North Korean Refugees

A Thanksgiving Wish from Our Executive Director

A group of North Korean women and their children prepare a meal for us during one of our visits.

A group of North Korean women and their children prepare a meal for us during one of our visits.

The following post was written by our Executive Director, Dan Chung.

I had a meal with a family who narrowly escaped North Korea as the authorities attempted to arrest them about eight years ago. In the rush to flee, they had to make the difficult decision to leave their youngest daughter behind. The three sat with me in a restaurant, father, mother and oldest daughter. None of them could eat because they were wracked with worry and guilt.

Crossing Borders has sat with North Koreans going through the worst of circumstances. Over the years I’ve learned to stay quiet and speak only when asked.

People sometimes ask me if I have trouble celebrating when I've witnessed so much sadness in the world. They’ve asked if events we host should be so ‘fun’ when the purpose is to remember those who have suffered so much.

My answer lies at the heart of the season we are about to celebrate: Thanksgiving. For through the simple act of giving thanks, we acknowledge the brokenness in this world but we also remember how blessed we are.

The first American Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in a time of immense difficulty for the Pilgrims, who had just landed on American shores one year prior.

“So, in some way, that day of Thanksgiving is also coming out of mourning,” said Kathleen Donegan, author of “Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America.” “But we don’t think about the loss, we think about the abundance.”

Donegan is correct. When we think about Thanksgiving, we often think of the copious food and drink at the table. But the holiday was born out of sorrow and hardship.

Some of the most grateful people I have ever met are North Korean women. Women who have been robbed of everything they held precious: their families, their freedoms and their dignity. And yet, in the midst of these sorrows, they are joyful. They joke around, do impressions of each other and even their Dear Leader, sing and play games like little children. It is truly a sight to behold.

They are thankful not despite their circumstances but rather their circumstances drive them to focus on the good. From these women I am reminded that we can be truly thankful when we realize how fragile our circumstances are.

So when we feast this Thanksgiving, I hope we don’t push the uncomfortable thought of North Korean refugees and other suffering out of mind. This can only lead to guilt. I hope we hold them in our hearts so that we can truly remember how blessed we are.

North Korean Refugees' Instilled Reverence

A few years ago, we met a North Korean refugee whose house caught fire while home with his family in North Korea. He was able to save his wife and daughter, he said. But after the fire was extinguished he was arrested and imprisoned. Every North Korean household is given a picture of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Each citizen must hang these pictures in a prominent place in their home and make sure they are dusted and straightened regularly. These photos are of utmost importance in the lives of North Koreans.

This man was arrested because he went into his home to save his wife and daughter, not the pictures. He was recently released from several years in prison and escaped to China as a North Korean refugee.

People often ask us how the North Korean regime is able to retain power. A western government that instilled such draconian measures, they say, would surely incite a revolt. But the North Korean regime holds power because it instills an unshakeable fear in the hearts and minds of its citizens. But times are changing and the vice grip the regime once had on the hearts and minds of its people is eroding.

North Korea's control on the minds of its citizens is an issue we have to deal with for many of the North Korean refugees we've met, especially when we started working with them in 2003. North Korean refugees would cower in fear when we would first meet them. They were taught that Americans are baby-eating monsters.

But things are changing. As information is creeping into North Korea from the outside world, the regime is losing its “reverence capital.” The result of this isn’t a callousness to authority and power, but quite the opposite, the people of North Korea have been left with a deep longing to honor a higher authority.

North Korean refugees are coming to China savvy of the situation they are in. They know about their government. They know about the prosperity of the outside world. But with this knowledge they are also seeking something else essential to their lives.

Melanie Kirkpatrick’s book, “Escape From North Korea” describes the conversion rates of North Korean refugees. Many people insist that North Koreans are converting in China because they are “rice Christians.” Meaning, they convert to receive aid. If this was true, we would not be seeing the robust Christian population of North Korean defectors in South Korea, most of whom claim that they converted in China, according to Kirkpatrick.

Crossing Borders believes the only thing that can satisfy the longing in a person's heart is God. We do not force this belief on anyone but many do come to believe what we do.

A version of this piece was originally posted in 2013. 

North Korean Refugee Workers See the Power of Prayer

The Chinese Police barged into the room where our missionaries were meeting with two North Korean refugees several years ago. There was a Bible open in front of them and it wouldn’t take much for the police to figure out what was going on. One of the officers had a large video camera and began to record everything. Our missionaries make regular visits to the refugees and orphans in our network and are active in helping North Korean refugees with their specific needs. Our missionaries “Frank and Sunny” were taken aback. Sunny was sitting with two refugee women. When the police came in Frank was off in a corner of the room, watching television. Immediately Sunny whispered in English, “don’t turn around.”

He stayed still while the TV blared on.

China punishes male missionaries more harshly than it does women and it punishes missionary couples the most, according to our sources on the ground. Though Christianity is not outlawed, China has a history of being unwelcoming to foreign missionaries. To this day, it is illegal for foreigners to proselytize in China.

Frank and Sunny were terrified and for good reason.

As the police was questioning our missionary and two refugees. They looked around the room and did not see Frank watching television in plain sight. He did not have anything to hide behind and, according to everyone there, it was a miracle that the police didn’t see him. All of a sudden, Frank got up from his chair and said to Sunny, “We have to go,” They put on their shoes and left for home without a word from the police.

That month Crossing Borders was the prayer focus of one of our closest partner churches. Frank and Sunny didn’t know it but this church was busy praying for them. They said the incident reminded them of Acts 12.

“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” – Acts 12:5

Peter was imprisoned for preaching the gospel. As the church prayed, Peter was met by an angel, escorted out of prison and showed up at the prayer meeting the church was holding for him. This must have felt surreal to Peter’s supporters. When a woman announced that Peter was at the prayer meeting, nobody believed her.

Prayer is powerful. In Acts and throughout the Bible, it led to miracles.

This is why we are so focused on getting people to pray with us. Our program #Pray40NK is open to anyone who is willing to take time to ask God for protection and change. Download your prayer guide here.