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From Darkness to Living Color: How One Couple Escaped North Korea and Found the Light of the Gospel

by | Jul. 09, 2019

Makes You Think

Jiyeon Maeng stood in front of a bustling North Korean farmer’s market wearing a gray sweater and glasses—exactly what she had been told to wear by a complete stranger over the phone days earlier. The voice on the phone said that if she followed his instructions, he would help her reunite with her husband, whom she had last seen eight months before.

She waited an hour in the appointed spot, but no one came. Still, Jiyeon knew she couldn’t go home. “I couldn’t leave there, because if I didn’t meet him that day, that meant that I would be cut off from my husband forever,” she recalls. “That was the only chance for me.” She continued to wait. Thirteen minutes later, a man walked past, whispering two words directly to her, “Follow me.” 

Life in North Korea

The story of Jiyeon Maeng and her husband, Doohyun Kim, feels like a movie script, and as they tell it, you can almost visualize the whole thing in your mind. It is a love story full of adventure and sacrifice, and it is all true. But there is one aspect of their story that is difficult to imagine: that a country like the North Korea the couple describes actually exists today.

They recall being taught that their native North Korea was the greatest country in the world, and yet people lay dead on the streets from starvation. They witnessed their first public executions in their early teenage years—executions for things like stealing corn. Witnessing these executions was not optional; schools and every public company were closed, and the people were required to attend.

“The government wanted to [instill the] fear that if you don’t follow the government, you might be killed, so you should watch. They don’t care about ages,” Doohyun says. “I will never forget the first I witnessed.”

Without the internet or the ability to talk on the phone to people outside of North Korea, citizens had no idea what life was like in other parts of the world. In her book Nothing to Envy, author Barbara Demick writes of this North Korean upbringing:

North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory daycare centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out  anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

“Our lives were like robots,” Doohyun says. “We were brainwashed. . . . We sincerely believed in [the government’s] teachings.” It was only through watching a South Korean drama on television in their high school years—a show that the government eventually executed many for watching—that Jiyeon and Doohyun began to wonder if they had been misled. Seeds of doubt were planted that would later alter the lives of Jiyeon and Doohyun as they searched for peace.

The Daughter of a Tomato and Son of a Grape

As one of the only remaining totalitarian societies in the world, North Korea uses a social classification system called Songbun to divide its citizens into three classes based on how supportive a person is of the Kim regime, with the most supportive citizens receiving the greatest amount of opportunities and resources. The classes are characterized by three different fruits: “Tomatoes” are those who are, both inside and out, loyal to the socialist regime; “apples” are those who appear loyal to the country’s dictators but may (according to the government) need “ideological improvement”; and “grapes” are those who are on the fringe or not loyal to the Kim regime.

In this system, Jiyeon’s family was very loyal to the Kim regime (tomatoes), while Doohyun’s father was considered to be an enemy to the government (grape), making the two an unlikely pair. However, Doohyun and Jiyeon’s work supervisors, who were good friends, felt the two would make a great match. Jiyeon’s boss arranged to send her on a business trip to Doohyun’s hometown for the two to meet. They were anxious to see each other, but as Jiyeon was en route, a robber attacked her, slashing her face with a razor blade and leaving a scar that is still visible today. Though Jiyeon survived the attack, when she arrived in Doohyun’s hometown she had bandages all over her face, and, feeling a sense of worthlessness and despair, she didn’t want to be seen.

“I felt really sorry [for her],” Doohyun recalls. “I could not say anything. What could I say to her? I could not say, ‘It will be okay.’”

So instead of speaking, Doohyun went to work convincing Jiyeon to let him help her. She needed to be taken to the hospital each of the 20 days that she was in Doohyun’s hometown, and, despite her initial refusal, she eventually agreed to allow him to take her to her appointments. During the 20 days that Doohyun drove her, the two hardly spoke. Still, when Jiyeon later returned to her home seven hours away, Doohyun found himself missing her. Soon, the two began speaking over the phone, and one year later, he visited her home and requested permission to marry her. Her parents refused, saying the two were not a match, but after four years of the couple communicating over the phone, Jiyeon’s parents relented on one condition: He had to move to their town. He agreed, and the two were married shortly thereafter.

A Need to Escape

The couple enjoyed married life, but when they were still newlyweds, Doohyun’s world was shaken after his father was imprisoned and ultimately killed. This life-shattering event caused him—for the first time in his life—to seriously consider how he might escape the awful fate his father had met. He knew he had to attempt to escape North Korea for his own sanity and safety. That is when he formed a plan.

