Anna Source of Strength: A North Korean refugee’s tale of hardship and hope

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In our previous post, Where Will Anna Go?, Crossing Borders wrote about the strife in the life of “Anna,” a North Korean refugee. Anna faced what seemed an endless torrent of misfortune. Depression flooded her life and pulled her into depths of despair.

But as Anna lost all bearings, as she drowned in a cruel and unending weight of work that offered no solace, an invisible hand plucked Anna from seas of dismay. Her weeping was stopped by the warm embrace of unwarranted kindness. A community of sympathy and encouragement gathered around her. She realized for the first time that she was not alone. She was being watched over. As her faith revealed to her, she had always been watched over. Even in the cruelest isolation and pain. She was promised life, not in spite of despair, but even under its cruelest waves.

Anna’s fervent prayers for her missing children continued. Their loss weighed heavily upon her heart, even with the newfound joy in her own life. And with Anna’s prayers, a miracle occurred in a country with over 200,000 displaced North Koreans and almost 1.4 billion people.

In 2016, after 14 years of separation, Anna heard rumors that her second daughter, “Kate” lived in a distant village. Without hesitation, Anna went out to see the face of her lost daughter. By great grace, Anna found her. We cannot imagine the power of their reunion. After much reconciliation, Anna found a place in her daughter’s life. Despite the rift that had formed between them in over a decade spent apart, Anna and her daughter became a family again.

But Anna’s heart broke almost immediately again.

Kate made a desperate attempt to escape to South Korea and succeeded. But overwhelmed and defeated by the pressures of living in the modern world of South Korea, Kate returned to China broken and defeated.

Kate began to suffer from crippling anxiety and a parasitic illness in 2018. Anna, terrified, turned to her community of refugee women. Together, they desperately prayed for Kate. In response to Kate’s debilitating sickness, Crossing Borders staff found medication to help Kate, to relieve some of her symptoms. Our staff also searched and discovered doctors who could cure her condition. With medical attention, the decision came down to whether Kate would have to undergo serious surgery – an expensive surgery that Anna could never afford.

“They had put her fate in my hands.”

Anna reflected on the moment the doctors had placed the only option to help her suffering daughter at her feet. Her eyes were wide, helpless. But Anna, who had once described her life as a pit of despair broke into a smile as she reflected on this horrifying moment for any mother. For the first time in her life, she knew where to turn. “I prayed.”

Anna’s own summary of the story is astoundingly simple. “Our God answered.”

Anna’s family pooled their resources together. They found the money. And Anna’s daughter is alive and well.

But hope is not only a response to duress. With hope, we can seek greater things we had never dreamed of before. It is the firm ground under our feet when we fall, the helping hand that calls us to run with faith. With the great hope she discovered, Anna sought more.

At the end of 2018, Anna left her village to seek out safety and the possibility of a life in South Korea. Once more, she will be traveling vast distances on foot in hopes for a better life. This road is much longer than her trek to China over 16 years ago. It will not be hundreds of miles, but thousands. Anna will face challenges, obstacles, dangers along the way. The terrors stand tall.

But Crossing Borders staff holds fast to the same hope we shared with Anna. The fears are still present. But boldness is where faith is found. Anna, who had once felt so helpless, afraid, abandoned and unable has stepped out to face perhaps one of the most dangerous journeys in the modern world. Please pray for Anna to be safe, to remain steadfast.

“We came into this world with empty hands and we leave with empty hands. We do not know where to go in life. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We live without knowing tomorrow…While we are alive, let’s live sincerely and with pure hearts putting faith and trust in God and following Him.”
- Anna in 2018

Where Will Anna Go? A North Korean refugee’s tale of hardship and hope

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Imagine traveling over 100 miles on foot with the three most important people in your life, only to arrive in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

“Anna” is a North Korean refugee who crossed the Tumen River dividing North Korea and China with her three daughters. She knew she would be trafficked once she crossed the border into China. She knew the life in store for her would be more difficult than she could ever imagine. But Anna had little choice.

Crossing Borders understands that often, we are an interim ministry. That is, our work is only a part of the journey for many North Korean refugees who are seeking lives of hope and freedom. While they are in our care, we share what we can. From 2015 through 2018, we counseled Anna in her ongoing struggles through small gatherings and retreats throughout the year. We helped send her daughter “May” to a high school where she would gain a better education for her future. In 2017, we brought Anna medicine for her ongoing medical issues. We also shared with Anna the source of our strength. Anna’s response was of tremendous faith and with such faith came great healing.

Before escaping to China, Anna’s eldest daughter had been caught selling more vegetables than allowed by North Korean law. Her family had been struggling to make ends meet. Anna turned to every opportunity to make money for her family. But the North Korean police who found Anna’s daughter had no mercy. They beat her and forced her to sign a letter of confession. They would be coming to arrest her daughter. So Anna took her three children and fled in the dead of night.

The ordeal ahead of Anna was more terrible than she could have imagined.

Anna’s assumption that she would be allowed to stay with her family was false. Anna and her youngest daughter “May” were sold to a Chinese man as her two older children were separated from her. Two of Anna’s children simply disappeared from her life in a foreign land where their lives were at the mercy of men whose names they did not know.

