Caught Between Conflicts: Missionaries and Refugees

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The work of Crossing Borders is fraught with risk. Though our efforts have continued uninterrupted for 16 years, we’ve operated with the knowledge that at any moment, the Chinese government could effectively halt our operations. But despite the inherent pressures of our mission field, we find ourselves full of hope.

On January 4th, closely following the 40th anniversary of bilateral Chinese-American relations, the US State Department issued an advisory placing China on status of “increased caution” for travelling Americans. The advisory warned US citizens that Chinese officials may arrest or detain any Americans visiting China in the country without being charged with a crime. China is using these arrests “to compel U.S. citizens to participate in Chinese government investigations, to lure individuals back to China from abroad, and to aid Chinese authorities in resolving civil disputes in favor of Chinese parties.”

The release of the advisory is the result of the ongoing tensions between the Chinese and American governments. The government travel advisory for the 2.3 million Americans who visit China each year is likely driven by ongoing trade negotiations with China, as well as the recent detention of three Canadian nationals. It is both a politically and economically motivated warning issued by a American officials closely watching Chinese diplomacy. The two nations’ combative rhetoric has been expanding steadily.

Caught in the crossfire are Crossing Borders’ American missionaries who travel into China to serve North Korean refugees and their children. If arrested or detained, they would be casualties of a much larger conflict that has little to do with Crossing Borders’ work. But Crossing Borders has long been aware of the difficulties of working in China, especially as an American organization. Both of our founding members have experienced danger to their lives. Members of our Chinese field staff have reported being under the watchful eye of authorities, sitting through accusatory interrogations or receiving threats of arrest. As the American and Chinese governments take turns placing a greater strain upon their relationship overseas, US missionaries grow concerned.

Christianity, has been strongly rejected and harshly enforced by Chinese authorities for the past year. Our missionaries have recently reported that religious holidays such as Christmas have been banned in certain major cities. Heightened frustration between the American and Chinese governments have only given our staff more reason to worry about arrest, detainment or expulsion in China. With right cause, we feel powerless and caught in the middle of a much bigger conflict.

Over 200,000 North Korean refugees who are in hiding throughout China experience much greater pressures. Many refugees - who have experienced terror and abuse at the hands of authorities - are aware of how little control they have over their circumstances. Hungry and impoverished, they could never control the scale of historic and international tensions that have driven them into desperate circumstances. Many live in fear.

But Crossing Borders’ message for both the field staff we employ and the North Korean people in our care is one of hope. We do not share our hopes despite being at the mercy of greater powers, but because of such mercies. We do not believe our difficult circumstances are signs of despair. We trust in that we have been given a mission to share kindness, love, and peace despite the tribulation or persecution we may experience. Our calling proves truer and stronger in trials and is our anchor in all circumstances.

In safety and danger please stand with us in prayer. Whatever trials lay ahead in the coming year, Crossing Borders hopes to forge onward holding to our testimonies of deep compassion and great endurance.

Hot and Cold: North Korea’s Shifting Diplomatic Tone in 2018

A presentation at North Korea’s Mass Games in Pyongyang.

A presentation at North Korea’s Mass Games in Pyongyang.

North Korea acted like a completely different country in 2017. Gone are the hyperbolic threats and missile launches were rapidly replaced by handshakes, hugs and overtures for peace. But this is what is happening on the surface. When you dig deeper, the nation has not changed very much. Let’s examine the recent news surrounding North Korea may reveal more tension and conflict buried beneath the nation’s seeming diplomatic and peaceful transformation.

Mixed Signals

On the campaign trail this year, President Trump stated that he and Chairman Kim the two “fell in love” during their meeting in June.

Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un have kept a friendly public dialogue despite considerable tensions as their countries continue to negotiate nuclear and peace deals. At the latest meeting between President Trump and South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, President Trump reportedly asked Moon to pass along a friendly message to Kim.

“The message was that President Trump has a very friendly view of Chairman Kim and that he likes him, and so he wishes Chairman Kim would implement the rest of their agreement and that he would make what Chairman Kim wants come true," Moon said Saturday, according to USA Today.

These overtures are in contrast to the widening gap in negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

The North Korean government’s promises to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear complex came with strict conditions. If Washington would first ease its sanctions and sign a peace agreement, deconstruction would begin. North Korea has also expressed frustration toward South Korea’s ongoing small-scale military drills.

The Trump administration has, in response, demanded for North Korea to take the first step of opening up all of its nuclear facilities to weapons inspectors prior to releasing sanctions and signing for peace. Both nations are unwilling to yield to one another’s conditions.

"I think right now, we are absolutely stuck," said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an interview with NPR.

It appears as if Trump will indeed meet with Kim again early in 2019, according to comments made by national security adviser John R. Bolton on December 4. On the contrary, according to the commentary of Robert Carlin, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, North Korea has expressed an unwillingness to participate in a summit “if the US does not take ‘credible measures’ to address North Korean ‘concerns’ in high level talks” with priority and agility.

Weapons Program Continues

North Korea imposed a voluntary moratorium on long-range ballistic missile tests this year as an act of goodwill leading up to the Trump-Kim summit in June. This was a much-welcomed concession as North Korea was active in testing missiles and nuclear weapons in 2017.

But there are indications the country is still moving forward with their nuclear program. Although development at its main test site has halted, the North Korean government has developed more than a dozen other sites. According to commercial satellite images released in November, North Korea has continued and significantly bolstered its ability to launch a nuclear attack. Though this does not technically breach North Korea’s promises, it violates its spirit of its steps towards peace.

