Hea Woo is in her mid-seventies and stands at a tiny 150cm tall. Despite her age and stature, she has the energy of a child and the bravery of a warrior. Born in North Korea, Hea Woo has escaped her country twice, experienced deep grief, survived prison and a concentration camp, and travelled the world to share about God’s faithfulness. This is her story.
The life-changing message
Born in a Soviet-controlled village in Korea in the 1940s, Hea Woo’s childhood years saw her live through the Korean War – a war that took her father’s life.
As an adult, Hea Woo’s life was plagued with more grief and suffering than a person should endure. During the famine of the 1990s, Hea Woo’s daughter died from starvation. On her deathbed, Hea Woo’s daughter urged her parents to flee North Korea. Hea Woo’s husband followed his daughter’s advice and fled to China. In China he met Jesus before he was betrayed by a fellow church member and sent back to North Korea. In prison, Hea Woo’s husband remained faithful to Jesus, despite the torture he faced. It was this torture that led to his death.
“Just before he passed away, my children visited him in prison,” says Hea Woo.
“They met him in a room with a table. Guards were watching them. He was able to grab my son’s hand under the table and write a message. I read it when my son and daughter came home.”
That message was simple yet life-changing: ‘Believe Jesus’.
All Hea Woo knew of Christianity was the propaganda she had grown up listening to – Christianity was a false religion and Christians were enemies of the state. Yet Hea Woo’s heart told her the government couldn’t be trusted and she was determined to find out the truth of who Jesus was, a truth her husband had died for.
The start of the hand-written Bible
In the late 1990s, Hea Woo managed to escape her country and was given a Bible from the local Christians in China. When she became a Christian, she had a deep yearning to know God intimately and she began writing out the Bible, starting with Matthew, to learn it better.
“I finished the New Testament in April 2000,” Hea Woo says.
“I made sure to fill every white spot on the page and not waste any space to write. When the notebook was full, I used the little money I got from my allowance to buy some fresh paper. This ‘Bible’ was my most treasured possession.”
As she continued to study her Bible, Hea Woo longed to join other believers in worship at the large church near her safe house. But it was too risky. If she was recognised as being from North Korea, she could be captured.
One night as she was lying on her straw mattress on the floor in the dark, she saw a square of light on the ceiling and the number 495. Searching for some meaning, Hea Woo switched on the light and grabbed her Korean hymnal book. In verse three of hymn 495, she read: “What does it matter where on earth I dwell? Wherever Jesus is, heaven is there.”
“Now I realised what God was telling me; I didn’t have to worship Christ in a specific building,” Hea Woo says.
“I could worship Him anywhere.”
Back to North Korea
This message was one that Hea Woo would need to be reminded of again and again. Soon after she saw the number on her ceiling, the address of her safe house was leaked, and she was arrested and sent back to North Korea.
“All in all, I stayed in 10 prisons,” says Hea Woo.
“I nearly died, but God saved me. Then I was sentenced to five years hard labour in a re-education camp.”
Hea Woo was forced to work 12 hours a day, surviving on just three cups of rotten corn each day. The guards were cruel, the labour work was hard, and death seemed to trail every prisoner.
“When people died, their corpses were burned and the ashes that came out of the chimneys landed on the buildings, on the trees and on the ground,” remembers Hea Woo.
“Every day in the camp, I had to march to the fields for agricultural work. Every day I walked over the ashes, and I always thought, ‘one day, the other prisoners will walk over me’.”
Every day, Hea Woo would wake before the morning alarm to spend time reciting Psalm 23.
“The Psalm taught me that Jesus is my Shepherd,” she says.
“Always. Despite the circumstances, despite the terrible place and pain I was in, Jesus was my Shepherd. One day, He would lead me to green pastures. One day, I would sit at His table while my enemies watched. Now, He was leading me through a valley of death. It didn’t matter if I survived or not. God was with me. One day, I’d be free. Whether through release or through death.”
A ministry in prison
God had a plan for Hea Woo – a plan for her to live. During her time in prison, she courageously witnessed about Jesus to other prisoners.
“I said, ‘Lord, I want to live! They will kill me if the prisoners report me!’,” she says.
“The Lord replied that He would pinpoint the person who was ready to receive the gospel. She would not betray me. Then I asked God what I should tell the fellow inmate. He said, ‘Acts 16:28-31’. This is where Paul tells the Philippian jailer, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household’. I did say this to the women God directed me to and all six came to faith.”
This was the start of a secret church in the middle of the prison camp. The six women and Hea Woo gathered for worship in the only place where guards never entered – the toilet block.
The second escape
Three years after entering the re-education camp, Hea Woo was released for good behaviour. She was still being monitored, she couldn’t worship Jesus freely, and she couldn’t share the gospel with anyone without putting her life in grave danger. She prayed that God would lead her out of her slavery in her country.
Hea Woo’s son had arrived in South Korea and sent money to pay a broker and border guard to help her escape. After arriving at the border river, Hea Woo had a new hurdle to face. To get to the Chinese side, she had to cross a river. The water was deep, and the current was strong. But so was her faith that the Lord would protect her.
As she entered the river singing a song about God’s blessing, Hea Woo became completely submerged in the cold, dark water. She closed her eyes and prayed, and when she opened them again, she was standing in knee-deep water close to the Chinese side. Hea Woo had no idea how she made it there, except for God.
Exhausted from her journey so far, Hea Woo then encountered another hurdle. A two-metre electrified fence stood between her and freedom from North Korea. Discouraged, Hea Woo was ready to give up.
“I told the Lord I was grateful He had brought me this far and that I was ready to die here,” she says.
“There was no way I was going back to prison. I closed my eyes and bumped my head into the wired fence. Nothing happened.
“There was no electric current in the fence … I crawled through it. I had made it safely to China. God performed the same miracle as He had done for the Israelites. He had opened my own Sea of Reeds.”
Hea Woo then travelled by bus to the Myanmar border, then made it to Thailand by boat, where she asked for asylum. Then she flew to South Korea – her promised land – where for the first time in her life, she could worship God in freedom.
A precious gift to testify of God’s faithfulness
Hea Woo only had a few possessions when she arrived in South Korea, including her notebooks with the handwritten Bible verses that she had collected from a church elder in China on her journey to freedom.
Her hand-written Bible includes the whole New Testament and part of the Old Testament.
“I can leave these papers to my children, but it’s more important that the people who support Open Doors – the same people who prayed for me when I was in prison – can see this Bible,” says Hea Woo.
“After I was arrested, I wasn’t sure I would ever see my Bible again. Then, God healed me from malnutrition and sickness in prison, He helped me survive three years in a labour camp and performed miracle after miracle to lead me back to the Bible I copied. He deserves all the glory. Whenever someone sees the pages I’ve written, he or she should give thanks to God for His faithfulness and pray that He will set the North Korean people free.”