Snapshots from Lesbos
Family and Friends Issue 7
The Courage to Forgive
Insights on Mercy
Forgiving the Unforgivable?
Forgiving Dr. Mengele
The God Who Descends
The Weapons of Grace
Bard of God’s Circus
Editors’ Picks Issue 7
Offering God’s Word of Grace
Educating for the Kingdom
Being Obedient to Christ
Learning from Sister Charis
Coward, Take My Coward’s Hand
Mother Maria of Paris
The Good Samaritan
Readers Respond: Issue 7
Family and Friends: Celebrating Marriage
The Gospel at the Margins
Our Daily Bread
I am now more than eighty years old, and already twenty-five years have passed since I left Pyongyang. Ever since the Korean War, when I barely survived the intense fighting against American troops, my life has felt precarious. All I want now is to see the people of North Korea living free and in the love of Jesus, even if only for one day. This is my story.
My mother had eight children in all, but lost two sons to measles. Early on Sunday morning she would wake me – just me, the youngest – and wash me with water heated in the kettle, dress me in fresh clothes, and trim my fingernails and toenails. Then she would get ashes from the kitchen fireplace and polish the coins for the church collection until they shone before putting them in my pocket. She would tell me to stand straight and sing the Sunday school song loudly. I can still remember the words:
Through another week
God has protected us in our weakness.
On this happy day, beloved friend,
I gladly take your hand.
Let us praise God’s grace,
Let us study God’s word.
My mother’s name was Lee Geum-nyo, which means “silken woman.” Like her name, she was as tender and good as silk. She was a skilled seamstress and made clothes for everyone in the neighborhood. Whenever people needed clothing made from materials that are hard to work with such as silk or ramie, the work would fall to her.
From about the time I was old enough to be aware, my mother suffered from chronic illness (cancer, as it turned out). One biting cold winter night – I was fourteen – she looked at her children one after another. Then she suddenly embraced me and prayed, “Father God, why are you taking me away so soon? How can I leave these young ones? Please watch over my children. Please let my youngest son become a pastor.” While she prayed, her hot tears fell on my cheeks. That night my mother died. She was forty-five years old.
Two years later, early in the morning of June 25, 1950, we awoke to the news that there would be a special broadcast by Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea. As he spoke, his characteristically hoarse voice was filled with agitation:
Early this morning, the South Korean puppet army crossed the thirty-eighth parallel in a surprise invasion of our country. Our valiant People’s Army drove them back over the border and is pressing southward. I call on all citizens to rise as one in this holy war to drive back the puppet army. Victory will be ours.
I had just finished eleventh grade. From that day on, in every school and workplace, people were exhorted to join the army, and every day there were induction ceremonies. In my high school, the entire student body joined the army as soon as our physical examinations were done. I joined the newly formed North Hamgyong Marine Corps and was sent directly into combat.
Five months later, after a day of fighting through snow-covered hills, I took shelter in an isolated house at the foot of a mountain. My cotton boots were frozen through. The old woman who lived there built a fire for me and gave me some bean cake. While I was gulping it down, she studied me carefully and finally said, “You’re from a Christian family, aren’t you, little soldier?”
At that time, Christians were subject to heavy surveillance and persecution. Her question shocked me.
“What makes you say that, Grandmother?”
“It’s in your face. You can’t fool an old deaconess.”
Suddenly I poured out my whole story to her – how I had believed in Jesus from my earliest days, how I lost my mother when I was fourteen, and how, as she was dying, she had begged me to become a pastor.
When I finished, she grabbed my hand and said, “Beloved son, let us pray: Lord, please do not let this boy soldier die on this terrible battlefield. He must fulfill his mother’s last wish and become a pastor. Please protect him. Let him live to do work that is pleasing to you.”
As soon as it grew light, the shooting began again. That morning during a fierce firefight, I was hit by shrapnel in my head and legs. My last thought before losing consciousness was wondering why hot sticky water was flowing from my head.
