David Brooks

Director's Notes: Usefulness of Suffering

The following post was written by Crossing Borders' Executive Director, Dan Chung and was originally posted in 2014. The story has been updated to reflect the changes in the life of the North Korean orphan he references.  

At the age of eight, I began a dark stretch in my life. I started to have night terrors. Every night through my early teens, I would be caught in a terrible dream where I was running from some terrifying, unseen force. This dream would manifest itself into reality. Each night I would get out of bed screaming and run around my house and sometimes my neighborhood.

Some mornings I would awake to find myself sleeping on the curb.

As a result I was afraid of sleep and would do anything to delay the inevitable. And to this day, I have trouble falling asleep, even as I lay exhausted in bed.

But in some intangible way, this small bit of suffering has laid the foundations for my life as an adult. The pain, which was deep and seemingly unending, drives my work as executive director of Crossing Borders today. As I’ve sat and listened to a countless number of resilient North Korean refugees tell me their stories since 2003, my heart still breaks. And I know that it is in part because of the small quantum of pain I experienced as a child.

Today half-North Korean orphans in Northeast China experience a much greater pain. I saw it in the eyes of "Haneul," a North Korean orphan we helped. Haneul and her family have told us her story. 

Standing out on the streets, a wandering North Korean orphan was crying and looking for anyone to help her. Haneul was six-years-old.

Her North Korean mother fled China through the Underground Railroad and cut off all communication to the people she knew in China, even her daughter and her husband, who purchased her in 2001. Haneul's father left for South Korea to find his wife and to find work.

He would send money back to a friend in China, who was taking care of Haneul. But after a while the money stopped and he was never heard from again. Some say he died. Some say he moved to a different country. No one knows for sure.

Shortly after her father’s money stopped, Haneul was abandoned in the middle of a busy city by her guardians.

She wandered around and somehow found her uncle, a poor Chinese man. He took his niece in. He has a half-North Korean daughter, who is a little younger than Haneul. He too had a wife who he purchased. She left him after their daughter was born. He is poor. He has worked odd jobs here and there but nothing permanent. And he has no idea how to take care of these two girls.

In early 2014, when I visited Haneul at her uncle’s house, She was living in squalor. The soot from the coal that locals burn underground to heat their homes was caked her skin. She was shivering and had a runny nose. There were pans with crusted ramen noodles on the floor of their small living space.

Some experts say that North Korean orphans in China number in the tens-of-thousands. Though many have family who care for them, most live in abject poverty. Some wander the streets looking through bins for trash they can sell. Most long for their mothers who have either taken the Underground Railroad and have found greener pastures or have been captured by the Chinese police, sent back to North Korea and have never been heard from again. All North Korean orphans suffer in some way, shape or form at a young age.

David Brooks of the New York Times published an article titled “What Suffering Does.” It is an interesting reminder about how suffering can be used to bring meaning and purpose in a person’s life.

He says that suffering “means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.”

Though the North Korean orphans in our care have suffered much in their lives, we have hope that they can use this pain as a vehicle to do good. The best way we see this happening is through a vibrant relationship with Christ.

Haneul is on the path to redeeming her experiences. In 2015 she was reunited with her mother in South Korea. She goes to school and is very happy, according to our missionaries who visited her in 2016. 

As we pray for the innumerable North Korean orphans lost in China, let us remember the importance of suffering, that the deeper it is, the more capacity people have to redeem it. It is our hope that these children can take the deep reservoir of their experiences and unleash it back into the world to transform it.