature baby, eight months old, premature baby. And that baby only lived for two months during that difficult time. And that baby brother also died two months later by starvation.

After my father died, my grandmother died and everybody shattered. My mom was also very weak because the government took her to the detention center and tortured her she was bleeding and her physical body was so weak at the time. So she cannot carry one of my younger brothers. He was four or five years old and I was almost seven, and one of my older sisters was ten years old at the time.

So even though all the family members passed away and we didn’t have food to eat, my mom still didn’t think that we were going to escape our country forever. But the last thing that kind of gave her strength to leave our home country was that our government officials, about six of them, came to our house, and then they were yelling at my mom and their idea was to let us leave that countryside.

And because our family kind of became a criminal family, according to North Korean law, and then they are not welcoming our family to stay in that village anymore. The reason they’re asking us to leave is that only after two weeks or two or a month later, we all have to vote for Kim Jong Il’s presidential election or something.

We only elected one person, but we still need to do that. Right? So they are asking all of us to go back to our original city to vote. But at that time it was July and my mom was crying to them and begging them about all her children, we didn’t have shoes to wear and we didn’t have clothes or food where we could go.

And this is our home and please don’t let us go. But those people, what they said was, after 15 days, we will come back and check. And even if we still found out you guys are still living here we will burn this house down. So that was the last word we heard from our government officials. My mom just completely changed her heart and said, “Well, this is not my country anymore.

Every four to five years, North Korea holds local elections like the ones Grace Jo just described, with the most recent one being this past November. However, more than being opportunities for any significant change, they serve as instruments to restrict internal movement and to track the whereabouts of Korean citizens. There is only one choice on the ballot paper, and the booths are overlooked by portraits of the Kims as you cast your vote.

It’s all part of an elaborate ruse that’s meant to keep the Kims at the center of power. And at its core, it’s an ideology that you probably never heard of: Juche.

Grace Jo: I think Juche is the main core value of the ideology that Kim Il Sung modified from Marxism and socialist ideology. Juche’s Ideology’s core point is that man is the center; man is the intelligent person to change new things and intelligent men can lead that group and make a country great. Well, that’s that kind of leads that Kim Il Sung is an intelligent guy, and he’s the special, special person and who who made North Korea independent and made the whole country. 

And he’s the main person who can lead the whole country like that. So Juche ideology kind of shaped him to become the God figure of North Korea.

So even though North Korea says it’s an atheist state, the Juche philosophy behaves and feels like a religion, and the Kim dynasty are worshiped as their gods. It’s not hard to see how Kim Il Sung, reared in a Christian environment, with his grandparents even going to seminary, recognized the power of Christianity, and deviated the symbols to himself:

But what does Juche philosophy actually look like in day-to-day life?

Every North Korean has to go to a weekly “Self-criticism” meeting, where they sing songs from a hymnal that praises the Kim dynasty. It’s wild but it was reported that a version of “How Great Thou Art” was sung to Kim Il Sung during his funeral.

North Koreans pray looking at pictures of the Kims. They are taught to protect those portraits above all their possessions, and that if they die, they’ll reunite with the Eternal President.

Juche has ten principles that are taught weekly, including “You shall have no greater authority in your life than the authority of Kim Il Sung”.

Kim Jong Il’s birthday is called “Day of the Shining Star”, and North Koreans are taught that there was a Double Rainbow and a bright star over his birthplace.

Kim Il Sung’s speeches are studied as if they were Holy Books, and every student from kindergarten all the way to Ph.D. has to memorize and study his writings.

North Korea even has its own calendar! It’s based on the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth (April 15, 1912). To North Koreans, 2024 is the year “Juche 113.”

It’s no wonder the North Korean Regime hates Christianity so much. It exposes its lies as what it is: a fraud.

Steven: I’ve heard you say just in previous interviews and things like that, that defectors who become Christians are categorized as serious defectors. What does that mean?

Grace Jo: Yeah. So as I explained earlier, you know, Juche ideology is similar to the Christian Bible, and then the North Korean regime hates that people find out the true God, which is through Christianity and through the Bible. So when we got caught as citizens we got caught in China and forcefully sent back to North Korea. And when we get there, the Buyibo is at a similar level as the CIA and FBI in America

So those… this level will sort out those individuals by interviews, by torturing them and they try to find out whether that person ever heard about the gospel, ever met the pastors and heard about the true story and true messages from Messiah. So once they find out that that individual already went to church and read the Bible, then it is considered as Christian, which means all this ideology is changed and then they they know the truth.

So they will not be loyal to our government anymore. So that’s 100% that that person will stay forever in the political prison camp.


The authoritarian regime in North Korea ruthlessly tried to destroy every visible sign of Christianity. Churches, literature, and symbols have been burned and destroyed, and anybody who professes faith in Christ is categorized as hostile until death. Some estimate that as many as 70 thousand citizens are imprisoned for their Christian faith.

The Kims and those in power know that their whole system is based on a counterfeit version of Christianity, and they fear the power that lies in the gospel; that if their people knew the truth, they’d be set free.

It sounds like a place where no Christian could survive. And yet, the North Korean Church is not only alive, it’s growing. 

Grace Jo: North Korea, Pyongyang, once it was called Eastern Jerusalem because we had so many Christians coming up and a lot of pastors, so they were educated at gospels in North Korea and a lot of missionaries educated and started to help people. And then all of those spiritual activities began in Pyongyang. But after Kim Il Sung took power, and the Soviet Union took power, the Communists came in, and all the Christians were persecuted, all the churches were destroyed, and all the Bibles were burned. So when I see the current North Korea, I just feel like the evil controlling the Kim regime, and they are human beings, but are definitely not a god. And they have to eat, they have to sleep, and they have to go to the bathroom. So in that case, man has limited power, and God has supreme power. So the main difference is God has love. But Kim, the god of a human-made god, doesn’t have love. And God still loves the people in North Korea. That’s why He rescued those North Korean defectors and tried to raise voices for those people who were not able to so that those Christian communities outside of North Korea could pray for them and do something spiritual. As a Christian believer in a spiritual world, we still need to pray for that country so then that truth can spread all over in North Korea.

Steven Morales

Steven Morales is the Content Director at Radical and hosts Neighborhood & Nations. He is based out of Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Grace Jo

Grace Jo is a North Korean defector, activist, and Vice-President of North Korean Refugees in the USA, a non-profit organization that helps North Korean refugees in the United States and China.


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