When I woke up, I wasn’t on the battlefield anymore. My head and legs were tightly bandaged, and all around me were wounded soldiers. I felt intense pain in my head, and when I reached up to feel it, I found a scrap of paper had been placed next to me. It read:
I used to live next door to you before I went to medical school. Now I’m a nurse in the People’s Army. I hope I can save your life by putting you on a train to China. You need to survive. I’ll see you back at home.
The soldier in the next bed had been watching me all this time. “I’m glad you finally woke up,” he said. “You were unconscious for so long I was wondering if you’d died on us.”
“Where am I?”
“In the army hospital in Changchun, China. They brought you in ten days ago. The UN did a big bombing raid that day and lots of casualties came in. They only sent back the ones who were likely to survive with treatment. They buried the rest in a big hole with the dead. When they checked your ID card to report you killed in action, Choi Suk-jong found out who you were and made them put you on the train. They said they couldn’t take soldiers who were as good as dead, but she told them you were her younger brother, and begged the commanding officer until he let her put you in the cargo compartment. She even tied you in place with twine so you wouldn’t fall out, and put a diaper on you. You’d be dead if it wasn’t for her.”
I remembered Choi Suk-jong – she was in the choir at our old church. When the war was over, I looked everywhere for her, but no one knew where she was. Later I learned that the day after I was transported, a bombing raid killed nearly everyone in the field hospital.
The following July, I was discharged from the army because of my disability – I still had shrapnel in my head close to the brain, though this was only discovered by a surgeon twenty-five years later. I heard that in North Korea Kim Il-sung had reopened the colleges and was recruiting students, so I and two others received recommendations and departed for Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
Once over the border, we rode on the back of a truck through Pyongyang province. Suddenly we were hit by a bombing attack. We were thrown high into the air and crashed back to earth. I woke up feeling cold all over, and found that I had gone headfirst into a rice paddy. The truck was blown to pieces. One of the men was dead, his head smashed on a rock by the roadside. The other had simply disappeared – he was never found.
Alone now, I dragged myself along until I arrived at Pyongyang two weeks later. There I found the Department of Education in an underground bomb shelter in the Moranbong area. A man who looked like a Party cadre welcomed me. A Russian-born Korean, he had been sent by Stalin to help rebuild Korea after the Japanese occupation ended. When he found that I’d studied Russian in high school, he enrolled me in the Teachers’ College as a Russian major and he became my mentor, tutoring me in Russian. After I graduated, he recommended me for a professorship.
My Student, Kim Jong-il
I had married and was a professor when I first met Kim Jong-il. Today he is remembered as a cruel dictator, but when I first met him in 1959, he was a shy young man with fluffy hair and cheeks that turned bright red when he was embarrassed. His father, Kim Il-sung, told me to test him in Russian, since he said that his ability in that language was wretched. (Kim Il-sung had fought in the Soviet army and so was fluent in Russian.) I called the boy to the principal’s office, where I administered an oral examination.
Fifty years later, I can still remember the sentences that I asked Kim Jong-il to translate into Russian: “I love and respect my father. After I graduate high school, I plan to enter Kim Il-sung University. I enjoy movies more than sports.”
As he struggled to answer my questions, his cheeks turned crimson and his brow beaded with sweat. He seemed very young and innocent, not the least bit arrogant or conceited that he was Kim Il-sung’s son.
After the examination, Kim Il-sung ordered me to give his son private instruction in conversational Russian. Our lessons continued for the next year, and the young man worked hard. Each day when the session was over, he would walk with me to the door and slip Russian chocolate or Chinese cigarettes into my pocket. After I told him that I didn’t smoke, he gave me Chinese candies instead.
His “graduation” took place at a Russian cultural evening during the National Conference of Russian Teachers. Kim Jong-il recited Pushkin’s poem, “Winter Road.” His recitation was beautiful and well-timed: outside a violent snowstorm was blowing. The audience cheered deafeningly, shouting his Russian name: “Kim Yura, Kim Yura!” He ran over to me, embraced me, and burst into tears. I was so proud of him that I wept also.
