WASHINGTON — North Korean defector Ji Hyeona couldn't help but shed a few tears while sharing her account of abuse and torture at the U.S. State Department's first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
The Christian woman, who now lives in South Korea after escaping from North Korea for the last time in 2007, pled with those gathered from around the world at the Harry S. Truman Building Tuesday to not be silent about the human rights abuses committed by the Kim Jong Un regime.
As North Korea consistently ranks as the worst country in the world for Christian persecution, Ji said that she was attending the ministerial to represent all Christians being persecuted in the rogue state, which is said to imprison as many as 120,000 Christians, defectors and political dissidents in labor concentration camps.
"Since I first escaped from North Korea in 1998, I have since escaped from the North a total of four times and got repatriated to the North three times until I finally came to South Korea in 2007," Ji explained. "In between, I fell victim to human trafficking and I was also subjected to abortion violently forced on me even with no anesthesia because the North Korean regime couldn't accept what they call 'mixed love.'"
As a devout Christian, Ji recalled how she felt forced to deny her faith when questioned by regime authorities each time she was repatriated.
"Each time when I got repatriated, which is a total of three times, they never finished their interrogation without asking me those Christian-related questions, such as whether I went to church, whether I knew Jesus and whether I believed in God," she recalled. "If there is a slightest indication or confession that you believe Jesus and went to church, then you will surely be sent to political prison camp or executed. Just like Peter denied Jesus three times, I lied each of those three times that I got repatriated and got interrogated."
As a child, Ji remembers being "brainwashed to believe that you must worship the three generations of the Kim dictatorship." She told the ministerial that North Korean people are even forced to memorize the birthdays of the Kim dictators.
"I was forced to believe that Kim Il Sung was literally the son in the Heaven and God of North Korea," she said. "I grew up watching propaganda on the TV depicting [Christian] missionaries as evil. I remember particularly watching a movie where an American missionary poured hydrochloric acid on the forehead of a North Korean girl that [called her] a thief just because she pulled an apple and ate it during the midst of the Korean War.'"
As the Bible is outlawed text in North Korea, Ji said that she first gained access to a small Bible thanks to her mother smuggling it in a sack of rice when she went to China to buy food for her family during a famine one year. But that same Bible would later became the focal point of a five-hour security interrogation.
"I read the Bible secretly every evening and one day I was summoned by state security department and got tortured by them. Initially, I didn't even know why I was being tortured. But as I was kicked with boots on and beaten mercilessly, my whole body got bathed in blood. During this torture, security agents asked me, 'Since when have you stayed in touch with the South Korean CIA and American missionaries and what mission were you given by them?'"
"I had absolutely no idea where those questions came from," she recalled. "I kept saying that I had no clue about those questions. Since I repeated this same answer to basically the same repeated question for five hours, the agents eventually stopped the torture but put the Bible that I had read secretly in my house on the table and asked me, 'What is this then?'"
In an attempt to save herself from further abuse, Ji lied.
"I was so surprised but I had to keep calm and tell them a lie that I had just stumbled upon it while I was walking down the street," she said. "He then pressed me hard for an answer as to what the book was all about and why I hadn't reported it if I had just found it on the street. I just kept repeating my answer that I wanted to but just kept missing the opportunities. Finally the five-hour long torture interrogation ended and I got released."
In search of a better life and one in which her family could freely worship, Ji and her family crossed the border into China in 1998. Her father was later arrested by Chinese authorities and she never saw him again. Ji was herself later arrested by Chinese authorities and repatriated back to North Korea that year.
After escaping North Korea again in 1998, Ji was arrested a second time and sent back to North Korea in 1999. After being sent back for a second time, she was sent to North Korea's Jeungsan Camp No. 11 and held there for over a year.
She escaped North Korea a third time in 2000 and was repatriated back to North Korea for a third time in 2002. During this time, she was three months pregnant and forced to abort her child.
After asking God why the North Korean people do not have the right to freely worship the God of her Bible, Ji said that the Lord gave her a mission to advocate for North Korean Christians across the globe.
"As a writer who carries a bone that is stained with blood still and is doing the ministry of writing about human rights conditions in North Korea with a trembling heart, I am here to appeal to you today," she told the ministerial. "Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un — the three generations of the Kim dictatorship — is a self-styled God and opposes the true God. They are the leaders of a cult and a false religion."
"We can not just sit and keep watching what they are doing because indifference is the most tragic tool that puts people to death and kills them. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: 'The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.'"
She concluded by quoting the words of Moses: "Let my people go!"
"I sincerely and earnestly desire that the United States and international community send a very strong and unmistakable [message] to the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea to stop persecuting Christians and for the international community to continue with the pressure on North Korea. [Doing this will lead] to the restoration of Israel in East, which will be a unified Korea, and the restoration of Jerusalem in East, which will be a new Pyongyang."
Ji had previously met with Vice President Mike Pence during his trip to Korea in February. She has previously testified before U.S. Congress and the United Nations Inquiry on North Korea.
She was among a number of persecuted believers from all over the world who shared their stories at the ministerial.
Others included Uighur poet Tahrir Hamut, who recalled being sentenced to three years in a labor camp in China in 1996. Hamut warned that there are over 1 million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps in China and he hears they could one day face Nazi-style mass killings.
Additionally, family members of persecuted believers shared the stories of their loved ones. Those include the daughter of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is under house arrest in Turkey after over a year-and-a-half in prison, and the wife of John Cao, a missionary who faces a seven year-prison sentence in China.