Throughout Cheol Hwan Kang’s adolescence and late teen years, his future looked grim.
Kang’s father, chairman of the Korean-Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Osaka in the 1960s, made negative comments about the North Korean political regime. For those comments, Kang, along with his parents, his younger sister and some other relatives, were sent to Yodok, a North Korean political prison camp.
Kang was just 10 years old when he was imprisoned with his family.
“The teenage years are a golden age,” Kang said. “It’s a formative time for one’s emotions and thoughts. But I was stripped of the opportunity to be a kid.”
He did, however, get his first glimpse of true Christianity in the camp—perhaps some observations that would sow seeds in his heart for many years later, when he would eventually decide to follow Christ.
The guards at the prison camp brainwashed prisoners into thinking Christianity was about colonization and Western imperialism. “They made me feel antagonistic toward Christians,” Kang said.
He recalled a woman with two children who were also held at Yodok prison camp. Many Yodok inmates relied on taking other prisoners’ food in order to survive. But this woman was different; Kang observed as she consistently tried to share her limited food with fellow prisoners.
“Even the inmates thought she was eccentric,” Kang recalled. “She prayed aloud every night in her vault. The prison guards gave her an ultimatum: stop praying or they would send her to the maximum-security facility, and she and her family would spend the rest of their lives there. She continued to pray, and the guards followed through on their threat. I never knew what happened to her.”
Kang and his family were released in 1987, when he was 20. He defected from North Korea to China. On his way to China, on a boat crossing the Yalu River, he encountered a man wearing a shiny cross around his neck. The man told him, “This is the symbol of life. It will save you.” So Kang bought the necklace from him. He still had not experienced the salvation that only Christ can bring, but this was another seed planted in his heart during his harrowing journey.
“But I knew if there was a God, He helped me through the danger,” Kang said. “I wondered if He had a plan for my life.”
After several months in China, Kang fled to South Korea with the help of some Chinese-Koreans, who smuggled him on a cargo ship. Not only was it the journey of a lifetime, it was another move that led him closer to his decision to follow Jesus Christ.
He met some Christian missionaries in China, where he explicitly heard the Gospel for the first time. Even though he didn’t yet have a personal relationship with Jesus, he felt drawn to regularly attend their church—a church that faithfully and consistently taught the Scriptures.
In 2005, a series of events led Kang to be the first North Korean defector to meet with President George W. Bush.
“I realized that after God’s unbelievable providence brought me to the White House that He is at work on behalf of the North Korean people—and on my behalf,” he said.
Finally, after seeing and hearing the Gospel from so many faithful believers throughout his life, Kang knew he could no longer keep God at arm’s length. He commited his life to Jesus Christ.
And now, Kang is at work on behalf of his native people. He founded the North Korean Strategy Center, an organization that smuggles audio Bibles across the Chinese border.
“I will do my best to fight for the people under this evil regime,” Kang said. “I want more North Koreans to be exposed to the Gospel, so they can be saved as God saved me. I will continue this work until my people can be liberated.”