North Korea’s End Game

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Peace talks that once appeared so promising between North Korea and the US seem to have stagnated while China’s President Xi Jinping is making history with a visit to North Korea in June 2019, reinserting China into the conversation. As waves of political discontent grow between the two countries, the path to peace seems all the more unclear.

To understand where US-North Korea peace talks are going, one must understand the motivations of the parties involved. Both countries, ultimately, want peace. But both parties also want to minimize the cost of peace. And the price tag for peace is very different for the US and North Korea.

The main concern of the US is its influence. The US Navy has bases in Japan and South Korea as well strategic locations throughout the Indian Ocean. American forces have been present in East Asia since World War II. Almost 78 years have been dedicated to maintaining the US military in East Asia - this includes its influence throughout and following the Cold War. Because the US maintains extensive peacekeeping forces half a world away, the US has a voice on the other side of the globe. The US also currently conducts a considerable amount of trade with China, South Korea and Japan, as well as many countries in South and Central Asia. If war were to break out in East Asia and a world power like China were to be involved, the US’s influence would be disrupted.

North Korea is in a different position altogether in its peace talks with the US. Although North Korea wants peace in East Asia, the regime knows its survival is entirely dependent on the regime holding onto power. With the UN Commission of Inquiry looming over their heads for human rights violations and abuses, the North Korean leadership knows that the only way to avoid international criminal courts for crimes against humanity is by maintaining absolute power in North Korea. This is ultimately what motivates the country’s seemingly erratic behavior, calculated displays of military force and weapon tests.

This motivation drives the North Korean dictatorship as it comes to the negotiating table with US officials. While North Korean leaders want peace and prosperity for their people, they certainly will not give their own power or lives in the process.

The fear that North Korean leaders have is understandable. Consider a scenario where North Korea becomes more like China. While prosperity in North Korea may skyrocket with trade and increased international influence, its citizens would be exposed to Western-style consumerism and some freedom to access outside information. This is a dangerous scenario for North Korea’s leadership. An influx of the very same foriegn investors and ideas that bring it more wealth and influence may spark realization, discontent, and violent upheaval.

In March 2018, North Korean officials drew a fascinating connection between themselves and the former leaders of Libya. It has been a source of contention between North Korea and the US after witnessing the events of Arab Spring. Muammar Gaddafi succumbed to international pressure in the years directly following 9/11 and gave up his nuclear program. This sparked a short-term peace for the country. But a little less than a decade later, US allegiance quickly shifted to the anti-Gaddafi contingency in the country. Gaddafi and his cadre died violent deaths at the hands of their own citizens.

The fear of losing their power and ultimately their lives is precisely why the country is so hesitant to give up its nuclear arsenal. This is all the more tragic for the North Korean people who are currently facing one of the worst food shortages in decades.

No one can predict what will happen between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. But understanding why these negotiations are so important for the parties involved will help us better pray for peace. We hope everyone will be praying with us.

The Violence and Flight of North Korean Women

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In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) released a summary of accusations against the North Korean government for its ongoing and wide-ranging crimes against humanity. In this 400-page document, the UNHCR compiled a list of policies established within the North Korean government that allowed and enforced abuses leveled against its people. The detailed report is disturbing, revealing a glimpse into North Korea’s cold indifference and willingness to allow extreme suffering to human life.

North Korea is a seemingly dystopian world made real. It is a place filled with violence against those who cannot defend themselves.

North Korean women live in a patriarchal society. This is due to lingering influences of Confucian values that are an essential part of East Asian history. North Korea’s lack of enforcement of human rights and abusive system of law has twisted gender inequality into a violent and sadistic part of many women’s lives.

“Sexual violence in North Korea is an open, unaddressed, and widely tolerated secret,” remarks Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Following 54 interviews conducted with North Korean refugees who escaped from the state after Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, Human Rights Watch released an 86-page report on sexual violence against women in North Korea. In it, they detailed the brutal abuses endured by North Korean women in public, in their homes and in imprisonment. Quoting the 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry, the report states that “domestic violence is rife within DPRK society... violence against women is not limited to the home, and that it is common to see women being beaten and sexually assaulted in public.”

It is currently estimated that approximately 200,000 North Korean refugees may live in hiding in China. Over 70 percent of them are women. In Crossing Borders’ analysis of over a thousand refugees who have passed through our network, it is not difficult to believe that over 80 percent of these women have been trafficked. Some of those who are in Crossing Borders’ care have been sold multiple times after their escape from North Korea.

