A North Korean defector who managed to escape the oppressive regime spoke out this week about the nation’s persecution of Christian believers. Choi Kwanghyuk described his experience being arrested, tortured and sentenced to a labor camp as a result of his faith.

During his time living in North Hamgyong province, Choi started an underground church so he and fellow Christians could worship, the 55-year-old told Fox News Wednesday.

“There were about nine people,” Choi said. “I couldn’t do mission work because we had to keep it secret that we had a church. We couldn’t raise our voice during a service, we couldn’t sing out loud during a worship, that was hard. Also, we had to hide so that other people could not see us.”

North Korean authorities found out about Choi’s church in 2008. He was arrested and imprisoned by the state security department, where he was interrogated, he told Fox News.

“I was tortured there,” he said. “I kept denying it.”

Choi was set to be sent to a North Korean labor camp when he managed to escape to China and apply for asylum in the United States. The extent of the injuries he faced while being tortured for his Christianity means he is no longer able to work, he said.

“Every human must have the right to freedom,” Choi said. “There is no freedom in North Korea. By law, they have the freedom of religion and the freedom of the press, but the reality is very different. There is an enormous difference between my life in North Korea and my life in the U.S. The life in North Korea is hell. Life in America is heaven.” 

North Korea is officially an atheist state. Open Doors, a U.S. nonprofit, ranks the country number one on its world watch list for its persecution of Christians, giving it a score of 92 out of 100 for extreme persecution. It is not uncommon for Christians to be sent to brutal labor camps where untold numbers die each year from torture, beatings and starvation, the nonprofit reported. 

“Christians are forced to hide their faith completely from government authorities, neighbors and often, even their own spouses and children,” said Open Doors. “Due to ever-present surveillance, many pray with eyes open, and gathering for praise or fellowship is practically impossible. Worship of the ruling Kim family is mandated for all citizens and those who don’t comply are arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed.”