Dancing Through: North Korean Christians in China

When is the last time you danced?

Ecclesiastes 3:4 writes about

“a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance...”

All four are a part of Crossing Borders’ annual retreat for North Korean refugee women.

Murmurs of government oppression and tension surrounding Christianity have spread even to the remote, rural regions of China. Crossing Borders staff have exercised more caution than ever to continue efforts to minister to North Koreans in hiding in 2019. Missionaries on the field have shared that the persecution of Christians is growing each year. Reports from International Christian Concern state that in the Guizhou province, reporting “suspicious illegal religious sites and activities” to the police could be awarded with cash up to $1000 USD beginning in July. Articles from the Washington Post further verify that Christian churches in the same region are being closed and their congregants closely monitored.

It is not easy to be a faithful Christian believer in today’s China. But despite such heavy persecution, the number of North Korean women and children accepting faith is growing more than ever in Crossing Borders’ network.

This year, missionaries found themselves facing the largest attendance ever welcomed into Crossing Borders’ annual retreat. With much clamor and excitement, 41 North Korean women and 51 of their children flooded into the courtyard of a small motel in China where activities, song and conversation would fill four days and three nights. Crossing Borders staff are consistently astounded that the missionary network seems to expand rapidly every year alongside greater persecution. 

North Korean refugees are illegal defectors living in hiding in China. There seems to be little to gain from associating themselves with a body of people so persecuted in the country. But why are North Korean refugees, despite all odds, gathering more fervently in faith than ever before?

On the one hand, a painful truth for many North Korean women living in China is that there is nowhere for them to turn for the comfort and strength of community. As defectors from their homeland, the pain of rejection North Koreans endure as outsiders in hiding and the alienation they experience as illegal migrants goes unshared and uncommunicated for several years, sometimes decades. Sought out by the authorities and often treated like property, North Korean women become trapped in small towns or their very own homes, utterly alone.

The women in Crossing Borders’ network are desperate for a time and place to express themselves openly. Missionary staff can attest to the fact that the women in Crossing Borders’ retreats so often fall into weeping and reminiscing as they spend time together. The burden of the grievances committed against them has grown insurmountably between their time as citizens of North Korea and refugees in China. Their thoughts, recollections, stories are overflowing. They want to weep bitterly in the open. They want to mourn over lost family, lost time, lost children.

A missionary at the Crossing Borders retreat commented, “In our discussion groups, we asked the women about the Bible. But so often, they just ended up sharing about their lives.”

North Koreans need a place to open their hearts. They want to grieve. But the North Korena women in Crossing Borders’ network also want to laugh with sheer delight over the moments they find happiness with others. Joy can be rare. The women and children gathered each year want to express what is on their minds. But according to the accounts of Crossing Borders missionaries who have ministered to women and children in China, those gathered at Crossing Borders retreats do not only gather to share of themselves. They come to receive. 

The gospel that Crossing Borders shares is a terrifying and frightening thing for many who realize that persecution of faith is growing in China. Rejection to Christian claims and beliefs is being reinforced, even encouraged by government authorities. But the message of the Christian gospel is simultaneously deeply attractive. Under the intense and expanding pressure of rejection, Christianity somehow manages to be deeply desired, even welcoming. Why else would a religion that is largely rejected by China, an officially atheist state, have a rapidly expanding population between 93 million and 115 million Protestants, according to Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society? For North Korean refugees, the gospel is an immense source of hope, encouragement and joy. It is the gospel that the women come to hear. It is the gospel that the North Korean women take home with them as they dive back into lives of hardship and toil. They continue to struggle, to endure.

Every year, the North Korean women who gather at Crossing Borders’ annual retreat do not only weep and laugh and mourn. They dance. Their expression of worship is a spectacle. It is a reminder of their resilience and persevering spirit. In the eye of the hurricane of doubt, pain and grief, they have found incredible hope.

This year, 92 North Korean women and children danced in the middle of a forgotten spot in China. And their faith grew.

