Worship Without Words
One Missionary’s Experience in a Chinese Prison for Helping North Korean Defectors
By Daniel Harris
05/11/2017 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The chorus of whistling would begin in one of the prison cells. Then, the cell across the hall would chime in with harmonies. As their hymns reverberated through the prison corridor, one by one, another prison cell would join until the entire prison was an orchestra of whistling. In a coffee shop in South Korea, Peter drew his breath and whistled out a line of Amazing Grace to demonstrate. “We sang like that,” he recalled. I tried to imagine his single note multiplied times hundreds as an entire prison whistling praise echoed off the empty walls. Not a word was ever sung so the guards were none the wiser.
It was 2003 and it was Peter’s first time in prison. He moved to China from South Korea in 1999 to be a missionary. He was studying the Chinese language to learn how to reach Chinese people with the Gospel. This was right after the time known as the “Arduous March” in North Korea, during which more than three million are estimated to have starved to death. North Koreans were risking their lives to cross the border into China, and North Korean women were selling themselves into sex slavery just to escape. After these women became pregnant in China, they “lost their value” and would be sent back to North Korea. When the women reached North Korea, they would be forced to have an abortion. Then they would probably be imprisoned, and possibly tortured or executed. “I did not want their babies to die,” Peter recalled, “So I gave up language study and started helping refugees.”
Peter’s work was risky. China does not consider North Korean defectors refugees, but illegal immigrants, and automatically repatriates them to North Korea when caught. Both North Korea and China have spies everywhere, so for many defectors, crossing the river into China without getting shot is considered the “easy part.”
Peter made fake South Korean IDs and passports for the women. He would help smuggle defectors into Laos and then Thailand before eventually helping them find their way to South Korea. It is a tedious journey that takes many defectors months and even years to complete. Believe it or not, taking this route is still safer than simply crossing from North Korea into South Korea.
Peter helped dozens make the journey, but eventually some North Korean spies hired by China caught him, and he was sent to prison.
“That was an amazing time,” he said recalling his one and a half years in prison. “I would spend one hour praying, one hour resting, one hour praying, one hour resting…all day long.” Peter was packed into a 100 square foot cell with 35 other prisoners, most of them gang members.
“They were very tough, but I did not want to fight,” Peter remembered. “I just smiled and said, ‘Hallelujah.’”
They asked me, “Is God really alive?” When he answered, a sick prisoner asked him to pray for his stomach. “I just touched his hand, and he got cured. The Chinese criminals were very shocked. Even I was very shocked!”
Peter asked the gang boss in his room for a radio and one was delivered. Peter would listen to sermons in Korean every day on the radio, write them down, and then teach them in Chinese to his cellmates. As other prison cells began to hear of the teaching and the miracles happening, the prisoners would ask to be transferred to Peter’s cell! That is when Peter began to teach the prisoners how to sing hymns by whistling. Every Sunday, the prison was transformed into a worship service the prison staff were completely unaware of.
After Peter was released, he went to Vietnam to continue helping defectors. One day, he was detained at the airport, but he prayed, “Oh God, please don’t make me go back to prison again.” He reached up and opened the door and found it was unlocked. He ran as fast as he could to a motorcycle taxi and offered him money to take him anywhere. He transferred taxis several times until he felt sure he was safe. The next day he walked into the South Korean embassy to tell them about his detention. The South Korean officials said they had been looking for him. They took him to the Vietnamese police and left him there, and Peter found himself in prison once again. But he used his few weeks there as an opportunity to preach the Gospel. One day, Peter’s cellmates asked to be baptized.
“I baptized him using the very dirty water…in my jail room it was very dirty,” he told International Christian Concern (ICC). “Three days later I was released. I think preaching to the Vietnamese people in prison was God’s will.”
As Peter was talking, he paused for a moment before he nonchalantly mentioned, “We just rescued a woman from sex trafficking.” I pressed him to share more. He told ICC that the woman had a husband and two children in North Korea, but they were running out of food so she traveled to China to buy rice. While she was there, she was sold into sex trafficking. Her new Chinese “husband” made her live in the kitchen and abused her on a daily basis, so she risked her life to flee. Peter’s organization is helping her gradually make her way to South Korea. Going home to her family in North Korea will never be an option for her. It has been three months since she escaped the house and she has yet to begin the Laos part of the journey. Peter’s organization gave her a phone and is helping her connect with people who can transport her. He cannot share much more than that. Peter coordinates these defector rescues from South Korea now, but he is busier than ever. There are few people who are more acquainted with helping defectors than Peter. His wife, Lee Han Byeol, is a defector herself.
Peter and his wife are coming to ICC’s Bridge Conference in California on June 2 and 3 to share about the work they are doing. ICC supports projects like Peter’s that help North Korean defectors reach safety. To learn more about ICC’s projects and how you can contribute, visit www.persecution.org.