In cell number eight in a prison in Pyongyang, a few frozen and emaciated prisoners had to endure an additional torture—the pungent smell and wild screams of an untamed creature. This creature had not hesitated to murder her husband and cut him into pieces, leaving behind a young child who was taken away by the authorities. The person responsible for bringing this tortured soul into their cell was prisoner number 57—Ahn Ei Sook—she had requested that the “brute” be brought to her.
Once there, the prisoner unleashed her full power, pouring out all her anger on the one who had disturbed her isolation. For hours, Ahn fought (even physically) with the woman, trying to calm her down. The other prisoners watched on in fear and disgust. It wasn’t much easier for Ahn herself, but one thing kept her strong: she thought what Jesus would have done if He had been in her place.
On that gloomy day, kindness surpassed Ahn’s innate sensitivity and delicate physical constitution. When the one whom all the prisoners and staff feared as a dangerous beast finally fell asleep, Ahn performed an unimaginable gesture of tenderness. She took the feet of the dehumanised woman sleeping in front of her, encrusted with hardened excrement, placing them against her chest to warm them.
Ahn extended her help to her new cellmate in this manner for three consecutive days, during which the exhausted and completely debilitated woman slept without interruption. When she woke up, instead of gratitude or words of praise, Ahn received curses and further attempts of physical aggression. However, Ahn remained undeterred, continuing to feed and warm her without expecting anything in return. Slowly, the criminal began to reveal what no-one else had the courage to listen to. On the day of her execution, the woman, resigned and with a peaceful countenance, uttered a sincere and warm “thank you” to Ahn.
When living means dying
This incident is just one among many stories that bear witness to the sacrificial spirit, extreme courage and unconditional love that Ahn displayed in her journey. Fragile and sensitive, Ahn had a strict, yet wise upbringing provided by her mother. She learned to turn weakness into strength, which aided her in circumstances she couldn’t have imagined back in her days in the classroom of the Christian school where she taught music.
The story that turned Ahn into a model of Christian resistance against oppression began in the 1930s when, compelled by the Japanese authorities, she refused to worship Amaterasu, the sun goddess, on Mount Namsan. As a result of this act of disobedience, she was forced to hide in Shin Ei Joo, a Korean village near the border with Manchuria.
Here, encouraged by her mother, she trained herself physically, mentally and spiritually for a harsh life, knowing that prison would eventually cross her path. The gruelling lessons through which Ahn taught herself to endure extreme hunger, cold and illness were accompanied by the constant practice of gratitude and prayer.
During this brief period of freedom, she memorised thousands of Bible verses and Christian hymns. Additionally, the visits from hidden believers in the mountains proved to be valuable lessons for a future filled with obstacles and pitfalls.
“What was life? It could be beautiful if it were righteous, whether it was long or short; but it was the same as that of an animal if it was lived against God’s law. While young and pretty and fresh and bold, I would give my life to God honourably and without reservation. I would keep the truth to the end. I would die telling others of the love of our blessed Lord.”1 These were the thoughts that troubled Ahn when she began to seriously consider the prospect of going to Japan to advocate for the rights of Christians in the face of authorities.
Convinced that God had chosen her to join the ranks of martyrs prepared to die for freedom, the young woman set off for Japan alongside another fervent missionary, Elder Park. Without any compromise, Elder Park, who had been her spiritual mentor for a while, taught her through his words, actions and unwavering faith that it wasn’t enough for Ahn to merely want to live for Christ. Rather, she had to constantly think of herself as someone who had already died for Christ.
Drawing on her Japanese education received at an early age, Ahn became the voice through which Elder Park addressed the Japanese authorities. They appealed via a story found in the biblical book of Daniel, wherein three Jewish friends stood up to the Babylonian king, declaring that “we will not serve your gods” (for the full story, see Daniel 3).
Because they formally demanded that the authorities abandon Shintoism in favour of Christianity as a state religion and immediately cease the oppression of Christians, the two were arrested in March 1939, with Ahn being sent back to Korea and imprisoned. Outraged by the inhumane and abusive behaviour of the guards, she lodged an official complaint with the authorities, detailing the physical and moral torment endured by the prisoners. Her courageous gesture did not go unnoticed: the brutal guards were replaced and the treatment of prisoners underwent a nationwide policy change.
Back to Pyongang
Transferred to the prison in Pyongyang in September 1940, Ahn experienced hell on earth. Beyond the episode with the deranged inmate on the brink of madness, Ahn seized every opportunity to be of assistance to those around her. When Pastor Power Chae was ruthlessly beaten by the guards, despite her own frail physical condition, Ahn pleaded with them to punish her instead. Her habit of donating her food and tirelessly caring for all those in physical or moral suffering remained unwavering until the end of her detention.
During the trial, Ahn boldly declared before the court that Japan would pay for its excesses and arrogance. Determined and resolute, this seemingly physically feeble woman pushed herself beyond all limits in her struggle against the violence of the guards, hunger, filth and cold.
After her encounter with Elder Park, Ahn stopped waiting for miracles through which God would fulfil the work prepared for her. “To live for Christ means to die for Christ” became her motto until her last days.
Relief at last
A notable aspect of her autobiography is that the author does not beautify the moments when she felt on the verge of breaking down. When a law requiring worship at Shinto shrines became mandatory in all institutions under Japanese authority, Ahn believed that, due to her visibly deteriorating physical state, she would not withstand the pressure.
God did not perform a miracle regarding her physical condition, but He worked in other ways. Due to an American attack (as by this point, WWII had reached the shores of Korea and Japan), the governor cancelled all plans for the eighth day of the month designated for altar worship. Once again, Ahn passed the test of faith, much like her favourite biblical hero, Daniel. Her modesty, ability to lucidly recognise her own weaknesses and avoidance of any plan that seemed unwise according to the Bible helped her survive.
On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers. The 13 Christians who remained alive in Pyongyang at the end of the war were liberated but the tragic history of Korea thwarted their temporary joy. North Korea, falling under Soviet influence, separated from South Korea at the 38th parallel. The Russians sowed terror in their sphere of influence, primarily through physical violence and sexual abuse targeted at women and subsequently, Ahn was abducted. However, she managed to escape and joined a group of Christians who risked their lives to cross into South Korea.
Later, she was warmly received to the United States. Alongside her husband, Pastor Kim Dong Myung, she established a church in Los Angeles and established a Christian foundation. Taking on the name Esther Ahn Kim, she seized her freedom to passionately advocate for the same principles she had upheld under torture, even in the darkness of the prison cells.
Ahn desired to rather die for Jesus than to give in. Nevertheless, she cherished the life God had given her. Ahn passed away peacefully, surrounded by love at the age of 90. She forever remains an example of a Christian who knows when to speak out fearlessly against abuse of power, when to lend a hand to a helpless neighbour and when to joyfully express gratitude. Active, cheerful and generous until the end, Ahn serves as an inspiration for us to lead our lives in a manner that allows us to say, like her, “I have finally discovered the true purpose of my existence.”2
Beatrice Lăpădat originally wrote this article for ST Network and it has been republished with permission.
1. Esther Ahn Kim, If I Perish, Moody Publishers, 1977.
2. Ibid, p. 80.