SunYoung Against the World

As Crossing Borders’ missionaries waited in the spacious, Burger King on a busy street corner in Northeast China, their mobile phone buzzed. “SunYoung” was running late. Her apartment had flooded.

SunYoung, a North Korean orphan living alone in China, walks along bustling city streets.

SunYoung, a North Korean orphan living alone in China, walks along bustling city streets.

SunYoung is an 18-year-old half North Korean girl living in one of the many densely populated cities of China. She does not remember much about her father, who left to work in South Korea and never returned. SunYoung’s mother was arrested and taken away when she was 11-years-old. Since the age of 11, SunYoung has been living between her relatives’ homes during school vacations and an orphanage supported by Crossing Borders. When the Crossing Borders orphanage closed at the end of 2018, SunYoung moved in with her aunt in a small one-bedroom apartment in the city. She is, however, still a recipient of Crossing Borders’ financial scholarships, receives regular counsel from missionaries, and attends small retreats with Crossing Borders staff.

This past summer marks the completion of SunYoung’s first year in a vocational school for future teachers.  SunYoung was happy to let the visiting missionaries know that her first year of school had gone very well. It was a major achievement for SunYoung, who has always been anxious about academics. 

SunYoung’s scholastic feat is particularly encouraging in light of how difficult this past year has been for her. SunYoung’s aunt, who had taken SunYoung in when the Crossing Borders orphanage closed so that she could continue her studies in the city, passed away only months after bringing SunYoung home. SunYoung’s aunt had been experiencing heart problems, visiting three different hospitals for treatment in the last two years. On the day she passed away, SunYoung’s aunt packed a lunch and sent SunYoung off to school. SunYoung’s aunt passed away while her niece was at school. SunYoung lives alone now  in her aunt’s apartment. She tells Crossing Borders’ missionaries that she spends time at night thinking about how she and her aunt used to sleep in the same room. The thought makes her afraid.

After their lunch at Burger King, the missionaries and the young men and women in Crossing Borders’ network visited SunYoung’s apartment. She had cleaned and tidied for their arrival. There were no signs of any flooding or water damage. The small space was immaculate. The group shared about the past few months, their comings and goings, work, school, and life. 

A number of the young adults discussed the difficulties of living in China, of feeling like there was no one to lean on when days grew difficult. It is not uncommon for the children in Crossing Borders’ network to feel isolation. 

“There’s no one to depend on,” commented one of the young women, sharing her struggles from the past year. “Friends are friends, but in life I feel like just have to get through it by myself.” These half North Korean youth have little to no family. One of the boys shared a story about how, late at night, with no ride home or a bus to take, he sat on a curb and scrolled through the list of contacts on his phone. He realized there was no one he could call for help. 

The children’s family members are, for the most part, struggling to make their own ends meet with debilitating illness or disabilities. Some of them shed tears as they shared how much their loved ones struggle to make ends meet. Visiting home is often more of a heartbreaking experience than a heartwarming one. Others have experienced so many moments in life where they felt as if people, sometimes even family members, were simply trying to use them or take advantage of their vulnerability. 

The group discussed their hardships. They shared why the hope of prayer and dependence on Christ might give encouragement in trying times. It was a necessary but trying reflection. Hearts needed mending and counsel. The missionaries shared scripture from the Bible.

And then, as the group prepared to leave, a pipe came loose under the sink. Water from the garbage disposal came flooding across the floor.

For a moment, the group of men and women simply watched in a mixture of awe and disgust. The smell was overwhelming. The water was almost black with compost and garbage. It spread across the linoleum matting and pooled beneath it, into layers of newspaper and paste that were hidden beneath the tiles. The flooding did not subside until the bare cement beneath it all was exposed. SunYoung’s effortful cleaning and tidying was washed away in an instant, in the wake of gushing grey water.

