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.