Christian survivors of North Korean prison camps have described the agonizing torture they endured, such as being forced into tiny cages where they were unable to lie down or stand up, and witnessing guards force a prisoner to murder a baby.
A Christian woman, going by the name Hea Woo (not her real name), told Open Doors USA that her daughter starved to death in 1997 in the midst of North Korea's great famine. Her husband later fled to China, where he became a Christian, but was captured and sent to a North Korean prison camp, where died.
Much like her husband, Woo also escaped to China but was captured and sent back to North Korea where she was immediately placed in a prison camp. She recalled many disturbing accounts of what she was subjected to there.
"There were different parts within the prison," the woman said. "Some [sectors] did agriculture, some did construction work, some did mining. Men and women were separated; all the inmates seemed like they were about to faint. They were all hopeless and in despair. And plus, they were starving. Each person received one handful of rotten corn [and] there was nothing else to eat. We got something watery — it wasn't even a soup. We got those as food for the whole year. Nothing else."
The prisoners were not only obligated to work, but had to labor under extreme conditions, leading to a number of deaths.
"And there was a distinct group composed of only people who tried to escape from the prison. Those people had to carry containers full of feces. The containers were made of thick wood, and it was so heavy that even two people had a hard time carrying one container. Every single day, no matter how the weather was, despite heavy rain and snowfall, they were not allowed to take breaks. It was really life-threatening with the smell of the feces and the poisonous air," she described.
She explained that many died in prison, and all were on the verge of death due to starvation and mistreatment by the prison guards.
Woo said that the prisoners were so hungry from barely being given anything to eat that they took to extreme measures.
"When cows passed by on the street and defecated, people would search for corn kernels [in the excrement] and pick them up to eat," she recalled.
Hannah, another Christian prisoner, said in the same article that followers of Christ were put in tiny cages and isolated from the others, unable to get up or even lie down.
"We were separated by gender. 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. Shortly after we entered the camp, we saw guards force a prisoner to murder a baby," Hannah recalled.
"Almost every day, 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 5 a.m. to 12 p.m. and not speak."
Woo added that the hardest thing for her was not the physical brutality, but being denied the freedom to pray to God.
"We could not pray freely but I still prayed in [my] heart. When people were asleep, I woke up to pray. It was so pitiful that we did not have freedom of faith; I really yearned for freedom," she said.
In the instances where she was able to pray, Woo prayed not just for herself, but for the entire underground church.
"I prayed that the idolatry persisting over generations would disappear and that people could repent. I prayed that the prison would break apart as well. I also prayed for the Christians all over the world to pray for us with sincerity," she said.
North Korean defectors have been sharing nightmarish stories of what they suffered under the country's regime for decades.
In July, defector Ji Hyeona spoke before the U.S. State Department's first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, revealing she was forced to deny Christ while being questioned by authorities.
"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," Ji said in Washington, D.C.
"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."