North Korean Refugees: Ok-seo’s Struggle for Peace and Heat

Crossing Borders has two organizational functions: first, to raise funds and second, to use these funds wisely to help North Korean refugees in China. But sometimes it is easy for us to think that the funds that we raise can solve every problem. As you pray with us this year, please pray for that we would rely on God for everything. The ongoing life of "Ok-seo", a North Korean refugee in our care who we have shared about before through our blog, continues to remind us that the most important thing for us to do is to ask God to take control in the life of our refugees.

Ok-seo has trouble picking up her husband’s native tongue: Mandarin. This causes a lot of trouble in her household. She gets into fights with her husband and is often physically abused by him. But she cannot leave her family because they have a son and it would be difficult for her to run away with her young child.

Ok-seo’s family went without heat this past winter. We have been helping her with a small, monthly stipend for the past couple years to cover living expenses. Ok-seo's husband, however, decided late last year to stop working for reasons unclear to Ok-seo and our workers on the ground.

Her husband is described as extremely lazy by Ok-seo and our missionaries. He was coddled as a child and is unable to handle adversity, according to our sources familiar with the couple.

China’s northernmost recesses are extremely cold in the winter. Ok-seo lives near the border of Siberia, where it can reach 30 to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit without the wind chill. It’s hard for us to imagine how hard it is for the family to stay warm without heat.

It would be easy for us to raise funds to give the couple extra funds to heat their home but we fear this will give Ok-seo's husband even less incentive to work. We could also cut our support to them all together to encourage her husband to work but this would leave the family without enough food.

Last year we posted a video of Ok-seo singing a song she wrote about God’s grace in her life. This song is based on a traditional North Korean tune used to praise Kim Il Sung.

North Korean Refugee Sings a Song She Wrote from Crossing Borders on Vimeo.

Her song is an example of how Ok-seo, like many North Korean refugees in our care, has replaced a man-made idol for the true and living God. Through her struggles she continues to lean on God to carry her through.

As she was explaining her situation to our staff member, Ok-seo expressed her thankfulness at how God had changed her heart. Her circumstances might not have improved but she has something that she never had before.

“Before I had no hope,” she said in a recent interview. “Now I have hope.”

Though Ok-seo’s circumstances are dire, her soul continues to soar with supernatural strength and courage.

As we continue to pray for Ok-seo and North Korean refugees like her, we pray not for more money but that God would get involved in her marriage and that in Christ her husband might change. Please pray with us as we continue to seek wisdom in helping Ok-seo.

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.