Staff Notes: Defending the Fatherless - North Korean Orphans

The following post was written by Crossing Borders volunteer staff: There are an estimated 40,000 North Korean orphans in China. The numbers are staggering and it seems there is nothing we can do that would make any difference. "I am only one person!" we cry out, "What can I do?"

According to UNICEF, 21,000 children still die each day of preventable causes. Their mission is "to do whatever it takes to make that number zero by giving children the essentials for a safe and healthy childhood, including health care, clean water, nutrition, education, protection, emergency relief and more." By their definition, an orphan is a child who has lost one or both parents.

There were over 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. It is estimated that there are 143 million to 210 million orphans worldwide. Out of the millions of children orphaned, only 250,000 children are adopted annually, and those who are not adopted are institutionalized until the age of at 18. Ten percent commit suicide. Sixty percent of girls become prostitutes and 70 percent of boys become criminals. As we see the global perspective, we understand that North Korean orphans are a part of a much more shocking picture.

Chicago, where Crossing Borders is based, is the main national hub for human trafficking. Every day there is someone walking through the arrival gates of O'Hare International Airport who is being trafficked. Every year 325,000 children are trafficked in the United States of America and the prime age of sex trafficked children between the ages of nine and 17. Human trafficking is so popular among criminal business groups because a human being can be sold over and over, where as guns and drugs are perishable commodities that can only be sold once. These things also cost money to obtain and produce, where as human beings can be kidnapped and traded like chattel.

Protecting children is something we can all do without breaking the bank. Volunteering at your local school or becoming a foster parent can protect them from the hands of abuse. If this is too much, you can be a safe house, where children stay in your home for a week to a month at a time. This program allows parents who lack in resources to place their children under that care of someone who will be able to help provide for them while they look for jobs or get their life situated. This program also allows the parent to receive their children back into their embrace without potentially losing their children to the State.

You can also support organizations that focus on children. Crossing Borders supports and provides holistic care for the North Korean orphans in the care of their Second Wave program. Other organizations such as UNICEF or your local adoption agency can also help you to work in defending the weak and fatherless.

“Defend the cause of the weak and the fatherless; Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.  Deliver the weak and needy from the hand of the wicked.”

- Psalm 82:3-4

The Problem with Numbers and North Korean Refugees

One of the biggest hurdles in trying to convince people to help North Koreans is that there is so much mystery surrounding North Korea. For all the press on the Great North Korean Famine of the late 1990s, experts still disagree on exactly how many North Koreans died from starvation. In 2001, North Korean foreign minister, Choe Su-hon told UNICEF that 220,000 North Koreans died of starvation between 1995 and 1998.

A 1998 memo to the House International Relations Committee stated that 300,000 to 800,000 North Koreans were dying per year at the famine’s peak.

But there is another phantom statistic that makes it hard for Crossing Borders to promote our work: how many North Korean refugees are there in China? People like solid numbers and the absence of one makes people skeptical that a problem even exists. With an absolute statistic people can assess what exactly needs to be done. They can put a dollar figure next to the issue and throw the appropriate amount f money and resources to experts who work in the field.

In 2003, when Crossing Borders officially started work, most experts estimated that there were between one hundred to three hundred thousand North Koreans hiding in China. A recent study by W. Courtland Robinson from Johns Hopkins University pegged the figure at 10,000.

The only thing we know for sure is that the number is big but that’s the equivalent of going to the international community, spreading our arms as wide as we can and saying, “we need this much help.”

Crossing Borders is among the few organizations that has kept our eye on the situation among North Korean refugees for a prolonged period of time. Though we cannot quantify the problem objectively, we are noticing that the number of North Koreans is decreasing in the area in which we work. In 2004 our wait lists for those who needed support were long and the problem at hand was too big for us to handle. Today North Korean refugees are still plentiful in the area but there is no waiting list.

Despite the absence of a solid figure, we have an amazing amount of anecdotal evidence backed by the testimonies of North Koreans who have defected to the South. We also meticulously vet each person who comes through our doors to get the clearest picture on the refugee crisis and on how we can expand our work. We have people on the field who keep their ears to the ground in refugee communities and underground churches. Thus far all the evidence we have gathered indicates that the great number of North Koreans who need our help throughout China are not going away any time soon.

If only that were enough.