CHAINED to other prisoners, Timothy Cho's legs shook as the detention centre guards interrogated the inmate next to him: "Did you, or did you not go to church?"
He confessed he had – and the guards set about savagely beating him in front of the other terrified captives.
"The police took off his handcuffs," Timothy says. "Then, with the handcuffs, they beat his head and it was just smashing him and the blood was streaming down."
Timothy would soon face horrific torture too – to this day, his back still bears the scars of where he was beaten with metal pipes and wooden stakes while also being kept seriously sleep deprived.
Broken and starved, he was even made to live in a tiny cell with dozens of other inmates – a scene of unimaginable horror.
"In my tiny room I can remember we had over 50 people," Timothy tells Sun Online. "We had to lean on each other’s backs or arms.
"There was someone who I discovered dead in the morning – the man who was just sitting behind me."
"He probably died from torture, and also he had a high temperature in the night which I felt."
Guards dragged the dead man out of the cell in the morning in a way which Timothy thought was worse than how they'd treat a dead animal.
The worst place on the planet to have faith
This is the horrific reality for Christians living in North Korea, where the only gods people are permitted to worship are the nations brutal rulers: Kim Jong-un and his family.
For nearly two decades, the totalitarian state has been named the worst place on the planet to be a Christian by Open Doors, a charity which tracks persecution of the faith around the world.
You only stay alive by catching and eating rats
The organisation estimates there are around 300,000 Christians living in constant fear in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), just over one per cent of the country's 25.7million population.
Of those 300,000, Open Doors believes 50,000-70,000 are imprisoned in the country's hellish labour camps, where inmates are treated worse than animals and worked to death.
In the camps, they face a dire fate.
"You only stay alive by catching and eating rats," says Dr Boyd-Macmillan, head of strategy and research for Open Doors International.
"Christians are singled out to get the worst jobs, the most dangerous ones.
"You might be pouring molten steel without proper equipment."
Like so many other North Koreans, Timothy converted to Christianity after being helped by missionaries during an escape attempt over the border into China.
Over 1,000 people flee the repressive regime most years for all sorts of reasons, including those seeking religious freedom.
Just coming into contact with Christianity was enough for Timothy to suffer weeks of gruelling torture when he was captured, repatriated, and thrown in a detention centre – where he came to see brutal Christian persecution first-hand.
“I thought I was going to die in that prison,” Timothy says.
With North Korea plunged into chaos by the pandemic and typhoons, Timothy is now speaking out about his experience of overcoming the most extreme system of persecution.
Left homeless aged eight
His struggle for survival began in the 1990s during the Great Famine, where food shortages caused by flooding and political factors decimated the country.
It's not clear how many died from starvation in what is now referred to as the Arduous March, but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions.
Timothy’s parents fled the country and like so many other children whose parents either starved or went abroad in search of food, he was left destitute and homeless.
He was eight years old.
"I was a homeless boy," Timothy says, explaining it may have been too dangerous for his parents to take him too. "I lived with a few friends – we used to live outside and sleep together, seeking food every day.
"A few of them died on the street. I don’t know if some of them have still survived."
His situation was made even worse by the fact that he was considered part of a "hostile class" of people because his parents had defected.
He eventually found shelter with his grandmother, who'd made a small farm for herself like many other North Koreans when they realised they couldn't rely on the regime for food.
But with his hostile status, Timothy saw there was no future for him in North Korea.
“I was depressed when I realised I belonged to a hostile class and marginalised group, and I had no hope," Timothy says.
"So I decided to leave the country at that point. I was just turning 17.”
One day, without telling his grandmother he was leaving, he made the dangerous crossing into China.
'I thought he was going to kill me'
In China, however, all North Korean defectors are in grave danger – if found by the police, they're arrested and deported back.
There, defectors face the horrific prospect of being sent to the country's lethal labour camps.
Which is why Timothy had to hide while in China.
“The first place I was given shelter was a missionary’s house. It was a secret place," he says.
But he was terrified of the cross the missionary wore around his neck, and Timothy was suspicious of his friendly demeanour.
"I felt his smile was a kind of fake and he was going to kill me that night," he says.