The last time I met Kim Jong-il was twenty years later. It was in 1978, at the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of North Korea’s establishment. I, together with the foreign vice-minister, was on the premier’s platform in Kim Il-sung Square, preparing to receive the Chinese premier. Late that night, Kim Jong-il appeared on the platform and spoke with me shortly. As he left, he seized my hand, shook it powerfully, and said, “Let’s meet again. We need to see each other again.”
When Seoul won its bid to host the 1988 Olympics, the world’s awareness of both South and North Korea shot up. The Soviet Union had long sponsored North Korea’s Communist regime, but now began taking the relationship more seriously. Soviet universities began opening Korean language departments. As they did not have enough qualified Korean instructors, Soviet academics flooded into Pyongyang to learn Korean. I was one of the few qualified North Korean professors, so much of the work fell to me.
By that time, I had decades of language-teaching experience and knew many tricks to make it engaging. The Russians enjoyed my classes and studied industriously. Soon, however, they began to complain about the shabby classrooms and uncomfortable apartments, and demanded that I be sent to Russia to teach them Korean there. Surprisingly enough, the Party agreed, and in 1988 I was sent to Moscow as an exchange professor.
Word soon spread among students that the new Korean professor’s classes were easy and effective. After about two months, South Korean intelligence agents also heard about my classes and got in contact with me. They suggested that I defect from North to South Korea, but I refused. After so many years as a professor in North Korea, including a role as private tutor for Kim Il-sung’s relatives, I had no interest in leaving my family behind.
When I rejected their offers, the South Korean agents tracked down my older sister, whom I had heard nothing of for years. During the war, she had escaped to South Korea on a US Navy ship and finally settled in Chicago; I had despaired of ever seeing her again. Now the South Korean agents made arrangements for us to meet. Her sudden arrival in Moscow in November 1991 began a chain of events that threw my life into confusion.
She was now seventy years old. When I took her hand and thought of the hard journey she’d made to see me in the bitter winter, I burst into tears. She stayed for a week, and our times together were mostly spent crying. In the meantime I tried to keep up appearances, arriving punctually at the university every day, and being careful not to let on that anything was out of the ordinary.
The day after she returned to America, I received an urgent message from North Korean intelligence ordering me to leave Russia the next day and return to Pyongyang. I would later learn that the Russian–South Korean contact who guided my sister was a double agent. He had told the North Koreans everything we did, what we said, and even what we ate during our week together.
What should I do? I knew that if I went back to North Korea as ordered, the best I could hope for would be to lose everything I’d worked for and be sent to a political prison camp. More likely, I would face the firing squad. “Why did you meet with an enemy national? How long have you been in contact with South Korean spies?” They would torture me and frame me for all manner of crimes.
What would make my sentence even more severe was the fact that I had hidden my sister’s existence from the authorities for forty years. The North Korean government still viewed the United States as the enemy, and if they had known I had a relative living there, I would have been treated as a person of suspicious character and barred from attending university or living in Pyongyang. Apart from the charge of espionage, they could now also prove that I had falsified my family records to hide my sister’s existence.
I went back and forth in my mind. If I defected, my family would be in danger, as would the colleagues who had given me character references. Yet on the other hand, I knew that even if I went back to face punishment, they were already in danger anyway.
An added complication was the global political situation. Just then, in the last weeks of 1991, the Soviet Union was disintegrating, making North Korea’s position precarious. In Europe, the communist governments were falling one after another; in Romania, Kim Il-sung’s close friend, the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, had been shot. Meanwhile the formerly divided countries of Germany, Vietnam, and Yemen were now reunited, and it seemed likely that in North Korea too, Kim Il-sung’s regime would soon collapse, allowing the reunification of my country. South Korean agents counseled me that if I defected, I could wait in safety until that happened, and then return to my family.
I had twenty-four hours to make this excruciating decision. I thought of my wife in Pyongyang, of how she wept when I left for Russia and told me to come back safely.
My beloved wife. She and I had met in college and married in 1955, when Pyongyang was a city of rubble. She supported me when I was physically and mentally broken by the war. Together we had had two sons and two daughters. We had experienced loss as well: our youngest son, Hunchol, had died of brain cancer before graduating from college. But the other children had grown up healthy, and we had been a happy, contented family. Now we had five grandchildren.
