In 2000, I was dispatched to a forest field in Russia where I defected. While wandering around with nowhere to go, I met God and eventually found refuge in the United States. I, Andrew Jo was allegedly the 100th North Korean refugee who entered the United States. It is hard to describe the difficulties we faced during the “March of Tribulation” that swept North Korea in the 90s. However, lives of North Korean laborers in the Russian forest fields were just as miserable as the life in North Korea.
We barely received $100 a month, and not all of even this went directly into our pocket, for loyalty funds, healthcare fees, and insurance fees had to be paid from this meager wage. In order to save up as much as possible, I ate and spent sparingly, even quitting smoking and drinking. North Korea had not developed any system for North Korean laborers at the Russian forestry fields to send their money. At the end of my first year, I asked my colleague, who was going back to North Korea for some time off, to deliver $150 I had saved up to my family in North Korea.
Accidents were frequent in the snowfields of Siberia, where even the most basic worker protection facilities were lacking. I saw a worker suffer a severe concussion from being hit by a falling branch. I also saw someone’s corpse lying trapped deep in the snow. Seeing these tragedies, I thought to myself in fear, “I too shall die homeless without having earned any money.”
Even though such accidents abounded, the North Korean government did not have any measures to respond to these incidents and provided no compensation, not even a token message of saying, “sorry.” After a year of working, disillusioned by such an inhumane and powerless regime, my colleagues and I ended up escaping from the forestry field.
After escaping, we started our runaway lives in the foreign and cold Khabarovsk. In 2002, following Kim Jong-Il’s order to arrest any North Korean laborers that defected from their working grounds, North Korean public security agents were living in the Khabarovsk area. Also, whenever Russian police saw an Asian person, they stopped and verified his or her ID. I had to hide from the Russian police, and I was forced into investigations multiple times, making it difficult for me to live there. I started to blame myself. I was cursing my own life, and I lamented the miserable reality of people who had to suffer because they were born in the wrong country.
Even in such dangerous situations, I had to keep looking for work while hiding and dodging the eyes of the police. Also, I had to avoid even other North Koreans. Many of my colleagues who had escaped from the forest fields like me were caught by the police and forcibly sent back to North Korea. I started looking for a shelter that I could entrust my life with. Then, a Korean-Chinese friend introduced me to a small Korean Church.
I met a Korean missionary for the first time who was operating a small church that did not even have a cross or a sign. This was October in 2001. My faith started from there. In fact, going to church for me meant risking my life. One day, the pastor suggested that I attend a service. To the members of the church, he introduced me as a Korean-Chinese. At my first service, I saw the members of the church worship, filled with joy. The worship songs that the congregation sang and the sermon by the pastor were rather pleasant.
The wife of the pastor gave me an old Bible as a present. I read the entire Bible as I worked at the church, and each night, I fell asleep after talking with the pastor about the stories from the Bible, about North and South Korea, and also about our childhood memories. Matthew Chapter 7, verses 1-5, struck me the most. After reading, “Do not judge lest you are judged,” I realized that the North Korean party’s policy of mutual “judgment” was wrong. I really hated the criticisms we had to direct at each other during “Party Life Reviews” and “Ideological Struggle Conferences.” Naturally, each meeting, I used to be criticized as a party member who lacks the spirit of the party.
I wanted to stay behind at church to pray and continue my spiritual life, which the pastor permitted. With a grateful and joyful heart, I cleaned the church, fixed the interior, and undertook many other tasks. Full of energy, I also attended Wednesday evening services and Friday night prayer meetings. I just loved the services and the praise songs as well as the Bible teachings. The pastor and his wife told me about Biblical figures, God, Jesus, and other stories about the Bible. I had to experience and know this living God because I wanted to verify if the Bible—God’s Word—was really a poison that paralyzes one’s mental state and revolutionary mind as the propaganda in North Korean claimed.
In general, North Koreans of my own generation know churches as places that look after the poor and feed them. What the Holy Spirit revealed to me eventually was that the Bible—that is, God’s Word—is not a poison as the North Korean propaganda claims, but a source of inspiration for a healthy mind and life and a guide that gives hope to the hopeless. (Continued in the next edition)
By Andrew Jo
Entered the U.S. in 2010
Resident of Georgia