US & World

Once barred from practicing religion, North Koreans find faith and family in LA church

North Korea refugee May Joo survived a harrowing journey before arriving in Los Angeles where she met Sarah Cho and her father at a ministry that serves North Koreans.
North Korea refugee May Joo survived a harrowing journey before arriving in Los Angeles where she met Sarah Cho and her father at a ministry that serves North Koreans.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC

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May Joo walked alone into Sunday service in a rented classroom in Los Angeles' Koreatown, her pale, petite frame slipping into a desk chair in a middle row.

She clapped and swayed to bouncy worship songs, and she also prayed — heartsick and hopeful — for the two children she left behind on a perilous journey from North Korea to refugee camp to the United States.

Growing up in a Communist North Korea, Joo said she never could have guessed she would end up here in a church or find spiritual balm in Christianity. The ruling Kim family prohibits religious freedom while promoting a cult of personality that demands complete loyalty from North Koreans.

"I didn't know who God was," Joo, 39, said in Korean. "I was taught that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un were gods. They were the sun of the universe."

But here she is with a ministry created specifically for North Korean immigrants. The Giving Church is small, correlating to the size of the North Korean community in Los Angeles, estimated to be in the hundreds at most by Joo and advocates. Fewer than half of the 20 people attending the Giving Church service are North Koreans, and people cycle in and out each month. Yet within the community, the ministry has become well-know as a place where North Koreans, who've often arrived alone and under traumatic circumstances, can come for a sense of family and comfort as they navigate a new country that can feel isolating and frightening.

May Joo, far left, sings along in Korean to worship hymns at a Los Angeles ministry for North Koreans.
May Joo, far left, sings along in Korean to worship hymns at a Los Angeles ministry for North Koreans.
Josie Huang/KPCC

Sarah Cho's family started the ministry a decade ago after they immigrated from South Korea. She said the goal was to create a place where North Koreans felt accepted and safe — a difficult feat given their past lives under a dictatorship — and to offer an alternative to the large Korean-American churches that populate Los Angeles.

Many North Korean defectors come via South Korea, and are traveling on South Korean passports — why it's hard to pin down how many North Koreans there are. But in South Korea and the United States, North Koreans can face stereotyping, she said, as being "less educated, less civilized, less of everything." But her family believes that "even though we are divided into North and South Korea, they are brothers and sisters," Cho said. "We are Koreans."

Sammy Hyun, a North Korean refugee who's become a naturalized U.S. citizen, was in charge of video projection during the church service, while his wife tended to their two young sons in the back of the classroom. The sushi chef turned to the North Korean ministry after other Korean churches in Los Angeles left him feeling cold. 

North Korea refugee Sammy Hyun plays with his son after a church service in Los Angeles, Calif. on Sunday February 4, 2018.
North Korea refugee Sammy Hyun plays with his son after a church service in Los Angeles, Calif. on Sunday February 4, 2018.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC

"There's this Korean word jeong — it's like this love you want to feel from people — but in Los Angeles, I was not able to feel a lot of community support. So I wanted to go somewhere they serve North Koreans, to receive jeong," said Hyun, 41.  

Hyun said his late mother was caught practicing Christianity in China and repatriated to North Korea. There, he said, she was thrown into jail for her beliefs and beaten, and later died from a brain injury she suffered during her captivity. He said he didn't become a Christian himself until he arrived in the United States several years ago, having made it to a refugee camp in China before traveling to Idaho, his first American stop.

"It was Thanksgiving Day when everything came together and I thought about my mom's prayers for me and how she died because of believing in God," Hyun said. 

May Joo, center, shares a beef, rice and kimchi lunch after the church service with fellow members.
May Joo, center, shares a beef, rice and kimchi lunch after the church service with fellow members.
Josie Huang/KPCC

While it's hard to imagine today, North Korea had a small but thriving Christian community at the turn of the 20th century, said Kyung Moon Hwang, a professor of history at the University of Southern California. Missionaries called the capital Pyongyang the "Jerusalem of the East." Hwang said this was in part because Pyongyang, then the second-largest city in Korea, was more receptive to new ideas like Christianity because people there had been discriminated against by the ruling elites headquartered in Seoul.

