Let’s Not Forget the People

There is a flurry of news coming out of the Korean peninsula these days: Nuclear tests, missile launches, political jockeying and yes, even volleyball. It’s enough to make our heads spin.

But all the news can distract us from the lives that have been lost and the potential lives that can be lost. It can distract us from the suffering of the North Korean people. Sure, weapons are important but they’re important because they can take human lives.

For 14 years we have been working to improve a handful of these lives. We have felt the tears of these people on our shoulders. We have held the hands of children who have been left behind as their mothers are held captive in North Korean prison camps.

Kyung Tae’s mother was in our network but was arrested and sent back to North Korea in 2009. There were years and years of darkness for this boy. He didn’t smile and said very little for the ensuing three years after his mother’s arrest.

But in recent years he has been changing and light is returning to his life. He still misses his mother but he is now moving toward adulthood. Recently, he was selected for a work-study program at his school. He is studying to become a mechanical engineer. A company paid to have him work at a factory in South China. When he returned home to his father, Kyung Tae proudly handed him about $100. His father broke down in tears. Kyung Tae is turning 18 this year. We are still waiting for his mother to be released from prison.

We will continue pray for the politics and the men at the top who are in control. But we also pray for the muffled groans of the people.

As we read the news and wonder what will happen next, let us remember those who will be affected most by the decisions of the powerful and pray for a brighter future for all.

Reason for Hope

The refugee woman in this story is praying during an early morning church service.

The refugee woman in this story is praying during an early morning church service.

As the political conditions in and around the Korean peninsula continue to escalate, we still hold on to hope. We do not trust in politicians or armies. We trust in the ironclad determination of the North Korean people and the God more and more of them are turning to daily.

If you've been following along with us as we post the latest about North Korean refugees, you might have been dismayed. Yes, North Korea continues to wield its influence in the world through essentially pitting the two largest world powers against one another. And yes, the most powerful agent of change, reunification, does not seem likely as interest wanes in South Korea. But as stacked as the deck is against the North Korean people and North Korean refugees in hiding, it's not all doom and gloom.

Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University, reported last year that North Korea's prison camp population is in sharp decline. Refugees report that the tactic of punishing a refugee's whole family for a single person's crime is no longer enforced. He sites the number of North Koreans in prison camps at around 80,000 to 120,000, down from around 200,000 just a few years ago.

Famine seems unlikely despite the North's claims as such. North Korean farmers are being given an unprecedented amount of freedom and these changes seem to be paying off. China has also said they would supply food aid to North Korea, should the worst occur.

But what makes us at Crossing Borders the most optimistic has nothing to do with policy decisions, it has more to do with spirit and strength.

One North Korean refugee who we helped early on, told us a story about his life and times in North Korean prison camps. He described the cramped cells he had to sleep in where people were packed in so tight that no one could move. They slept without mats or blankets on concrete floors and their bodies would develop sores every night from being in the same position for hours.

This young man said that during these times, he laughed harder than he had in his whole life. The people he shared these cells with became his best friends and that there is a certain fondness he still holds for his time in what is known as the worst system of political prison camps in the world.

We make sure that, along with helping the people in our network, we try to play games with them and have fun. One very popular game we like to play is called “This is Fun.” It’s basically a staring contest where a group of people sit in a circle and try to make others laugh while not cracking a smile themselves. If you smile, you're out.

A couple years ago, we were playing “This is Fun” with some of our refugees and orphans. One of our US staff members and a master at this game was left with one other refugee woman in the circle. This woman endured the famine, was sold, was placed in hard labor in North Korea’s prison camps, and was raising a daughter under China’s brutal zero tolerance policy for North Korean refugees. She is a strong woman.

During this game, her eyes became cold and she would not crack. The other staff members who witnessed this said that the look in her eyes terrified them. The game ended in a draw and everyone who witnessed this was left mildly disturbed at how strong-willed this woman was.

But this strong, seemingly-callous exterior is symbolic of the millions of North Koreans and North Korean refugees who have survived the worst of conditions. These people may seem cold and hardened on the outside but this is because of their impervious will to survive. It comes from a heart that would not allow the worst of all evils to bring them to dismay. It comes from people who could laugh at the most desperate of circumstances and come out without going insane.

This is what gives us the most hope. It’s not for a better political future. It is for these people who have endured famine and death. It is for those who have seen the very worst of humanity: lying, cheating, stealing, and even cannibalism. And yet many North Korean refugees have found a way to protect themselves and their dignity.

No matter what these people have endured and will face in the future, no matter how long they will have to witness such horror, they will not be broken. In this, we see the grace of God.

The faith that is at the core of what we do inspires and motivates us to make our operations the best they can be. It drives us to help more people. A people certainly worth helping.

This blog post was originally published in July, 2015.

What Comes Next?

Meet Chun Jin. His mother was a North Korean refugee who was sold to his father.

He is 17-years-old and is inching ever closer to adulthood. He is a child who is the closest in our network to starting his career. It is Crossing Borders’ goal to prepare him and all the children in our network for adulthood.

In 2014, 75 percent of our children had a plan for their future. Today, that percentage is at 92. We hope to make it 100 percent.

When Crossing Borders started, Chun Jin was just three-years-old. There is a whole generation of children who were born in the wake of the Great North Korean famine. As refugees rushed out of North Korea, they were sold to Chinese men who were in need of wives.

Most of the children in our network were born between 1998 and 2005. The UN estimates that there are 20,000 to 30,000 of these children. Chun Jin was born in 1999.

Chun Jin is in our orphanage and has access to a number of good vocational programs. The woman who oversees his orphanage employs a military-style training for the children in her home. Each morning the kids wake up and do an hour of exercise outside, have breakfast, wash and get ready for school. Their time after school is also regimented. She hopes to instill a self-discipline in these children that will last them a lifetime.

Chun Jin expressed to us last year that he would like to become a hair stylist. We put him in a program that will get him ready for this job and for eight hours or more per day, he is snipping, brushing, cleaning and blow drying his way to complete his training.

He will be finished this year. And if everything works out, he will be our first child to come off our aid to start a career.

It has taken us 14 years, an immense amount of resources and focused effort to get to this point. We hope this is the start of something great in his life and in the lives of many North Korean orphans like him.

To contribute to the training of our orphans and receive regular updates on their progress, sign up below.

THE Orphan Growth FUND