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Suh
Photo by Sophia Lee for WORLD
Suh

Beating the system

North Korea | For the first North Korean to receive asylum in the United States under a 2004 human-rights law, a life of freedom comes through danger and cost, attended by miracles

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

LOS ANGELES—Suh first heard the word God in Korean—ha-na-nim—from his 70-year-old grandmother when he was about 12. It was a word seldom uttered in North Korea, where media portrays American missionaries as evil white devils and Bible possession is punishable by death.

“Is that somebody’s name?” Suh asked. “No,” his grandmother said. “It’s a term for an invisible being who watches over us. But He exists. So just believe in Him.” That was all she could—or would—say about God, leaving the young schoolboy puzzled but otherwise not too concerned. Now 46, Suh recalls that strange conversation as his earliest introduction to God.

Wiry, auburn-skinned, and slight in the way that’s characteristic of most North Koreans, Suh in 2006 was the first North Korean granted asylum under the North Korean Human Rights Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2004. Only about 130 North Koreans have been successfully resettled in the United States under the law since then—an indication of how difficult it is to escape and start over in a new land.

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Now a trusted deacon at a church for North Korean refugees in Los Angeles, Suh has his own experience with God to share—but it’s not easy to get him to talk.

That’s understandable for someone who underwent the hardships he suffered or the privileges he shared as a captain in North Korea’s military. Remnants of that life remain visible on his body. An accidental detonation left his lips puffed and swollen, his chin splotched with shiny, vein-shaped skin that looks smooth yet leathery. Suh’s fingers are flayed and deformed, arched painfully, and mottled with rough-edged fingernails sprouting like weeds among thorns. 

Suh inked a fading tattoo on his arm with a needle and thread when he was a young soldier: a four-letter allegiance to protect his country, and the date of his promotion. He doesn’t want to show the tattoo or disclose his full name in fear that retribution will strike extended family members back home. Instead, he offers his new name: Abraham. And everyone in his church calls him “Deacon Suh,” a title to which he still responds with a start. 

When Suh speaks, he angles his body to the right, his neck twisting slightly so that he rarely makes eye contact. He distrusts journalists: One hid a camera in a bag and filmed him through a hole punched in the fabric. The whole world already knows the atrocities in North Korea, Suh says, so what’s more to talk about? But Suh warms up as he starts talking with me in Korean about how he became a Christian—and he voluntarily extends the conversation to an hour and a half. 

Suh escaped from North Korea by leaving behind his wife and crossing the Tumen River to China with his year-old son. But life in China was hard. Able to speak only a few words of Chinese, he constantly feared discovery by Chinese officials, who routinely repatriate North Korean refugees. A Korean church in one of northern China’s rural villages sheltered him, but Suh found the church members annoying. They kept visiting him, grabbing his hand to pray, and weeping for his salvation: “My heart was shut to them.”

Indebted to the church members for protecting him, Suh allowed them to drag him to worship, but he felt “trapped in a lecture room. The only thing I could think about during service was how to leave a second earlier.” Indoctrinated into faith in evolution, he thought ludicrous the idea that God formed man out of clay and breathed life into him. Unless he could see and experience this God personally, Suh refused to believe.

The church deacons were relentless. They stuck into his hand a thick Korean Bible and urged him to read it. It collected dust on his desk, until one night when Suh had trouble falling asleep. He lay in bed, opened the Bible, and read. It took an hour to read one page, because Suh couldn’t understand the vocabulary: Woman’s descendant? Man of God? He gave up and went to sleep.

That night he dreamed. In his dream, Suh and his friends in North Korea were debating the impossibility of God’s existence. All of a sudden, a speckle of light twinkled in the distance. It kept expanding until Suh had to shield his eyes from the brightness. Through his blurred vision, he saw a figure of a man with golden hair who gazed down at him. Suh spoke first: “Who are you?” The figure replied, “I’m the Jesus whom you have so stubbornly denied. Quit being so stubborn, and just follow Me.” 

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