Originally published in The Gospel Herald
A North Korean woman who suffered unspeakable horrors while imprisoned for her faith has shared how God’s faithfulness — and one desperate prayer — sustained her through the darkest of days.
Growing up war-torn North Korea, Hannah Cho often heard her mother pray, “Hananim! Hananim! Lord! Lord! Help!”
“Life is trouble,” her mother would tell her. “If there’s trouble, you should pray.”
It wasn’t until adulthood that Hannah fully understood what her mother meant.
Her adult life wasn’t easy: Two of her six children died young, her husband lost his job, and she was forced to sell items on the black market.
“I would carry heavy, frozen meals up the mountain to sell,” she told persecution watchdog Open Doors USA.
The conditions were so bad, Hannah lost one finger and all of her toenails. One day, she jumped from a train before it come to a complete stop, permanently damaging her legs and spine.
It soon became evident to Hannah and her family that they could not survive in North Korea.
Desperate, the family decided to flee to China, where they heard the Gospel in its entirety for the first time.
She recalled: “My husband’s relative brought us to church and this is where we first heard the entire Gospel. We had seen the faith in the life of my mother, but now we understood it. All of us accepted Jesus Christ that day.
“We felt peace in our hearts and unexplainable joy. It was so refreshing, as if the dirt in my eyes had been washed away and I could finally see God. Now I could follow Him like my mother had.”
Unfortunately, their trials weren’t over.
“We were discovered by Chinese secret agents and arrested,” Hannah said, explaining how her family was moved from prison to prison in China before being sent back to a North Korean prison.
Conditions at the prison were shocking. Hannah recalled how one inmate-a Korean mother who was pregnant by a Chinese man-was ordered to kill her baby upon delivery. When the mother refused, the prison official put the gun to the head of another woman and forced her to strangle the baby while all the other inmates watched.
And it only got worse.
“We were separated by gender,” she said. “My daughter and I were put in the female wing and my husband and son-who was just a teenager-in a cell with males. We were all called for interrogation and questions. They’d beat us so harshly. When there was no interrogation, we had to kneel in our cells from 5AM to 12PM and not speak.”
Even while he was beaten within an inch of his life, Hannah’s husband continued to witness to the North Korean prison guards.
“He told the guards that he had become a believer. Later he said he had no other choice. After he saw what they did with the baby and the guards threatened to kill his family, he had to tell them the truth. After his confession, all four of us were locked up in solitary confinement-a small cage. We didn’t receive any food or water and were not able to sleep.”
Prisoners in solitary confinement endured the worst abuse – but it only caused Hannah’s husband to become more fervent in his love for God.
At one point, while being tortured, he yelled, “If believing in God is a sin, I’d rather die! Just kill me! It’s my mission to live according to God’s will!”
The guards would then strip him of his clothes and beat him, his flesh becoming torn and ripped.
“When he lost his consciousness,” she recalls, “they woke him up and started again.”
Hannah, too, was near death: “I was dehydrated and beaten until I was unconscious too. When I woke up, I was dragged back to a regular cell with my daughter and other female inmates. Then they beat me in front of them. All my daughter could do was cry silently, which she did day and night.”
Still, the family prayed for deliverance. Miraculously, the guards one day called Hannah and her daughter to the administrative office.
“We were in front of the deputy of the prison, waiting to hear our verdict, and in our minds we all desperately prayed for a miracle. We didn’t want to suffer and die in a political prisoner camp.”
Without explanation, the deputy announced he was giving the family special amnesty, and said they would be released.
“God answered our prayer,” Hannah said. “When we walked out the prison that night and were finally free and alone, we quietly sang a hymn.”
Still, North Korean life was too dangerous, and Hannah and her daughters were forced to flee again to the church in China who had once helped them. Hannah’s husband had planned to join them in time, but he never showed.
“One month went by. No word from my husband. Then, a second month, a third, a fourth… I waited three years. Then I found out that he had died shortly after we left. He was never able to overcome the pain and illnesses from prison. My son was too young to help him. So he died slowly in pain.”
Unable to cross the river by himself, Hannah’s son remains in North Korea, living with a family member.
“I now live in South Korea and serve God here,” Hanna said. “My first and third daughter are here with me. My second daughter lives with her Chinese husband. She is still at risk of being discovered and sent back. It’s my prayer and hope that I will be reunited in South Korea with my daughter and my son.”
In these dark days, Hannah said she continually returns to those familiar words from her childhood. “In North Korea, my mother only taught me one prayer. But I still pray it every day, for my family and for my country: ‘Hanonim, Hanonim! Lord, Lord, please help!'”
While the official death toll from the most restrictive authoritarian country in the world is unknown, it is estimated that from 1994 to 1998, anywhere between 600,000 and 2.5 million people died of hunger.
For over a decade, North Korea has ranked no. 1 on Open Door USA’s World Watch List of countries where believers face the most persecution.
“Worship of the ruling Kim family is mandated for all citizens, and those who don’t comply (including Christians) are arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed,” reads the report.
“Entire Christian families are imprisoned in hard labor camps, where unknown numbers die each year from torture, beatings, overexertion and starvation. Those who attempt to flee to South Korea through China risk execution or life imprisonment, and those who stay behind often fare no better.”