This story is based on a real-life account of a North Korean Christian sent to prison and then to a re-education camp. Other details have been added from other prison accounts. Open Doors has heard stories like this from numerous North Korean believers – and, disturbingly, the details are all eerily similar.
Your name is the first thing they take. Then they take your freedom, health and clothes, companionship, even your hair. And finally, they take away the daylight.
Drip by drip, like a tap slowly running dry, you’re left with nothing but your own mind and body – and even these will be crushed eventually.
My name is Prisoner 42 – the name I was given when I entered this prison in North Korea.
Every morning at 8am, they call for 42. When I stand, I’m not allowed to look at the guards. I must get up, put my hands behind my back and follow them to the interrogation room. I can see the shadows of the guards, but I’m careful to never appear as though I’m looking at them.
Even though the same thing happens every day, each time I am afraid. Whenever ‘42’ is called, I am beaten and kicked. It hurts most when they hit my ears. They ring for hours, sometimes days.
But for now, at least I’m alive.
I’m in the interrogation room for an hour each morning. Every day, they ask the same questions:
“Why were you in China?”
“Who did you meet?”
“Did you go to church?
“Did you have a Bible?”
“Did you meet any South Koreans?”
“Are you a Christian?”
Afterwards, they return me to my cell. It’s warm during the day and cold at night. In winter and summer, the temperatures can be unbearable. It’s so small, I can barely lie down. But anyway, I’m not allowed to lie down much. I must sit on my knees, with closed fists. I’m not even allowed to open them. The place I live is not fit for any human. But to the guards I’m not a human – I’m less than an animal.
I’m in solitary confinement because they suspect the truth. They can see through my denials. Am I a Christian? Yes. But I must pretend. If I admit that I was helped by Chinese Christians, I will be killed, either quickly or slowly.
The first Christian I ever knew was my grandfather – though I had no idea at the time. On Sundays, he often told me to leave the house and play outside. I didn’t understand why.
When I fled to China because of the North Korean famine, I met other Christians. I was touched by them. They never really spoke about the gospel, but I joined their worship services. Then, one night, I dreamt of my grandfather. He was sitting in a circle with other men. In the middle was a Bible and all of them were praying. In my dream, I shouted at him, “I am a believer, too!”
"That’s where my name came from – number 42 was printed on the jumpsuit. I was just another in a line of Prisoner 42s" Prisoner 42
It was then that I gave my life to Jesus.
One day whilst walking down a street, a black car pulled up alongside me. I thought the driver wanted directions, but he and other men stepped out of the vehicle and grabbed me. I resisted but couldn’t escape. I was pushed into the car and, when the door closed and the car drove away, I realised that my life was over.
After a few weeks in a Chinese prison cell, I was handed over to the North Korean authorities. They brought me to this detention centre. I was stripped and searched, and they shaved off my hair. I was ordered to put on clothes that didn’t fit nor match, probably from a previous prisoner. That’s where my name came from – number 42 was printed on the jumpsuit. I was just another in a line of Prisoner 42s.
I’m so alone here. I know there are other prisoners, I can hear their voices, but I never see them. The only thing I see are the shadows of the guards, and the light from the sun and moon as they pass over the small window of my cell. All I can do is pray and sing in my heart – never audibly, only in my heart.
It’s been a year now. I don’t know how long I will survive. One day, they will call me and I won’t move. I will have died in here, in the dark. They will dispose of my body and another prisoner will take my clothes and become the next Prisoner 42. Will they survive this hell? What will their story be?
But Prisoner 42 didn’t die. Her life was painful and terrifying, but she survived. And eventually, she was called out of her prison cell and taken to court.
Going to court was a victory. People sent to labour camps for political ‘crimes’ – crimes like following Jesus – are never sentenced by a judge. They just disappear from the cells. Most Christians go there. My persistent denials have paid off. They have not found me guilty of being a Christian.
In court, there was no lawyer to represent me. I stood in front of the judge with guards behind me. But I wasn’t alone. My husband was there, too. He looked at me with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. He had clearly been crying. I wanted to say so much, and I know he wanted to talk too, but we couldn’t exchange a single word.
"It took me a moment to realise these were people. Some were bent over, others missing an arm or a leg" Prisoner 42
The judge asked him if he wanted to divorce me. In a broken voice he said, “Yes”. It broke my heart. But he had to make this decision for the sake of our family – for our children. They would all be punished if he didn’t divorce me. I was then sentenced to four years in a re-education camp, which is where I am now.
Here, I work 12 hours a day, sometimes more. Every day is one long nightmare. But at least I’m not alone in a cell anymore. For an entire year in solitary confinement, my skin didn’t touch a single ray of sunlight. Just to be taken from that cell, to be taken outside and to feel the wind, was amazing.
When I arrived, I saw moving, shapeless forms. It took me a moment to realise these were people. Some were bent over, others missing an arm or a leg. I looked at my own arms and legs – they were so thin they looked like matchsticks. I didn’t look much better than the other inmates.
A month ago, I was sick and allowed to stay in the barracks. I thought I was alone, until I noticed a blanket in the corner which was moving. There was someone underneath. I tiptoed towards them and listened intently. The sounds were barely audible but familiar – a woman was praying. I retreated to my mattress and watched her closely for the next few days.
"She knew if anyone overheard us, we’d both likely be shot on the spot" Prisoner 42
A week later, we were working outside. Nobody was near and I walked up to her and whispered, “Hello, greetings in Jesus’ name.” Her face turned white in shock. She knew if anyone overheard us, we’d both likely be shot on the spot. But seeing no one around, she raised a silent smile.
We formed a secret church inside the camp. When safe enough to meet, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer and recited Scripture and the Apostles’ Creed together.
She was much braver than I was – she spoke to others about Christ. That’s probably why, one day a car came to pick her up. When I saw her leave, I knew they were taking her to a maximum-security prison, a Kwan-li-so. Nobody survives the Kwan-li-so.”
That’s the last time I saw her.
I’m here in my barracks. God has been with me every day, every hour, every minute and every second. Yesterday, it was announced that I will be released. I have served two years. The first thing I’ll do when I get out is find my husband and children. My children are much bigger now. We haven’t seen each other in years.
But God has watched over me. He kept me from giving up. I was not a tap running dry – Jesus gave me Living Water to keep me going. He kept me from ending my life. He helped me pray and cry out to Him.
Prisoner 42’s story takes place every day for thousands of people in North Korea. Open Doors estimates there are 50,000 to 70,000 Christians imprisoned in the country. Through secret networks in China, Open Doors provides spiritual and physical support for Christians who can make it to safe houses. They receive training and aid, and some even return to North Korea – strengthened in their faith. Thank you for supporting your North Korean family and keeping them in your prayers.
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.