An 81-year-old missionary who rescued hundreds of North Koreans and told them the Good News of Christ retired this year – and wishes he was healthy enough to go back.
“I want to help them more,” Pastor John Yoon told KNKX during a retirement ceremony at New Vision Church in Lynnwood, Wash.
Yoon was born in the area that is now North Korea and was 12 when the Korean War broke out in the 1950s. He fled to the south but got separated from his parents and never saw them again.
His life was forever changed one night after the war when he visited a prayer house to see if God was real, KNKX reported.
“As I was praying one night, from heaven this big fire fell upon my back,” Yoon said. “The spirit of fire was upon me, it was burning me. At that moment I really knew that God was alive.”
Yoon became a missionary, serving first in Russia and China before hearing about the needs in North Korean, where Christianity is illegal. He returned to the region and organized an underground railroad. The goal was to ferry North Korean defectors to places deep into China, and then to Thailand or Mongolia, where they’d be safe. Such an action was dangerous for him – he could be jailed – and for the defectors, who could be executed.
Once, he was nearly arrested and had to flee to the United States, where he changed his name and passport before returning to the North Korean-Chinese border. Another time – in 2005 – he was caught and spent 15 months in a Chinese jail. American officials helped free him, and he returned to the U.S., where he now lives.
During his several decades along the border, he helped save at least 300 North Korean defectors from a brutal regime. Among those was an 11-year-old young girl named Grace Jo, who was captured, along with her family, when they tried to escape.
“After I was sent back to North Korea, I went to prison first, then I was sent back to an orphanage shelter,” Grace Jo said. “I saw many children struggling, starving, got beaten by the older kids. All those injured kids were hiding in the corner and covered with blankets. And when I saw that I felt so sad. How can this country be my country?”
Yoon, who had been trying to help the family, bribed North Korean officials to release them. He paid $10,000.
Grace Jo, now an adult, attended Yoon’s retirement celebration.
“I think God’s miracle happened there,” Grace Jo told KNKX. “We were able to cross the river again.”
His daughter, Grace Yi, said Yoon would return to the region if he could.
“He’s physically unable to go on,” Yi said. “He is very heartbroken that he could only have saved 300, but there are so many more left in North Korea who need help.”
North Korea ranks as the worst country for Christian persecution on the annual Open Doors World Watch List. The organization estimates that many of the country’s own citizens — including around 50,000 believers — are being held in detention centers, prisons, or political camps.