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Teenage boy told to ‘look for a cross’ to escape the North Korean gulag

Looking into North Korea from on the bridge in Tumen City China. Photo: Wikipedia/Prince Roy

Looking into North Korea from a bridge in Tumen City, China. Photo: Wikipedia/Prince Roy

An article in the English newspaper, The Guardian, tells the story of a young man, Joseph Kim, 25, who escaped from North Korea because of the help of the church in  China.

As a young man living in communist North Korea, he had never heard of the church or Christianity. His religion was believing in the mystical powers of North Korea’s deluded supreme leader, Kim Il-sung.

But growing up in North Korea, all Kim knew was poverty and famine and when as a boy he plotted to escape the gulag that had imprisoned his mother and resulted in the death of his father, he was told by a friend that if he ever got to China the church would assist him and even give him money.

Kim had no idea what his friend was talking about. It was the first time he had heard of Christ or the church. When Kim asked why they would help, the friend said, “because they’re Christians.”

In 2006, at the age of 16, Kim decided to escape North Korea. By this time he was living off grasshoppers and raspberry leaves and any food and money he stole as  part of a youth gang called “gangster brothers.”

After crossing the Tumen river into China, he approached a home in Tumen City asking for food. The woman who answered the door told him the church would help, confirming what he had heard earlier from his friend in North Korea.

When Kim said he was not sure what a church was, the woman told him to “Look for a cross.”

With this advice, Kim made contact with churches in Tumen City where he entered what The Guardian described as the “most sophisticated underground support network” helping people escape North Korea.

The network which received financial support from churches in South Korea provided him with different places to hide. He eventually ended up in the home of a 75-year-old Christian woman, who Kim affectionately called “Grandma.”

She received income from a South Korean church to help people escape North Korea.

In exchange for this help, “Grandma” expected Kim to go to Bible studies and even attend services in China’s underground church. In his interview with The Guardian, Kim admitted he did it because he was indebted to her for help and initially described the sessions as “gobbledygook.”

But as he saw the tremendous risk and sacrifice the woman and other Christians in the area were taking to help people  escape the North Korean gulag, he began to grasp the message of Christ in the Bible.

“Grandma made a huge sacrifice and took great risks to help me. And that matched the story of Jesus I read in the Bible and I started to understand.”

After three months living with “Grandma,” Kim was turned over to Liberty in North Korea (LINK) a secular group dedicated to helping asylum seekers. Within four months, LINK helped Kim make his way to the US.

Today, Kim is attending University in New York where he attends a South Korean Church. Though he admits to having doubts at times about his faith he said:

“I’m not the most ideal Christian, but I am a Christian.”

He has also wrote a book about his escape entitled: Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America.

Julia and Kevin Garratt (centre) with Peter (left) and their daughter Hannah (right) who they adopted in China. Image Daily Mail

Julia and Kevin Garratt (centre) with Peter (left) and their daughter Hannah (right) who they adopted in China. Image Daily Mail

But for Christians working in China the risks are very real. In August 2014, the Chinese arrested Canadian missionaries Kevin, 55, and Julia, 54, Garratt, originally from Vancouver, BC, accusing them of espionage. Julia was later released.

The two lived in Dandong China along the border with North Korea. They had been in China since 1984 teaching English. They moved to Dangdong in 2008 where they started a a popular coffee shop. They also served as pastors holding regular church services in their home.

But a big part of their ministry involved helping people from North Korea. While speaking at a church in Surrey, BC in 2013, Kevin told the congregation,  “We’re trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus, and practical assistance.”

They also worked with a Christian “training and prayer center” outside of Dangdong that ministered to North Koreans and prepared them for ministry in their country.

It is not sure if the two were arrested because of China’s recent crackdown on Christianity or in retaliation for accusations at the time by Canada that the Chinese government was hacking into the computer systems of the Canadian government.

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