As the group stood stunned, SunYoung rolled up her pant legs, picked up a rag, and stepped into the mess. And with her squelching footsteps, the surrounding friends and missionaries snapped out of their trance and began to help in earnest. It took time and effort. The group had to take a break to buy more rags at a local convenience store, squeezing the contents of soaked, blackened cloths into the toilet in SunYoung’s small bathroom. The Crossing Borders missionaries balked at the realization that SunYoung had cleaned away the same stench and muck alone that same morning. It was no wonder that her eyes looked tired, her sprightly energy waned. But now, together, with many blackened hands and smelly, drenched feet, the mess was washed away once more. SunYoung was not alone.

This is the hope of Crossing Borders. 
Little can be done to erase the pain and difficulty in the lives of many North Korean children in China. In many ways, their circumstances stand against them. The challenges before them are often gargantuan, overwhelming, hurtful. But in the midst of struggle, the missionaries who serve these young men and women long to share the little compassion they can offer, to step into their lives to share encouragement, prayer and hope. For young adults like SunYoung, life is filled with looming obstacles. The helping hand offered by Crossing Borders, however, will be there nonetheless.

As the group departed, they made promises to meet again for the next two days, sharing prayer, eating meals, and spending their free time together. It was a short three days of ministry for the visiting missionaries. 

The apartment did not flood again.

The Question

Byung-woo at one of our retreats for North Korean children.

Byung-woo at one of our retreats for North Korean children.

“Byung-woo” sat and thought about his question for several moments before he spoke with one of Crossing Borders’ missionaries two years ago.

“How can I be thankful to God,” Byung-woo asked, “ if he let my mom die?”

The question was not emotional but was posed with unwavering focus. Byung-woo wasn’t frustrated or upset. Byung-woo was curious if there was an answer.

In 2019, Byung-woo turned 19-years-old and graduated from high school. He is a hardworking young man. In the orphanage run by Crossing Borders’ Orphan Care Program, it was common to find Byung-woo studying at his desk with the other children. Even when the Crossing Borders orphanage closed this year and Byung-woo relocated to a dormitory, his efforts continued. Byung-woo dreams big. The young men and women around Byung-woo, even his teachers, see him as a rising star.

Byung-woo’s father is a disabled Chinese man who lives far away in the country. Byung-woo mentions him often and how much his father needs his son’s help. Byung-woo wants to care for his ailing dad. When Byung-woo was about 10-years-old, his father and mother saw how prodigiously determined he was. His parents, wanting to see him grow, sent him to a boarding school far from home. But not long after he was sent away, Byung-woo received a phone call from his father telling him to quickly return home. His mother was dying. He returned home and shortly after, she died.

Byung-woo says he misses his mom’s cooking. He remembers that she was a Christian, rare for a North Korean refugee living in hiding in China. Byung-woo’s mom would drag him to church, promising delicious treats after service. The two of them spent Sundays together. And Byung-woo thinks about his mom, his last moments with her, her passing.

Crossing Borders staff constantly applauds Byung-woo’s unwavering spirit, his grit and his endurance. But somewhere beneath Byung-woo’s great perseverance, there is fear. There is a fear of an obstacle he will not be able to traverse. With his father’s life on his shoulders and an endless series of hurdles he must cross, what if Byung-woo fails? Byung-woo thinks of his faithful and loving mom, he thinks about her death, and he thinks about whether or not he will find the strength to push through the difficulties in his way.

When seeing the lives of the North Korean children in the Orphan Care program, the temptation for hopeless acceptance is overbearing. Children who have been abused and abandoned by powers outside of their control do not have an answer to why they must suffer.

The truth that must be shared with Byung-woo and many children like him, time and time again, is that healing, compassion and love are real. In response to the overwhelming pressure on Byung-woo and the disorienting power of loss in the lives of so many North Korean children, Crossing Borders longs to share the same gift that Byung-woo’s mother clung to in her moments with her son. A North Korean woman who fled from home, living in fear and in poverty, Byung-woo’s mother longed to share the gospel.

We hope that even as Byung-woo relentlessly pursues victory over his circumstances, he will find peace in faith - even in failure. We hope that whether Byung-woo is in the depths of grief, or the pressures of work, he will find grace. In the gospel, we hope that Byung-woo finds many, innumerable reasons to be thankful.