"There was a looser atmosphere in terms of social conventions," Hwang said. "It was less bound by Confucian tenets and norms."

But after World War II and the division of Korea, Kim Il Sung became the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. Christians were forced to go underground or risk imprisonment in labor camps or worse. The Kim regime saw Christianity, imported from the West and embraced by a growing number of South Koreans, as a threat, said Sung-Deuk Oak, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Korean Christianity.

"New liberal thought connected to America or South Korea — that's not good for dictators or authoritarian government," Oak said.

In this image made from video, pedestrians walk beneath portraits of Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
In this image made from video, pedestrians walk beneath portraits of Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
AP

Living in North Korea, Joo thought Christianity as something for zealots. But she said without her Christian faith, she would not have been able to get through the major personal loss that set her off on her dangerous journey to the U.S. in the first place.

When her son was a baby, Joo said a kitchen fire burned the right side of his body, including part of his scalp, arm and foot. As the skin started to heal, it began to tighten and restrict his movement.

Doctors told Joo her son needed surgery but she didn't have enough money. She hired a broker to take her to China to find more lucrative work at a restaurant. She was already estranged from her husband. She blamed him for the loss of their first child, who died while playing by train tracks.

She left her injured son with her parents and set off for the border. She said the broker instead sold her into marriage with a Chinese villager, a common fate for North Korean women trafficked across the border.

"I didn’t know I was sold but then I found out the Chinese man bought me for 20,000 yuan," Joo said, about $3,000 in today's dollars.

A few years later, Joo would have a daughter with this man. With the arrival of the baby, Joo’s status in the family plummeted. Her in-laws saw the child as theirs and she said they only let her alone with the baby for breastfeeding.  

"Now when I think back, there was no human right in that situation. I couldn't ask for help because I didn't have documents," Joo said.

Vowing to see her daughter again, Joo used a broker to follow an escape route to a refugee camp in Thailand. It was there, she said, she joined a Christian prayer group as a way to break the monotony of waiting for word of when she was headed to the U.S. She said she wanted to see if God really existed, so she tried fasting. When she passed out, she was taken to the infirmary, where she was diagnosed with gastric cancer.

"If I hadn’t fasted, I could have died in waiting. After this incident, my faith in God became solid," Joo said.  

A Colorado refugee agency sponsored Joo's move to the U.S. in 2012, and she soon found her way to Los Angeles. Through another North Korean, she learned about the ministry and met Cho, who helped her get treatment for her cancer.

North Korea refugee May Joo, right, and American advocate Sarah Cho stop for a picture after a church service in Los Angeles, California, on Sunday Feb. 4, 2018.
North Korea refugee May Joo, right, and American advocate Sarah Cho stop for a picture after a church service in Los Angeles, California, on Sunday Feb. 4, 2018.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC

Cho is now attending law school, inspired by her work with the North Koreans. This spring, she plans to travel with Joo to China to fight for custody of her daughter, who is now 8.

"For me, I’m really shouting out in the dark, just thinking that God is going to open the door," Cho said.

Joo has less hope she’ll find the son she left in North Korea. She said she tried going back for him once, two years into her stay in China, before she had her daughter.

"When I went back to North Korea, I was caught at the border, put in jail. They confiscated all my money," Joo said.

She had saved about 7,000 yuan for her son’s surgeries. After she was released a month later, she heard her son’s father had started a new family and taken their son with him. She said there was nothing left for her in North Korea and she returned to China.

"As a mother, I couldn’t even get him proper treatment," Joo said. "Every day I live with the guilt that I've failed him deeply."

Joo heard years later that her son had left home and was missing. She’s contacted an orphanage for North Korean children asking for a boy bearing scars like her son’s. He would be 14 now. But she's received no news. So she said she prays, and she waits, with her church family in Los Angeles.  

Josie Huang covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.