In 2009, he told his wife he was leaving on a business trip for 15 days. When Doohyun didn’t return home on schedule, Jiyeon’s first thought was that he had been killed. When he had been gone for a month, however, a distinct memory returned to Jiyeon’s mind. As he departed for his business trip at the train station, Doohyun made a comment to his wife that seemed more significant in retrospect, “We don’t have to stay here. What if there was a better place for us? We could go and live there.” At the time, she thought he was speaking of another city in North Korea, but when she remembered these words after his disappearance, they carried a different meaning. Had her husband escaped the country?

Doohyun’s trip never included business. With the help of a broker, after a three-month journey that went through China, Laos, and Thailand, he had made it to South Korea. Once in South Korea, he was watched for months by the government to ensure that he was not an enemy. During this time, Doohyun often couldn’t sleep as he thought of his wife still in North Korea. He became sick with a high fever and cried all day. He felt there was nothing he could do.

“Suddenly, one word appeared in my mind, and that was ‘God,’” he says. This was surprising, considering that no religion is allowed in North Korea. In fact, the couple recalls being so convinced that Kim Il-sung was God that they were surprised when he passed away. Doohyun’s only experience with Christianity in his homeland had been in 2005, when he watched as his Christian neighbors were dragged from their homes and arrested. As they were being taken away, destined for execution, Doohyun remembers they sang and yelled, “We will not die! We are living forever!” and “Eternal life!” He later learned that these neighbors believed in a God in the sky and had been worshipping Him together each Sunday in a basement.

“I couldn’t understand it. Why were they so stupid?” Doohyun remembers thinking, unable to understand why these people would guarantee their deaths with their shouts of conviction. “But right now, I’m thinking of them, and I’m so surprised by their faith. Their faith was stronger than anyone. They knew very well, ‘We will die.’” Doohyun recognizes now that these Christians also knew this life wasn’t the end.

It was this Christian God that Doohyun felt prompted to pray to as he lay sick in South Korea. “I had no idea how to pray. No one taught me how to pray or who is God, but [I said], ‘If there is a God in the sky, please help me. I don’t want to die right now. If I die now, my family, especially my wife, [will not] know where I am or whether I am alive or dead.’ I prayed with all of my strength, praying and praying,” he recalls.

Doohyun was taken to the hospital, where it took a month for his body to recover. After he had regained his health and once the South Korean government was no longer monitoring him, Doohyun felt prompted to learn more about God. After investigating a few different religions, he ultimately became good friends with the local Catholic church’s priest and soon became an active member of that Catholic congregation—something that would completely baffle his wife months later.

Risks for Reunion

Jiyeon cried every day for the more than eight months Doohyun was missing until one day she received a phone call. She didn’t recognize the voice on the other end, but when he asked, “Is this Jiyeon?” she replied, “Yes.” He simply said he would call her again and then hung up. Intuitively, Jiyeon knew this man was connected to her husband, which meant that Doohyun must still be alive and outside North Korea. Soon after, she received another call from the same man. “If you want to see your husband again, you must do exactly as I say,” the voice told Jiyeon.

Following the instructions of a stranger was dangerous, but for Jiyeon, “the hope of meeting my husband again was greater than any fear and any pain,” she says.

That hope brought her to the farmer’s market, where she was unknowingly watched for more than an hour by the man who had called her—a broker who had to make sure Jiyeon could be trusted before he continued helping her. In North Korea, a broker is paid to help someone escape to the border.

When the broker was sure it was safe and that Jiyeon was alone, he approached her and whispered, “Follow me.” She followed him on foot for an hour before the man turned around and gave her a piece of paper and a cell phone.

“That is your husband’s number, and your husband is in South Korea,” Jiyeon recalls being told. That night, Jiyeon hiked six hours to a spot where she could get a Chinese phone signal that would allow her to call outside North Korea. There, at the top of a mountain, she heard Doohyun’s voice for the first time in more than eight months. He asked if she wanted to come to him and explained that he was working to pay the broker for aiding her escape. Jiyeon knew she could likely lose her life by trying to be reunited with Doohyun, but that was a risk she was willing to take if it meant being reunited with her husband.

Before hanging up, Doohyun made one seemingly odd request.

“Please pray to God,” he begged his wife. “Please pray to Him to ask Him to bring you safely to me. If you do, He will hear your prayers.”

Jiyeon was confused. She didn’t know what prayer was or who God was. She questioned her husband’s statement and worried that this newfound belief in a higher power had changed him. “Please, please trust me,” Doohyun begged his wife. “Don’t ask too much. Just trust me and follow me. God lives in the sky, and He knows you very well.”

