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Raising her head

Amazing grace in the terrifying journey of Soon Ok Lee

Raising her head

(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

A seminary student once told me that he hadn't slept well for the last three nights, and that by the third night of praying for sleep his faith was shaken. I do not fault him for this; I am just as weak.

Then there is Soon Ok Lee. North Korea has been in the news recently (see p. 72) for its nuclear testing. Lee's memoir Eyes of the Tailless Animals chronicles six years in a North Korean labor camp, from 1986 to 1992. It is written simply, and with the unadorned purpose of bearing witness. Lee's burden, on every page, is the pleading eyes of 140 inmates in the front row who on the day of her public release dared to break the prison policy forbidding Christians from raising their heads. (Their peculiar punishment is to never be allowed to look up to heaven.) "Whenever I got tired, I remembered their eyes and kept writing."

Soon Ok Lee herself was not yet a Christian during her stay in the Khechen resocialization center. She was born in 1947 into a life of relative privilege in Chungjin, North Korea. Her grandfather had served in Manchuria and her father fought for Korea's independence from Japanese occupation. There was one god, and it was Kim Il Sung. Lee's faith in him died hard, even after she lost her faith in the Public Security Bureau, where she had worked.

Oddly enough, a fashion quirk of the dictator's son, Kim Jong Il, began Mrs. Lee's demise. A casual jacket he favored on official occasions had sparked a popular style among party officers. As the fabric was not available in North Korea, Mrs. Lee's job was to travel to China to purchase the material, but she turned down the PSB chief who asked her for two jackets rather than his allotted one.

Mrs. Lee was about to learn in her descent into hell that Communism is a house divided: She was one of many sacrificial lambs by which PSB leaders hide their systemic indiscretions from the Noh-dong Party. She was arrested on two phony counts: violating the commercial policies of the party and taking bribes.

In prison Lee was greeted with the words, "You are not a human being anymore." She became number 832, one of the "tailless animals." Here she met an increasing number of women sentenced as "superstition believers." "Once a month, the believers were placed in the yard in front of all the prisoners and asked to deny their belief . . . they were given the most difficult work"-the rubber factory, the mines, the human waste detail.

During the monsoon season of 1991, the prisoners were not able to open the door to the deep feces tank. One woman climbed up to open it, slipped and fell. The guard said to let her die. Four ignored the command and jumped in to save her. "Human manure is so poisonous that exposure to it will kill in a short time. No one ever tried to take the bodies out. Later I learned that the four who had jumped in to save Ok Dan were also Christians."

Soon Ok was reunited with her son Dong Chel, who in the meantime had been forced out of engineering school. While repairing electrical wiring in the countryside, he had met university students working on farms during summer break who kept secretly passing three papers to each other, with strange writing that someone said contained "truth that would set you free."

Mother and son escaped to China across the frozen Tumen River, with the help of a few well-placed birds, and people of faith, making their way to South Korea in December of 1995. An inspector debriefing them pulled out a thick black book and gave it to them. Reading it later, Soon Ok came to Exodus 14 and recognized the three pages the student farmhands had passed around.

The inspector also started singing "Amazing Grace," and Soon Ok was surprised to realize she knew the words. "Then I began to remember things from when I was very young. My mother and her friends would close the front door and do embroidery together and sing from time to time. Sometimes her friends would stay all night and sing about going to heaven. . . . I also recalled how my mother would lull me to sleep. She would carry me on her back and pat me while she sang . . . 'Amazing Grace.'"

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