Piecing together her peace

Deborah Froese
February 13, 2015
Mennonite Church Canada
Hyun Hee Kim
Hun Lee (L), Hyun Hee Kim (C), and Hun's wife, Sunny Lee (R).
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Hyun Hee Kim is slight and delicate with a gentle, composed demeanour, but when she speaks about faith, her eyes sparkle and her hands fly. She shares her story through translators and a limited but steadily improving grasp of English. The details that emerge are astounding. At just 31 years of age, it’s hard to imagine that she witnessed murders, spent time in prison, and lived for years in terror of authorities.

“God was with me all the way,” she says.

For Hyun Hee, following God has become closely linked to Mennonites. She first learned of Mennonites through Hun Lee, who with his wife, Sunny, served as Mennonite Church Canada Associates in South Korea. Hun has pastored several congregations in Canada.

Lee piqued Hyun Hee’s curiosity about alternative Christian communities and Anabaptist approaches to faithful living. He encouraged her to board a plane in 2012 so that she could attend the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Vancouver and learn more.

Hyun Hee’s Assembly experience drew her back to Canada in 2014 and she’s now studying English at the University of Winnipeg to improve her language skills. She hopes to one day study theology and conflict resolution.

But the road to faith was fraught with twists and turns, and the fact that she survived to talk about it is nothing short of miraculous.


Surviving childhood

Hyun Hee was born in 1983. She grew up in a North Korean coastal village with her parents and her younger brother, Seong Yel Kim. She had no exposure to faith or religion of any kind; such practices were illegal.

By the time she was 11, economic collapse and weather anomalies ranging from drought to flood seized North Korea, resulting in the famine known as Arduous March. Difficulties increased when her father passed away a year later in 1995.

Eventually the family situation became so dire that Hyun Hee and her brother quit school to help their mother, Soon Ok Lee, buy and re-sell flour to put food on the table. The sacrifice broke Soon Ok’s heart, Hyun Hee recalls. More than anything, she wished a good education for her children.

Together, the family hauled a small, flour-laden wooden handcart over mountainous terrain to ChongJin City – a 28 km, 5 hour round trip. But others, desperate to survive, began to sell flour too. The price plummeted and people again went hungry.

“Life was tough,” Hyun Hee reflects. “There were many abandoned kids and divorced mothers living from hand to mouth. I was afraid I would end up like them.”


Escape to China

Sheer desperation forced the family to consider one remaining option – escape to China, where they could seek help from Soon Ok’s relatives. But escape was risky. Hyun Hee was accustomed to witnessing forcibly repatriated North Korean refugees shot to death before her entire village.

On their first attempt to enter China in March, 1997, when Hyun Hee was just 14, border guards insisted that Soon Ok leave her children behind to guarantee her return. She spent the night pleading with the guards to let her whole family pass. The next day, after offering the guards a large bribe, the three of them waded across the freezing Duman River to sneak into China. A cacophony of dogs shattered the silence and threatened to give them away. Fortunately, an older couple, poor Korean refugees themselves, took in the family of three before authorities could respond. They provided them with food and a warm place to stay for the night and the family made it safely to the other side the next day.

Although Hyun Hee remembers feeling grateful at the time, she now views the experience as a miracle. “God provides,” she says.


New troubles

Hyun Hee’s troubles did not end in China. As illegal refugees, she and her brother could not attend school. Soon Ok’s relatives had limited resources and could not support them. After about a month, they encouraged Soon Ok and her children to move to a small village in Heilongjiang Province to live with a man who became Soon Ok’s partner.

“In rural areas,” Hyun Hee explains, “there are many older Chinese men who don’t have wives.” With the rigorous demands of rural life, it isn’t uncommon for unmarried or widowed women to move in with men who are in search of partners.

This was the first of several relationships that Soon Ok struck for the sake of her family’s survival. Although each situation ended in disaster, seeds of faith were planted and nurtured by the church communities they encountered along the way.


First glimpses of church

Hyun Hee and her family first connected with a church while they lived with Soon Ok’s first partner. Local church members visited them on several occasions and invited them to various events. Over time, relationships with the congregation flourished. When Soon Ok’s partner vanished – due to a large gambling debt, Hyun Hee speculates – church members introduced Soon Ok to a man on the other side of the province who needed a “wife” or partner.

Although they didn’t know the man, his daughter was married to a pastor, creating a sense of surety about the arrangements. Hyun Hee and brother Seong Yel were reluctant to move again, so they stayed behind. Seong Yel found work and shelter on a nearby farm, and the church provided a home for Hyun Hee. In exchange, she helped out with a variety of chores.


Relationship troubles spark disaster

Soon Ok’s new relationship quickly soured. “[My mother] was often mistreated and was even condemned as a wicked woman by her new partner’s daughter,” Hyun Hee reflects. The daughter – the pastor’s wife – falsely accused Soon Ok of theft and forced her to leave.