“My life was one where I lived simply because I could not die,” Anna shared. She lived devoid of joy, in fear of death, to sustain her beloved daughter and husband. “It was a life of suffering.”

Anna toiled under the beating sun each day in China. Her skin grew dark and dry until it cracked, her fingers and palms became calloused like stone. Anna wearily planted and reaped each season. She had no community. She had no respite. She only had her labor. Our missionaries tell us that Anna is one of the hardest working women they have ever met. But she had nothing and nobody.

Anna cautiously entered Crossing Borders’ care in 2015. She was not quick to believe in God and belief was never forced upon her. Anna began to pray for herself and her family. Over time, she slowly came to believe in the Christian faith. In it, she found relief and joy. She asked for help in her work, for strength in her aching body and for help finding her lost daughter. Anna tells us of a healing relief that soothed her whole soul and body in response, invisible fuel that kept her strong in working day after day. As she grew in faith, Anna shared her joys and sought the source of her hope with others. In a pursuit to live and endure, she found a community of care, love and strength.

Seemingly by the slimmest of chances, Anna found herself with a desire to embrace life, even the great burden of her work. In the fields, Anna reflected on the happy worship of the women from whom she received understanding, kindness and grace. Together, the women had found what seemed a great gift. It was a hidden treasure, a secret delight that endured the weight of all their suffering and hardship. Something had changed.

Anna found hope. This hope did not merely bring help into her life. This hope transformed her life altogether.

Read more about the power of this hope in Anna’s life and her miraculous reunion with one of her daughters in Anna’s source of strength.

70 and 17

Statue of Kim Il Sung in North Korea.

Statue of Kim Il Sung in North Korea.

America has seen the coming and going of thirteen Presidents in the past 70 years. Truman. Eisenhower. Kennedy. Johnson. Nixon. Ford. Carter. Reagan. H.W. Bush. Clinton. Bush. Obama. Trump. On the contrary, in North Korea, there has been one family for over seven decades.

The Kim Family’s rule over North Korea - a dictatorship that crossed its 70th anniversary in September 2018, is the longest standing communist government in the world besides the government of Vietnam, which was fully unified in 1976, 28 years after the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). The DPRK, established in September 1948 under the premiership of Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung was the longest dictator to keep his rule in world history besides Fidel Castro.

The founding of North Korea’s dictatorship followed one of the most painful eras of Korean history. From 1905 through 1945, the Japanese Empire extended its authority over the Korean Peninsula as a legal protectorate. The imperial military and police rule was a foreign occupation seared into the national memory of the Koreas. The forty years of Japanese colonialism were filled with calculated policies of violent oppression and painful cultural indoctrination.

It is unsurprising that following World War II, Premier Kim Il Sung’s campaign to rebuild the glory of Korea under the banner of nationalism was incredibly successful. Today he still holds as North Korea’s “Eternal President.” His cunning use of propaganda and misinformation to re-educate his people was founded on a national philosophy of “juche,” or “self-reliance.” It is still the predominant worldview of the North Korean people.

But after flooding and famine, harsh food shortages and economic collapse ravaged North Korea following the 1960s, the nation, unable to hold its infrastructure in place, played to the favor of the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist Party to remain in power. To this day, the North Korean government has little to no ability to sustain its people and is propped up by the thread of support it receives from China as 80% of its exports go across its northern border and 90% of its imports are from the same nation.

History books in North Korea teach that Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il was born on Mount Paekdu, the highest peak of the Korean peninsula, his birth coincided with the blessing of a swallow, a double rainbow, and a new star in the night sky. Heralded with such messianic imagery of the “Great Successor,” Kim Jong Il took the position of General Secretary in 1994 following the death of this father.

However, it was also under the rule of Kim Jong Il that North Korea experienced the worst famine in modern history as an unknown number of individuals, ranging up to 3.5 million people, starved to death. The North Korean government’s oversight of the famine was a nightmare. While a nation of people wasted away, the policies of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il did not turn to the needs of his people. Instead, it is said that the nation’s Supreme Leader spent up to 20% of the nation’s budget on personal luxury goods during his time in office while increasing his aggressive campaign to increase North Korea’s military might.

Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, the North Korean government has overseen a total of 30 missile launches in less than a decade and four nuclear tests as the nation’s leader is rumored to spend up to $600 million for personal luxury goods per year. However, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, is also a groundbreaker of the Kim family. Coupled with his threatening display on the world stage throughout 2017 came new steps of diplomacy and peacemaking with western nations and on the Korean Peninsula in 2018.

But as Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un prepares to meet US President Trump at the end of February in Vietnam, it is important to remember that his dictatorial rule is only the latest in the line of North Korean leaders. About half of the nation’s population is still hungry or starving. Over 70 percent of North Koreans who fled to China are women and 80 percent of those women are victims of human trafficking.

This year, Crossing Borders reaches its 17th year of our work. As we look to the bleak past, we strive - not only to hope for more but to work for a better future for the North Korean people. The power of the North Korean government, national and international rulers do not fall under our authority. But we know we can change the lives of those who fall victim to the crushing abuse of the world. It is Crossing Borders’ mission to hold fast to faith and to care for North Korean refugees in our network. We will continue to reach out to North Koreans with compassion and strength - no matter the principalities or powers that rule over North Korea in the years to come.