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

A North Korean Orphan Spreads Her Wings

Sung Me (center) working on crafts at our annual retreat for North Korean orphans.

Sung Me (center) working on crafts at our annual retreat for North Korean orphans.

Change takes time. It hardly happens over night. This is especially true for North Korean orphans and refugees who have often been through so much before we meet them. It is the most rewarding thing for us to watch it happen over the course of years. That is exactly what took place last year for “Sung Me.”

Sung Me is a North Korean orphan whose North Korean mother was sold to her Chinese father in China’s expansive sex trade. Her mother left her and was captured by several Chinese men, locked up, abused, and murdered. She came into the care of her aunt who neglected her.

We brought Sung Me into our Orphan Care network in 2011. She was 12 and did well under the care of a pastor and his wife. She received the love, nurture and healing she needed in this home.

In 2012, we held a sex-ed class in this home. We realized that the Chinese educational system does not provide this and parents don’t usually educate children about sex. Since she and most of the other housemates were in their teens, we thought this was an appropriate subject.

During this time Sung Me kept her head down and didn’t say anything. After the seminar we pulled her aside and asked if anything was wrong. She told us that she was sexually abused while she was living with her aunt. We prayed with her and continued to encourage her to deal with her emotions surrounding this event.

Sung Me received the love she needed in this home but last year, we realized she needed something more: direction. This is why we moved her to an orphanage in a different city this fall to help her gain skills that will help her be self-sufficient. She currently attends a school where she is learning to become a kindergarten teacher.

Sung Me has been thriving in her new environment. She is in her first year at her vocational school that is designed to train Kindergarten teachers. She was recently selected by her school to read the announcements over the PA system. She has also been elected to her student council. She is a leader in her new home as well and has caught the attention of the head of the orphanage.

This is exactly what we work so hard to do, to watch the people in our network thrive. This year we have seen a lot of that. From Sung Me to Susanna, who was cured of glaucoma, which caused blindness, we have seen some amazing turns in people’s lives.