The God in the Sky

Jiyeon’s first prayer was simple, but Doohyun gave the glory to God for helping her arrive safely in South Korea. Jiyeon was less convinced. After safely escaping North Korea in 2011 after a two-month journey that included crossing over the frozen Yalu River and climbing over a barbed wire fence to rejoin her husband, she had little interest in religion. Doohyun began making deals with his wife to get her to attend church with him. He would promise to clean their whole house or buy her a great dinner if she agreed to come to church. While she often agreed to these negotiations, once at church she would usually drift into a deep sleep, one time even falling off the pew.

“It was the perfect place to sleep,” Jiyeon says with a laugh, while Doohyun adds, “It was really embarrassing.”

But Jiyeon’s disinterest changed one day when she invited the Latter-day Saint missionaries in after they offered to teach her English. During the last 30 minutes of their lesson, the missionaries talked about eternal life and eternal families. It was a message that resonated with Jiyeon because she longed to see her family again even though she knew they would likely never leave North Korea.

“Their teaching was very powerful for me because even though we are living in the same world, the same generation, I could not see my parents and my siblings and my friends. But my greatest hope was to see my family [again],” Jiyeon says. “I might not be able to see them in this life, so that is a very sad situation for me. That is the worst part of my life, but they [the missionaries] taught me of eternal life and eternal families, and that gave me hope. I can be with them, even in the next life.”

But when Doohyun found sister missionaries with his wife when he returned from work, he asked that they not teach about their church in his home. The Catholic priest was his good friend, and he felt a need for their family to remain committed to attending that church only. Jiyeon wanted to believe the missionaries’ message of eternal families, however, and she frequently asked them questions about the next life when they came to teach her English.

“I wanted to believe them,” she recalls. But she also didn’t want to hurt her husband, so she stopped visiting with the missionaries. However, one day she felt a strong desire to visit the missionaries’ church just once. Her husband agreed to let her go, but after attending once, she wanted to go every Sunday. She told her husband she wanted him to see the church, even if only briefly. She took a big risk and made a deal of her own with Doohyun.

“If you think this church is not true, I will quit this church,” she told him. “I knew he would feel a good feeling, a good spirit in our church, because I did.” Jiyeon promised her husband that if he didn’t like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she would attend Catholic Mass with him from that day forward. He agreed to her terms.

The contrast between the two churches was stark. More than 200 people attended the ornate Catholic church in their area each Sunday, but the modest Latter-day Saint congregation included only 50 to 60 people. Still, upon stepping one foot inside the little Latter-day Saint chapel, Doohyun recalls being overcome by “a really strong feeling.” He says he saw the word “God” above each person’s head. Everyone appeared to be full of light, and he felt a spirit—one he recognized as the same spirit he had felt when he was sick, the spirit that led him to offer his first prayer.

“This church is alive with the Spirit of God,” Doohyun remembers feeling in that moment.

Becoming Latter-day Saints

After deciding to join the Church, Doohyun worked to overcome a strong love for alcohol, something he “drank like water,” as did many people in North Korea. But he found that “if someone really wants to follow God, He helps them.” With the help of the Lord, Doohyun was able to overcome his drinking habit, which he had previously tried to do twice without any success.

Jiyeon was baptized on July 6, 2014, and her husband was baptized nearly six months later, on December 25. The couple wholeheartedly embraced their newfound religion.

“I thought we were so happy before we were baptized,” Jiyeon says. “After I got baptized, the quality of happiness was different than before. I had never experienced that happiness before.”

Today, the active Latter-day Saint couple are two of the approximate 220 North Korean refugees who have been legally admitted into the United States on non-immigrant visas since the North Korean Human Rights Act was passed by Congress in 2004. Jiyeon and Doohyun moved to Provo, Utah, in 2015, where they were sealed in the Provo Utah Temple before becoming the parents of a beautiful baby boy. They are currently studying at Utah Valley University and are a light to those around them, according to Nate Sargent—a close friend and returned missionary who served in South Korea and was recently called as a mission president in that country.

“The vision they see through their eyes—there is so much color and drama in the beautiful parts of the Church [for them], because you go from nothing to . . . living color. They went from a dark place to experiencing the light of Christ very quickly,” Sargent says.

Jiyeon and Doohyun agree. Going from having no freedom or concept of religion to becoming active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States has caused them to view the world differently and to want to share their knowledge with others.

Jiyeon says, “Even the smallest things—the flowers, friends, nice words from others—everything makes me to believe in God.”

Photos by Jed Wells. Jiyeon Maeng's face was not photographed as a safety precaution. 
Jiyeon and Doohyun are currently working on a book that will be published in the near future. 
Morgan jones 08512

Morgan Jones

Morgan Jones comes to LDS Living after writing for the Deseret News since 2014. She published more than 480 stories and served as Senior Web Producer prior to her departure from Deseret News. Jones is a passionate storyteller and loves having the opportunity to share stories that deserve to be told. She is the host of the All In podcast. 

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