When I traveled to Russia, my wife had written in my notebook in large letters: “Shoes, fabric and cotton to make quilts, reading glasses.” These items were hard to come by in North Korea, and she wanted to be sure I remembered to buy them in Russia. The reading glasses were for her, the shoes were for the grandchildren, and the fabric was to make a quilt for our youngest daughter. I had bought all the gifts as soon as I received my first paycheck in Russia.
What would happen now to my grandchildren? I remembered how, before my departure, they had laughed in anticipation as they traced around their feet on sheets of paper so that Grandpa could buy the right size...
I didn’t sleep that night. I kept seeing the faces of my family and my students. Finally I decided to go south.
The next day, instead of going to work, I went to a safe house prepared by South Korean intelligence – my life underground had begun. As soon as I disappeared, the Russian and the North Korean intelligence services began a frantic hunt for me, blockading all shipyards and airports.
The South Korean safe house was just next door to the North Korean embassy. Outside my hiding place, the streets were crawling with agents. But, as the saying goes, “It’s darkest under the lamp”: they never dreamed I was hiding under their noses. After six months, the North Koreans gave up the search, and the South Korean agents spread rumors that I had been disappeared by the Russian mafia.
The South Koreans gave me the passport of a Russian-Korean and disguised me to resemble his photograph. In June 1992, I was put on a plane to the west coast of Russia, then placed on a ship bound for South Korea. Before leaving the shipyard, Russian security agents searched the vessel for smuggled goods and stowaways. The boat’s owner told me to climb to the top of the funnel and hide in a narrow crawlspace, where I remained for five hours until the agents had left. When I came out, I was barely alive – my face was black with smoke and ash and covered with tears.
I was lying on my narrow bunk when I finally felt the ship begin to move. Now I knew I would never return home. My family’s faces came to me one after another and tormented me until I thought I’d lose my mind. Why had I chosen this way? Surely it would have been better to return and all go to prison camp together. My heart was full of agony.
After two days, the ship docked at Masan, South Korea.
When I disembarked in South Korea, intelligence agents met me, and as soon as we boarded the train for Seoul they began interrogating me.
“Why did you come here?”
Why did I come here? You called my sister all the way from America. You made it impossible for me to go back to Pyongyang. You told me that if I defected, my family would be safe.
“Did you commit a serious crime in North Korea? Was it because of money problems? Did you say something reactionary?”
I had a sense of foreboding, but did not worry greatly. Maybe, I thought, they hadn’t heard about the nature of my escape, and everything would be cleared up once I got to Seoul. But on arriving there, I was taken to a secret prison where the interrogation continued.
“You need to release your identity to the press. Who are these pupils of yours who guaranteed your character?”
I was dumbfounded. I had defected on the condition that my identity would be kept secret – it was the only thing I could do to limit the damage to those I left behind. And now, the minute I arrived in South Korea, they disregarded their promise. Every day they asked the same question over and over again:
“Why did you come?”
Now I had to ask myself this question. Why had I risked my life to come to Seoul? My time in Russia with my sister, her tears and prayers, were a distant memory.
I eventually answered: “Well, it seems now that I shouldn’t have come here. Your agents brought me here: if there’s anything you don’t know about me, I don’t know it either. As of now, I’m going on a hunger strike. I have nothing further to say to you or to hear from you. If I die here quietly, at least it won’t be too bad for my family and pupils.”
Once I had set my mind, I wasn’t even hungry when they brought my food. After a week, my mind grew hazy. It seemed better to die than to continue this craven existence. Finally, when I was close to death, the agents gave in. I broke my fast only after getting their firm promise not to leak my name to the press. This was two weeks after I had stopped eating.
I erased the fifty years I had lived in North Korea, and began a new existence with a new name. My old self died with my name and was buried forever in my memory, but nothing was easy about adapting to the new society. Every day I asked myself why I had come. I despaired of the new life I had chosen. What should I do in this bewildering country? More than anything, I was filled with resentment against the people who had gone through the trouble of getting my sister from America to get me here. I was disgusted with myself for putting myself in their hands. My regrets and bitterness kept me awake many nights.