Last week, North Korea’s state news agency (KCNA) stated that Kim Jong Un “supervised a newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon test.” The KCNA further noted the Supreme Leader’s excitement in “seeing the power of the tactical weapon” and its ability to “increase the defense capability” of North Korea.

On Monday, December 4, the Daily NK reported that North Korea has directed its navy to take a “Battle Readiness Posture,” which described as a mid-level state of alert for its military forces.

A South Korean Train and North Korean Soldier Cross the Border

Last week, a South Korean train crossed into North Korea for the first time in 10 years. While being a symbolic sign of progress and peace, the train’s mission is also to assess what it would take for North Korea’s rail system to modernize.

In their meeting in April, Kim Jong Un asked President Moon Jae-in for help rebuilding their decrepit rail system, which is in “embarrassing” shape. Moon agreed.

But this is not the first time the South has done an assessment of North Korea’s rail system. In 2007, South Korea studied the North’s rail system in limited scope as a train ran between the countries five times per week. This process continued until relations chilled between the two countries in 2008 and the line was eventually shut down.

As in 2008, talks between the North and South can easily stall and progress could halt. The continuation of such a project hinges on the ongoing nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States.

As the South Korean train made its way into North Korea last week, another North Korean soldier defected through the DMZ to South Korea. Unlike last year’s dramatic escape, no shots were fired at this solder and little is publicly known about him.

This soldier is just one of the tens of millions of North Koreans still silently suffering under the regime’s cruel rule. The food situation in the country has not improved markedly. As these international tensions, conflicts, agreements continue to swing between war and peace, Crossing Borders will continue to help those who flee into China and send our prayers into this dark nation. We might not be able to change the circumstances of the authorities or principalities who delegate and represent nations, but Crossing Borders will continue to serve and work those we can reach. Please pray for us to be in safety, hope and strength.

Brothers for Life

Our first pictures of Sungsik and Jongtae are outside of an old, dilapidated brick building. Both brothers are wearing their orphanage’s uniforms - a light blue and white polo with each silver, plastic button snapped in place. Their clothes, however, once new, are smudged and smeared with wear and tear. Black and brown stains are scattered across their bellies and sleeves.

The two boys stand differently. Sungsik, twelve-years-old in the photo and the elder of the two, stands hunched over, his shoulders shrugged as if he’s standing for the picture in the cold. He looks as if he is about to be struck, scolded, yelled at. His face is unsure, uncertain. Sungsik is uncomfortable.

Jongtae, though a year younger than his older brother, stands in stark contrast. His expression is sternly nonchalant, almost angry. His back is straight and his shoulders stiff. His arms are snapped to his sides like a soldier at roll call. Jongtae’s gaze is distant, beyond the camera. It seems that he could care no less about his picture being taken.

In these photos, Sungsik and Jongtae are about to be adopted into Crossing Borders’ group home.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our first meeting.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our first meeting.

We don’t know Sungsik or Jongtae’s real birthdays. Their parents never bothered to register their information with us or the government. Our best estimates have been sometime in January of 2003 and 2004. The boys are not sure either. According to the boys, they were raised by an uncle when infants and left to a caring but poor orphanage by the time our missionaries came to find them. No relatives or family have ever come looking for either Sungsik or Jongtae.

Neither of the boys remember their father’s face. He was a Chinese man arrested for illegally selling opioids. He is currently still serving his sentence and has not been heard from. Sungsik and Jongtae’s mother, a North Korean refugee who was sold to their father, was also arrested. The consequence of her crime was more severe. She was sent back to North Korea, where it is impossible to learn of her whereabouts or condition. It is possible that neither Sungsik or Jongtae will ever even know if their mother was allowed to live when she returned to her country.

Through the years, our staff have learned a great deal about Sungsik and Jongtae.

Sungsik is quiet, shy, but intelligent and attentive. He is smaller than his younger brother but fiercely caring and loving. He is patient, but often lacks the boldness to reprimand or correct his sibling. He is pale and thin, loves to play volleyball and competes in his middle school’s intramural competitions.

We discovered that Jongtae had a urinary tract infection when he first arrived at our group home. It must have been an incredibly painful experience for him, as our staff only learned of this sickness when he urinated blood. Thanks to a volunteer doctor sent from the United States by Crossing Borders and several visits to local medical facilities, Jongtae was healed and is now very healthy.

Jongtae, much darker than his older brother, is the stronger and louder of the two. He can often be moody and is easily upset. When asked about his life or likes and dislikes, his answer is most often a scornful but playful “Wǒ bù zhīdào!” or “I don’t know!” Jongtae can be bright and silly, but abrasive. He, too, enjoys playing sports with his brother and listening to music.

Sungsik is now 16-years-old, his brother Jongtae is 15. The two of them are taller, healthy and still growing. In their group home, they are fed, attend school, and spend time with other boys their age. The boys bicker often, poke and prod at one another and argue. But together, they know that the only family they have is one another.

We want to continue to provide Sungsik and Jongtae a home. Our organization exists to serve children like them as they fight to become educated, mature young men. With compassion and care, we want to help Sungsik and Jongtae sustain their family.

Crossing Borders works to support many children like Sungsik and Jongtae. Many half-North Korean children are still lost and alone, without anyone to help them. Please help us to reach more.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our retreat for North Korean children.

Sungsik and Jongtae at our retreat for North Korean children.