In her quest for another job, Soon Ok was lured into a new “opportunity” by a man who turned out to be a human trafficker. He sold Soon Ok to a farmer in the province of Hebei, more than a thousand kilometers away. She was whisked off to Hebei before Hyun Hee and Seong Yel knew what happened or where she had gone.

In the midst of that loss and confusion, the angry pastor’s wife found Hyun Hee and forced her to work in a deli and make monthly installments to pay back the money she accused Soon Ok of stealing. Hyun Hee had trouble reconciling the angry pastor’s wife with the love and care she had experienced with her church friends, but she found comfort in a new Korean/Chinese church community. She recalls hearing a prayer that spoke directly to her heart: “Let’s pray for North Koreans who are suffering and dying with hunger.”

Those words drew her closer to the church, but they also brought tears. Why, she wondered, did God seem to neglect North Koreans?

About 10 months later, Soon Ok located Hyun Hee and persuaded the store owner to release her daughter. Soon Ok brought her children to live with her near Tianjin in Hebei Province. Although she still worked for the farmer who “owned” her, Soon Ok had developed strong connections with a number of women whose situations were similar to hers, making the situation bearable.

Hyun Hee and Seong Yel did not want to work for the farmer, however, and they found employment at a nearby factory. This upset the farmer and created friction between him and Soon Ok. Their relationship was further strained by Soon Ok’s continuous efforts to find educational opportunities for her children who were still illegal refuges. As tension rose, the human trafficker reappeared and tried to sell Soon Ok to another man. The angry farmer had had enough. He reported the Soon Ok, Hyun Hee and Seong Yel to the authorities. They were arrested, handcuffed and sent back to North Korea.

“We were terrified,” Hyun Hee says.

They thought they would be killed but by some miracle, they were sent to a prison camp instead.


From one prison to another

Hyun Hee and Soon Ok were separated from Seong Yel during this time. Conditions were appalling. “In prison, toilet paper was not allowed, no soaps or shampoos,” Hyun Hee says. She recalls being crammed together with 30 other people in a small cell. Lice infestations, the sexual abuse of children, and young pregnant girls were common. After enduring forced abortions, women were sent back to work without time for recovery.

Hyun Hee says she wanted to die. She admits blaming her mother for all that happened, but she also says that her mother began to wonder if they were suffering because they were skeptical of God’s presence. Soon Ok began to implore God’s help, saying, “We will believe if you save us from being shot to death in North Korea.”

Three months later, in a shortened period of “grace” extended on occasion by North Korean leader, Kim Jung Il, all three of them were released and sent back to their hometown. But life in North Korea was worse than it had been before – another prison of sorts. A new family lived in their old home and they were ostracized by neighbours and relatives because of their escape.

In the year 2000, the family sold most of their clothes and scrounged enough money for 15-year-old Seong Yel to bribe his way back into China. It wasn’t until Hyun Hee and Soon Ok escaped a month later that they learned Seong Yel had arrived safely and found employment.

This time, Soon Ok acquired fake Chinese identification papers for her family to help prevent deportation as illegal economic migrants.

Soon Ok returned to the area near Tianjin where she had friends, but Hyun Hee, now about 17, refused to go with her. Instead, she found employment at a Korean-Chinese restaurant in a city in Heilongjiang Province.


Growing dependence upon God

“My mother started to think that she couldn’t explain our survival without God’s help,” Hyun Hee says. As Soon Ok’s faith grew through church activities and Bible study, Seong Yel became a believer too. “They began to worry about me as a non-believer,” Hyun Hee reflects. “They tried to persuade me in many ways, but I didn’t want to listen and still hated my mother for many reasons.”

In 2002, Seong Yel phoned Hyun Hee to report that their mother was ill and dying. Hyun Hee bid farewell to a job and people she cared about to rejoin her family. When she arrived in Tianjin, she discovered that Soon Ok wasn’t ill. Seong Yel’s phone call was a ruse to bring the family back together. He had even taken the liberty of finding work for Hyun Hee at another restaurant. The economy in the Tianjin area was vibrant and booming, and offered far better pay than Hyun Hee could have earned in her former location, so she stayed. But life wasn’t rosy. The mother/daughter relationship remained strained and Hyun Hee says conflict between Korean and Chinese employees created tension in her workplace. “I didn’t have a friend at the restaurant.”

Hyun Hee worked as both server and cook. One Saturday, she tripped and fell flat on her back, spilling a tray full of hot soup all over her face and arms. She was advised to go to the hospital but refused. “I thought that I should go to church [instead] to ask God ‘why me’ and ask for help,” she says.

The next day she attended worship at her brother’s church, despite swollen red and black burns. “I went to the church in tears and tried to cover the injuries with dressing and a cap on my head, hoping not to be noticed much. After the worship service, people started to surround me and pray out loud, ‘God, you understand and know her sufferings and agonies. Look what had happened to her. Please heal your daughter and be praised by her.’”

She says they cried and prayed around her – and within the week, something amazing happened. Her injuries and scars began to heal. To this day, the only remaining scars are on her arms. “I think these scars are to remember what God has done for me,” she says.