It is not entirely clear why such a large percentage of the North Korean refugee population is composed of women. Hypotheses vary many of them not exclusive of one another but North Koreans’ ongoing vulnerability in China is all the more abusive and impactful for women. According to a report on North Korean human trafficking published by Korea Future Initiative, the demand for North Korean women and the network for trafficking them is still expanding rapidly in China.

Studies reveal that North Koreans are not only be sold into forced marriages, but in to sex slavery - including prostitution and cybersex trafficking. According to the author of the report, Yoon Hee-Soon, “Historically, forced marriage was the most common form of sex trafficking... But after speaking with victims still in China and particularly with our rescue teams, we soon realized broker-led sales of North Koreans to brothels had overtaken sales into forced marriages.”

North Korean women are still fleeing. The most recent statistics state that 969 North Korean women found refuge in South Korea in 2018. This is one of the lowest numbers seen for refugees who have successfully fled to South Korea in the past decade. This may be due to the increasingly dangerous route for North Koreans through the modern day Underground Railroad in Southeast Asia through Thailand or Laos. China and North Korea are reported to be increasing security along their borders to arrest fleeing defectors.

Currently, --- North Korean women have found safety and community in Crossing Borders’ network in China. Together, we are hoping, in the face of growing darkness, to provide counseling, care, compassion for so many who have been hurt and broken for so long. Please help Crossing Borders to reach the downtrodden and burdened. Please help us to continue our work to bring many women together in encouragement and  support. With love and faith, even in fear, North Korean refugees can find freedom.

The True Purpose of Our Retreats

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The ultimate goal of Crossing Borders’ mission teams has never been to provide job training, medicine or financial support. All resources are under the greater purpose to help North Korean refugees build communities. It is a pursuit to gather people focused on faith, hope and love.

North Korean refugees have survived disaster. Medical professionals who have worked with Crossing Borders have diagnosed many refugees with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Medicine, shelter, counseling - all of these tools are used to help refugees in Crossing Borders’ network. Crossing Borders has labored for over 16 years to practically change lives of North Korean refugees. But in response to individuals who have tangible needs, the primary objectives to create friendship or unity seem ephemeral or impractical. Crossing Borders missionaries could be helping North Korean refugees by helping labor on their farms, developing labor skills or distributing money. But instead, much of Crossing Borders’ work has gone into teaching refugees about the kindness and goodness of community.

Even volunteers on Crossing Borders’ mission teams, foreseeably, have asked a natural question when hearing this.

“Why retreats? Why community-building?”

1. Sustainability

As much as Crossing Borders is dedicated to providing job training, medicine, and counseling to the best of the organization’s ability, the work conducted by the organization is always going to be a drop in the bucket. Over a thousand refugees have been impacted by the work of the Crossing Borders missionaries on the field. But the fact remains that over 200,000 North Korean refugees are still in hiding in China.

It is also a stark reality that the conditions that allow Crossing Borders to continue its work are not controllable. The work to help refugees in China remains illegal. China does not recognize fleeing North Koreans as refugees. North Koreans have no rights protecting their lives. They are arrested. They are sent back to face further injustice in North Korea. Crossing Borders fights for justice but cannot deliver this justice in the face of China’s legal system. Missionaries can be blacklisted. Entire areas of the network to help North Koreans can become impossible to sustain at any moment.

What is the best, lasting work that Crossing Borders can do that will outlive the organization’s current resources, its longevity, or the capacity of current missionaries?

Crossing Borders works to help refugees to gain an understanding of their own agency. North Korean people, together, despite their circumstances, can build a life together. They are capable of helping, supporting, teaching one another with compassion for one another’s struggles. In this process, Crossing Borders will continue to support efforts to create a community of endurance and trust.

2. Life-giving

The mission of Crossing Borders has always been to share compassion for refugees in hardship. The organization has, over the past 12 years, used over $1.2 million toward placing resources in China that can serve North Korean refugees and their children. Whether it was prescription eyeglasses, transportation, vitamins, education, monetary stipends for households, counseling, job training, or caregiving, Crossing Borders has been committed to meet North Koreans’ physical and psychological needs.

But stability is greatly needed for refugees in their personal lives. Even as physical and emotional needs are being met, there must be a deeper fulfillment that gives individuals purpose and meaning. While intangible, goodness is richly found when refugees discover the inherent value of their existence. With this, they can fight to overcome their obstacles.

It is for this reason that Crossing Borders is focused on helping refugees discover faith, hope and love together. The applicable truth of the Christian gospel is necessary for them to find the purpose of caring, seeking joy, encouraging one another. Crossing Borders will continue to harbor North Koreans to meet their needs. The hope is that one day, the North Korean refugees in this network will not only receive the compassion of our missionaries and supporters, but be able to share the same compassion with many others.