Great North Korean famine

North Korean Refugees Now - Part 1: Changing Economy

In our new blog series, we will explore the newest developments in the world, which affect the flow of North Korean refugees in China. If there is any silver lining to the Great North Korean Famine, it is that North Korea was forced to fundamentally change the way that it distributes goods and resources throughout the country.

The famine killed up to 3 million people and put the country in a tailspin from which it has still not recovered.

Resources during the famine were so scarce that the country had to start a PR campaign to ask its people to eat two meals a day. At the famine’s height, many were left to eat grass, tree bark, pets, and other people.

Much of the starvation in the country can be attributed to a failed distribution system. The irony of the famine is that there was food sitting in warehouses for people to eat. But distributors were afraid to go to the outer regions for fear of starting riots. They also had no incentive to distribute food because, under the old system, they would get paid regardless. So the people starved.

Amidst the chaos, North Korea allowed the economy to be privatized under heavy restrictions.

As a result, private markets popped up all over the country and distributors were paid based on the deliveries they made. Experts say that there is actually less food in North Korea today but people are not dying of starvation because of better distribution.

North Korea has said that this is a temporary solution to the country’s food problems. But the current system has remained intact for almost 20 years.

This has sparked what many have called the Jangmadang, or Black Market generation. This generation carries cell phones, styles their hair to mimic the South Korean pop stars they have seen via illegally imported DVDs, and, most importantly, have not lived through famine.

Change is also coming to the country's vast number of farmers. North Korea is making strides to incentivize farmers for greater yields. After giving their share to the government and paying their operating expenses, farmers can now share profits with their workers.

Manufacturers have also been given more leeway to operate based on market principles. They can negotiate contracts with foreign entities and also pay their employees what they wish.

All these factors have, along with beefed-up security at the border, slowed the pace of North Korean refugees spilling over into China.

But many experts say that these changes enacted by the North Korean government are not drastic enough to revive the moribund economy and to cause change.

“In the economics sphere, the regime seems to lack any real strategic vision,” Marcus Noland, of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics told the Associated Press earlier this year.

Food remains the biggest issue. There might not be a famine but much of the country is still malnourished and very hungry. All this while food aid is on the decline and experts predict a smaller harvest this year, due to an unusually dry winter.

How this will affect the flow of North Korean refugees into China is yet to be seen. Regardless, Crossing Borders will continue to work in China to give vital protection and aid to these people.

Forging Ahead: Into the Garbage - North Korean Refugee's Story

First of all, we want to thank each and every one of you who donated to Crossing Borders in 2014. We were able to take in three North Korean refugees because of the generosity of our donors in 2014. We will look to add even more people to our care this year. Here is the story of one person we took in:

Sook-hee lived with her husband and daughter in a North Korean mining town. After her husband died in an accident in North Korea, she had no means of supporting herself and her daughter. She decided to take the dangerous journey to China to find work.

Crossing Borders has never encountered a North Korean refugee who has lived in China for longer than Sook-hee. She has been in China for about 20 years, which means that she was one of the first to flee to China during the Great North Korean Famine.

Sook-hee was sold to her current husband who is severely disabled from a fishing accident. He does not have arms and is blind because of an explosion on his fishing boat. She was told her husband was severely disabled by her traffickers but was offered no alternative.

She and her husband live in Northeast China in utter poverty. They scour their city everyday looking for garbage they could exchange for money. They live on just $50 per month, which is considered extremely poor for her area. Their resources are even more stretched because they have a teenage son.

A few years ago, Sook-hee found out that her daughter in North Korea died. Her daughter was 11-years-old when Sook-hee left. She found out about her daughter’s death when she received a picture of her daughter’s famished body. Sook-hee had been saving money to bring her daughter to China.

When we first told her that we could help her, she was suspicious.

“I can’t join your church because I have no money,” she said. There is an acute distrust of Christians in her city because there have been cults and other churches in the area who have swindled money from the people there.

During our staff’s lunch meeting with her, Sook-hee was very uncomfortable and was not able to eat anything besides vegetables and rice. She repeatedly asked what she needed to do to receive the aid but we assured her that she didn’t need to do anything.

For the first time in her life, Sook-hee was being offered a helping hand. The concept was so foreign to her that she didn’t know what to do.

In addition to her abject poverty, Sook-hee, as a North Korean refugee, is an illegal immigrant of China. When she collects garbage with her husband, she has to watch out for any potential threats to both herself because of her legal status and her husband because he is blind.

We hope that, through our aid, she will be able to feel the love, security and compassion of God.

Thank you to all of you who are involved in her restoration.

Rebounding, Part 3 - North Korean Refugee's Story

In the early 2000s, it was estimated that the number of North Korean refugees in China could be anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 individuals. Today, a conservative estimate stands around 30,000 to 60,000 people while others continue to state that at least 200,000 North Korean refugees and their family members hide illegally in China. North Korean refugees still have no rights in China. There are still systematic raids carried out by the Chinese police targeting North Korean refugees, their children, and the people who help them.

This past summer China expatriated about 1,000 missionaries who worked along the Chinese-Korean border.

“The sweep along the frontier is believed to be aimed at closing off support to North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland,” Reuters reported in August.

The constant scrutiny and raids carried out by the Chinese government along with the diminishing population of ethnic Koreans in China has left the region ill-equipped to handle the slow but steady drip of North Korean refugees into the country.

"Mrs. Jo" came into China from North Korea when this drip of North Korean refugees fleeing the country was better described as a pouring of North Korean refugees during the Great North Korean Famine of the 1990s. She was introduced to one of Crossing Borders’ missionaries in 2012 and began receiving help in 2013.

The transformation we have seen in her is astonishing. Of the $40 she receives in aid from Crossing Borders per month, she tithes half to contribute to her church and to charities.

Her back is still not straight and her inner wounds have not fully healed, yet her smile is bright. She spends most of her days working on the nearby mountain to find herbs and mushrooms to sell at her local market.

Recently, there was a dispute between two other North Korean refugees at Mrs. Jo’s church. One of them left the church vowing never to return. Mrs. Jo called the one who left and from the Bible, instructed her about why it is important for her to return. The two women made peace and both are attending the church again, receiving life-sustaining aid from Crossing Borders.

Mrs. Jo’s husband recently returned from South Korea after 10 years. They are living together and happy, she said.

“I’m living a life of thankfulness,” she said.

Think for a moment how remarkable this statement is. A woman who lost everything in the North Korean famine and sold as a commodity in China twice, is saying that her life is full of thankfulness.

This is why Crossing Borders exists, to show the compassion of Christ to North Korean refugees, the widows and orphans of North Korea. We have made a difference in the lives of thousands of people and we want to continue and expand and grow.

For all the calls to give and posts we make online, we hope that just a fraction of those who find out about us will be compelled to give out of the thankfulness in their hearts.

As many of us close out the year and perhaps take account of the good and the bad, it is our hope that we place these occurrences in a broader context. Perhaps we can use the example of Mrs. Jo to remind ourselves of how blessed we are and that, even at our lowest of lows, we can sing a song with sincere thanksgiving in our hearts.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.