That's because, since school, Timothy was taught by the North Korean regime to believe Christians were vampire-like creatures who kidnapped children to eat their organs and drink their blood.
He was also instructed that missionaries who came to the DPRK did so to rape women, and he'd read a horrific story in a textbook about a Christian tying a child to a tree and pouring acid on his head.
"This is an American religion," Timothy explains.
As the US is considered one of the most hated enemies of North Korea, the regime sees Christian missionaries as spreading unwanted Western ideology.
But Timothy didn't see through the propaganda in China – and thought the missionary's cross necklace was cursed.
"Even if you touched it, your hand would turn rotten straight away," Timothy believed.
"That was my image of Christianity and missionary guys.”
He fled the missionary's house that night – but couldn't stay in China for long and, during an attempt to get over the border into Mongolia, he was shot at by Chinese soldiers and arrested.
History of Christianity in North Korea
Christianity hasn’t always been persecuted in the region.
While there was some persecution of Catholics in 19th century Korea, systematic intolerance and violence didn't begin until the division of Korea into North and South in 1945.
Pyongyang was once even referred to as the Jerusalem of the East because it was such a significant place for Christians living in Asia.
But that changed with the establishment of the communist regime in North Korea, even though founder Kim Il-Sung had himself attended a school run by Christian missionaries where he'd played the organ.
Christianity became associated with Americans and most Christians fled to South Korea to escape persecution.
Although a permitted church does exist in the country, the Korean Christian Federation, it's been criticised as merely a tool the regime uses to restrict religious activity.
Those who practice Christianity independently in the DPRK today are forced to gather and worship in secret or face surveillance, arrest and imprisonment.
Torture and terror
As soon as Timothy arrived at the detention centre back in North Korea, he knew he was in terrible danger.
And not just because he was a captured defector – but also because of who'd helped him.
"They were coming to ask us if anyone had been to church or prayer houses, or met with foreign missionaries, or had ever prayed,” Timothy says.
"These were their first questions. It was so strange to me."
It was during this questioning that Timothy witnessed a fellow prisoner suffer a savage beating for admitting going to a church.
Although he denied having any contact with missionaries, his interrogators subjected Timothy to horrific beatings and torture of his own to find out information about his time in China.
Desperate for freedom
After weeks of torture, he was briefly allowed out of the detention centre to recuperate.
His captors believed there was more to his story than what he'd divulged – but he wouldn't last much longer in the detention centre, and if he died then they'd never find out the information they wanted.
During his three days’ leave from the detention centre, he found a broker and fled to China again.
He was traumatised by the experience of being shot at when he'd last tried to get into Mongolia and was determined to get to a safe country by a different route – which was arguably even more dangerous.
Along with eight other North Korean defectors he met, Timothy decided he would try and enter the Shanghai American School where they would plead for help.
“If you were sent back to North Korea after being arrested entering an American school, there’s no tolerance at all," Timothy says.
"They could even do a public execution too."
The group entered the Shanghai American School in September 2004 hoping to be granted asylum, presenting a note to staff identifying themselves as North Korean defectors who needed help.
But with no special diplomatic immunity or ties to the US, the school was forced to hand the defectors over kicking and screaming to Chinese authorities.
Incredibly, the Chinese government decided not to send Timothy and the other defectors back to North Korea.
"This was the first ever case, and perhaps the last, where the Chinese authorities decided to deport North Korean escapees to the Philippines,” Timothy says.
"I don’t know how to express it. But I felt like the prison gate was falling down in front of my eyes.
"As I arrived in South Korea, it was a kind of a liberation and freedom.”
In South Korea, Timothy reconnected with his father and was finally able to explore his burgeoning Christian faith.
In 2008, he was given the opportunity to come to the UK – he now lives in Manchester working with Open Doors.
He says he fears for the Christians still living in North Korea, including those who convert after coming into contact with missionaries in China and then fearlessly choose to go back into the DPRK to spread the faith.
“The Kim family have the role of God in North Korea,” Timothy says.
“That’s why North Korean severely rejects every single Bible that comes into North Korea – because it carries the hope and the future and it carries influence, and people realise what is wrong with our society.”
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