Andrei Lankov

North Korean Refugees Now – Part 5: Reason for Hope

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 never laughed so much. 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.