Kim Il Sung

Staff Notes: North Korean Refugees, Memories, Home

The following post was written by Crossing Borders volunteer staff: Years before I started volunteering with Crossing Borders to serve North Korean refugees and orphans, I remember going on a brief visit to Northeast China with my grandfather. We stopped at a North Korean restaurant staffed by beautiful young North Korean waitresses. The North Korean government owns several restaurants throughout Asia, which are fully staffed and managed by approved North Korean patriots under the employ of their government. My grandfather, a North Korean refugee, who was born in North Korea and still had siblings living there, asked the women about their lives and their families. I knew he took pity on their situations. Although they were living in relative freedom in China they were, essentially, still enslaved to the North Korean government, working long hours for little pay. Yet with frozen smiles and identical expressions, each professed their undying devotion to their homeland and their “Eternal Father” Kim Il Sung. They each wore a small red Kim Il Sung pin on their uniforms and spoke no ill of their leader.

A few years later, I found myself watching a documentary entitled State of Mind, which followed the lives of two young North Korean gymnasts as they prepared with single-minded devotion for "The Mass Games”, a performance held in honor of North Korea's leader. The gymnasts placed all their efforts and hopes into the chance that they might perform for Kim Jong Il. Their months of labor and practice resulted in a flawless performance. But on the day of the Games, the Supreme Commander failed to show. , The disappointment and pain in their eyes was evident.

Many of the North Korean refugees assisted by Crossing Borders long to return to their homes in North Korea. Though they have been informed that their leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are not gods, that North Korea is not paradise on earth, their home still beckons them from a distance. Memories and shared histories are still too powerful to forget. This is perhaps why my own grandfather remains drawn to any news about his former home, why he continues to travel along the border between China and North Korea, hoping to catch glimpses of any North Koreans on the other side.

On one of our visits, while riding a tourist ferry along the Tumen River, we happened to see some North Korean children playing in the water. They were close enough that we could hear their laughter. My grandfather reached out his arms and wistfully remarked that he wished there was something he could give them. Only half-joking, he thought of throwing them small bags of rice or money. But soon our small tour boat turned around and we were headed back, moving further and further away from the shores of North Korea.

Prayer for North Korean Refugees: Isolation

One of the most striking things about North Korean refugees is how separated they have been from mass media and the rest of the world. When ministering to them, we must first address the lies they have been fed their whole lives by their government. The North Korean regime is relentless in cutting its people off from the outside world. They tell its people that other countries are terrible places to live and that North Korea is paradise on earth. With no information to refute this, the people generally believe it. It is a nation known for its mind-numbing propaganda.

But change is coming to the Hermit Kingdom. As North Korean refugees like the ones in the care of Crossing Borders travel in and out of the country, they bring with them news from the outside world. DVDs (or VCDs) are creeping past the nation's borders. People are smuggling in small USB drives with Korean dramas and international news reports that are usually only accessed by North Korea’s elite.

One booming industry in North Korea operates along the China-North Korea border as North Korean refugees and businessmen sneak cell phones into the country. These are not North Korean cell phones, which can only access other phones in the country’s tightly monitored network. They are phones that can access China’s cell phone network from inside North Korea. With these phones North Koreans can call family in South Korea.

North Korean refugees in China tell us that North Koreans are not so much interested in the things that most people from the outside world are. The plot lines of South Korean dramas can be entertaining, but most North Koreans are fascinated by the standard of living portrayed in the background of these programs. The city lights of Seoul, the plentiful food on the table, the nice apartments and new, clean clothing that people wear in these videos are what North Koreans are really drawn to.

As North Korean refugees come into our care, it is fascinating to see the transformation that takes place in them. One refugee, after spending years living in China, told us that she still thought the North Korean government is still the best in the world. The nation just needed food. But as time passed our refugee changed in her views. Eventually she told us, “North Korea just needs God.”

As we continue to chip away at the lies of the North Korean government something profound happens within the North Korean refugees we help. They begin to shift away from their worship from Kim Il Sung to recognizing and submitting to the authority and worthiness of Jesus. This is a slow and arduous process, which takes much time and many resources. But it’s why Crossing Borders exists.

Please pray for us as we continue in this work of ending deception and bringing the light of truth to the North Korean refugees and their people who have been isolated from the rest of the world.