Months passed. Then, one day, I heard that Kim Jong-il, my old student, had ordered all my family shot.
The news of their deaths ripped my heart. Their faces hung before my eyes: the wife who had shared my life, the sons and daughters we had raised, our daughter-in-law, our five sweet grandchildren...
I could not forgive myself for my part in their deaths. My hunger strike to hide my identity had all been wasted effort. I lost all desire for life. Many times I resolved to kill myself. Whenever I thought of Kim Jong-il, bitterness and rage surged through me. Hatred was all I had left.
For a long time I struggled to find my place in South Korea – I was constantly afraid for my safety, and unaccustomed to this new way of life with so many choices. Eventually, I found help from Kim Hyun-ja, a woman whom I had first met in Russia. We became better acquainted and in 1994 we married. In 2003 we moved to the United States.
Soon universities asked me to lecture on North Korea, and I began to put more and more effort into the work of reunification. Every morning, my wife and I read in the Bible and prayed together.
One day I prayed: “Lord God, Kim Jong-il has starved hundreds of thousands of my countrymen to death and made my homeland into a living hell. For his own power, he had my whole family shot, yet he lives on without shame. Let lightning strike him and bring him to judgment. I pray in the name of Jesus, Amen!”
My wife said, “I can’t say ‘Amen’ to that prayer. I believe God loves even Kim Jong-il.”
“You may believe as you wish. Isn’t God a God of justice? If so, should he not judge Kim Jong-il?”
“Yes, he is a God of justice, but he is also a God of love. You must forgive Kim Jong-il.” So on that day, we each said “Amen” to our own prayers. This disagreement between us lasted for an entire year.
The change came one day when we were reading the Book of Exodus together. I was struck by the words: “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Perhaps, I thought, God uses people like Pharaoh – people like Kim Jong-il – for his own purposes.
It was then that I knew I had to forgive him. It took a hard struggle to do so. But when I overcame and was able to forgive Kim Jong-il, a great peace came into my heart. After that, my wife and I could pray together again. Every day we prayed for him.
As a result, in 2007 I decided to write him a letter. Here it is in part:
Dear Chairman Kim,
It’s now twenty-eight years since I last spoke with you in Kim Il-sung Square. Since then, I have changed, you have changed, the world has changed.
After leaving Pyongyang, I lived ten years in Seoul, and now am living in the land of the “eternal foe,” America. I can’t cover all that happened in these years in a few words. I had a hard time getting started at first – the South Korean dialect was hard to understand and North Korean refugees aren’t treated very well. South Korean capitalism is tough to get used to. It was hard to find my place here, where everything depends on who you know and who you went to school with. When I was angry or frustrated, when I suddenly missed Pyongyang, I always thought of you. If you’d made North Korea into a place worth living in, I’d never have come here. But I didn’t want to be sent to one of your prison camps.
Many people here hate you. Watching them, I think of you as a shy boy with fluffy hair, all nervous and shaking in front of the examination table. When did you change so much?
All of North Korea is a prison camp, isn’t it? There’s no freedom there, only the freedom to trust and obey you and your father. In all North Korea there is only one person who was born free and enjoys the rights due to a human being – you.
I, who left North Korea, pray for you, who made it impossible for me to return to my family. I pray for you because I am your teacher who still remembers you stammering out your Russian test. I pray for North Korea to be opened. I pray that you will repent.
Chairman Kim, it was not easy for me to pray for you – how could it be? I lost my beloved family because of you. When I came to Seoul, I tried to hide my identity, but I heard that you tracked down my relatives and executed them as counterrevolutionaries. If you think you can stop people fleeing your country in this way, you are greatly mistaken.
Chairman Kim, when I would think of my family, I used to hate you so much it almost killed me. The wife who shared my whole life, the sons and daughters we raised together, our daughter-in-law, our beautiful grandchildren – I can’t forgive myself for the role I played in their deaths. I’ve thought of killing myself many times, and spent day after day longing to die.
But I don’t want to talk about my grievances against you. I am already more than seventy years old, and I feel my strength failing every day. Before I get too much older, I would like to meet you again. I don’t hate you anymore. Even though you killed my family, I have forgiven you.