Furthering the dream

Although Hyun Hee’s mother dreamed of taking her family from China to South Korea where they would truly be free, a North Korean agreement with China prohibited North Koreans from entering South Korea through China legally. Despite her fake Chinese identification papers, memories of previous escape attempts and lingering anger with her mother haunted Hyun Hee. She could not imagine taking such risks again. But Soon Ok and Seong Yel could not imagine staying in China.

“I refused to go with her, blaming my mother for all of the horrible experiences we had, including the prison life,” Hyun Hee says.

In 2004, for a fee, mother and son successfully made their way across the border into South Korea and entered a program that helped them adjust to their new life.

They kept in touch with Hyun Hee by telephone. Two years later, Soon Ok learned that she could invite Chinese people to South Korea. She begged Hyun Hee to come. Hyun Hee determined that it was time to leave China and to forgive her mother. She pushed all trepidations aside. With her fake identification papers in hand and her heart in her throat, Hyun Hee flew into South Korea from China on August 16, 2006. She says she was the first North Korean refugee, alias Chinese, to do so by air.

She vowed never to fly again.


A new life begins

From the age of 12 to 25, Hyun Hee had had no chance to study. New opportunities were available for education in South Korea but one of the subjects she had to learn was in English – and she had not had exposure to the language before. She recalls her first experience in a South Korean classroom. “I could not understand English and there was no Korean spoken by the teacher, a foreigner,” she says. But she prevailed because “God gave me wisdom and fellow students helped.”

When she passed an educational certification program in lieu of high school, Hyun Hee went on to study psychology and management at Handong Global University, a Christian school. She continued to enhance her English language skills by attending dawn prayer services and writing out the Korean prayers in English.

She told herself that God, who healed her scars, would help her in university.

At Handong, Hyun Hee was invited to appear as a guest for a Christian Radio program, “We are one in God” to talk about life in North Korea, and life in South Korea as a North Korean refugee. Her clear, uninhibited participation made her a regular guest on the program. That experience drew her to the attention of an internet Christian talk show with a similar focus. Hyun Hee appeared regularly on “Bangapsimnida” (Welcome, It’s Nice to Meet You) for several years and it was there she met Hun Lee, the show’s host and Mennonite Church Canada’s associate.

Hyun Hee confided in Hun Lee as a pastor. “He responded differently. He was more humble than what I had experienced with other South Korean pastors,” Hyun Hee says, referring to the South Korean church’s traditional, hierarchical structure.

“Hyun Hee's faith is genuinely growing since we have met and shared life together,” Hun Lee reported in an email interview. He describes her as a faithful helper and a role model.

As Hyun Hee’s faith and commitment grew, she became active in her community and beyond. From Oct. 2011- Oct. 2012, she helped young North Korean refuges with their schooling. With Hun Lee’s encouragement, she participated in the 2011 Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI) Summer Session Peacebuilding School as a North Korean rep, joining other reps from across Asia, Far East Russia, Canada and the United States.

At the 2011 NARPI Summer Session Hyun Hee says she learned a lot about conflict. “Conflict has been a big theme in my life but I learned that conflict can be dealt with.”

Her association with NARPI connected her with the Korea Anabaptist Center, a partner of NARPI and Mennonite Church Canada. Hun Lee invited her into the Tae-An community to work with North Korean refugees. Impressed by what she learned there, she told Hun that she wished to learn more about Mennonites. That’s when Hun suggested she attend the 2012 Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Vancouver.

So she broke her vow and flew. Reflecting on her Assembly experience, she says, “Keeping the faith in the perspective of Mennonites requires enormous patience and courage in this world, but it is definitely worthwhile to pursue…it was very refreshing and inspired me again to be committed to Jesus and to live in Jesus.”

People may have differences of opinion, “but with patience and a desire to work together rather than having one’s own way, people can find peace.”

Hyun Hee is gradually piecing together her peace. “Ever since we first went over the river, it was God’s church that helped me.” God has always taken care of her, she says, but that care has come through the church. “Regardless of how good a place I’m in or the people I’m with, old fears come back. But God will help with that.”


About this story

I first met Hyun Hee at the 2012 Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Vancouver, B.C. Tim Froese, Executive Minister, Witness, introduced us and helped to translate her story from Korean to English. Tim is conversant in Korean from his extensive experience as a church worker in South Korea. I was fascinated by the emerging bits and pieces of Hyun Hee’s dramatic experiences – and by her determination. Her story wouldn’t let me rest. Over the next two years and with additional translation help of Kyung Hee Park, an Executive Assistant in the Mennonite Church Canada offices, Hyun Hee and I exchanged emails. Gradually, I filled in some of the missing details and her story took shape on the page.

I am in awe of the many ways God has worked in and through Hyun Hee. I feel honoured by her willingness to speak freely with me about her life, and for the privilege of sharing her story with a wider audience. I look forward to seeing where God leads her next! 

Support Anabaptists in South Korea at donate.mennonitechurch.ca/project/south-korea.