I am alive, and I will give my remaining strength so that one day God’s gospel will be heard in the land where my family sweated, so that one day it will be a land of education that is the envy of the world, and a land of faith that is an example to the world.
While in Seoul, I lectured on the Korean War at the National Intelligence Institute to an audience of reserve officers, many of whom had fought in the war. I told how I had been badly wounded by shrapnel from a mortar round. A man in the audience raised his hand and asked,
“Do you remember when and where you were wounded?”
“Of course, how could I forget? The battle in the highlands at Yongan, North Hamgyong, in December 1950.”
“Ah . . . I’m very sorry. I was an officer in that battle, and I commanded the mortars.”
He bowed his head and apologized respectfully. Suddenly full of rage, I came down from the podium and grabbed him by the shoulders and yelled at him.
“You’re doing very well, aren’t you, after making me this way! Look at my head! Look at this wound – I lived for twenty-five years with shrapnel in my head. Do you have any idea how much it hurts all the time?”
The anger and sadness that I had pushed down for decades erupted. I kept shouting at him, out of my mind with anger.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He took off his belt and handed it to me. “I was given this belt in recognition of my service when I was discharged from the army. It may not comfort you, but since I cannot give you my heart, I give you my belt instead. Please, take it.”
He stood in front of me, his head bowed, pleading for my forgiveness. I took the belt in my hands and forgave him. I still have the belt, and whenever I wear it, I think of his warmth and humility.
I had another surprising experience, this time in America.
In summer 2001, I was sightseeing in Washington, DC, when we came to a tidy neighborhood of one-story houses. All the houses looked exactly the same, not like a regular neighborhood. “These houses were built by the government for widows of American soldiers killed in the Korean War,” my guide told me. “Shall we get out?” I followed him.
Many Americans died in the war. They weren’t used to the harsh climate. Many died from shells, froze to death in the cold, or starved when supply lines were broken.
After we’d walked a bit, we met an elderly woman sitting on a bench with a boy who looked to be her grandson. She asked me if I was Japanese. I told her I was Korean, and she seized my hand.
“You’re from the country where my husband is buried. They couldn’t find his body. I just got a letter from the government. But I know he is sleeping somewhere in Korea.”
As I watched her eyes fill with tears, I thought back to the winter of 1950 in North Hamgyong when our troops held the high ground in Eoryongchon under constant mortar fire. Every time a mortar landed, our men would fall dying. When the attack stopped, there were only three or four men left alive from our platoon of fifty. The enemy moved up toward our position, thinking that we were all dead. When they were only thirty or forty meters away, the sergeant shouted, “Prepare grenades. Arm. Throw!”
The grenades burst deafeningly and the enemy soldiers began to run. The sergeant and the others chased them, throwing more grenades. I couldn’t move. Right in front of me, an American soldier was rolling on the ground, his body blown in half. Blood was spurting everywhere.
“Grandmother, forgive me. I was a North Korean soldier. I threw grenades at your husband and many other Americans. Please forgive me.”
I bowed my head in front of her. But she wasn’t angry at me. She touched the old wounds in my head and arm. “How much did those hurt? You must have been hit by our guns too. I’m also sorry.”
She took my hand and prayed. As she prayed, my heart became quiet. I felt that the wounds in my soul from shooting at enemy soldiers, from being brought to the edge of death by their shells, were washed away by her prayer.
I felt God speaking to me through these two seemingly coincidental events. He wanted to change me, to take away memories stained with anger and despair, and to open a new world through forgiveness and reconciliation.
My former student Kim Jong-il died in 2011 – so far as I know, without having repented. Yet I still long for Korea’s reunification. It will happen only when we forgive one another and embrace one another in love.
We need the same love that God showed to me through the widow of an American soldier. It’s not just a matter of joining together two pieces of land that have been separated. We must respect and accept each other, like two rivers that flow into one another. Isn’t that the only true reunification? Isn’t that what God wants?
Translated from Korean by Sung Hoon Park and Raymond Mommsen.