North Korean Mothers, Chinese Fathers: Caught in the Middle

“Amy,” a North Korean mother who lives in the U.S., has not seen her daughter, who lives in China, in over a decade. Amy’s ex-husband purchased her at the height of the Great North Korean Famine in the early 2000s, when she had arrived in China as a North Korean refugee. She fled China and chose to make her home in America. Amy lives in the Midwest, has a steady job and has remarried.

We recently met Amy in Chicago. She had an odd request: To obtain guardianship over her daughter from her ex-husband’s family and so they could be reunited in the U.S.

Amy’s ex-husband’s family will not grant her request unless she promises to help her husband get a work visa and a job in the U.S., a request that is impossible for Amy to fulfill because she and her ex-husband are not legally married. Amy is also scared that, if her husband comes to the U.S., he might harm her. Crossing Borders told her that we couldn’t help because it is outside the scope of our mission.

Half-North Korean children such as Amy's daughter are often in the middle of disputes that they have little to do with. Many North Korean children in the care of Crossing Borders are in similar predicaments.

Kyung Min, a teenage boy who has been in our care since 2009, has a North Korean mother who fled China for South Korea. Kyung Min’s caretakers say that his mother “lives to get revenge on his father’s family” because she was abused after they purchased her as a forced bride. She often uses Kyung Min to slight his father’s family by making promises to them, then reneging or by sending messages to the family through Kyung Min.

This has gone on for over five years. And though Kyung Min’s caretakers have tried to shield him from this ongoing battle, he is entering into adolescence and is more aware that he is at the center of an ongoing dispute. It is hard for him to not have seen his mother in years, but to realize that much of her contact with him has been to manipulate him to hurt his father's family is a difficult matter for Kyung Min to cope with as he matures.

The lives of these children and their relationships with their North Korean mothers are complex. To say that we have put systems and rules in place to tackle all their issues is foolish. The best we can do is make sure our workers on the ground have been engaging with our children’s every need. We can say that our current workers truly love our children and that they make sure every hair on their head is in place and every problem they have is attended to.

Crossing Borders cares more about people than systems. As we continue to grow, we want to make sure we don’t lose this.

Please pray for us as we deal with diverse and complicated matters in families of Chinese fathers, lost children, distant North Korean mothers. Pray for our caretakers who deal with these problems day in and day out. And pray for our children, who are trying to make sense of their complex situations.

North Korean Refugees: Suggestions for Kim Jong Un

As an organization at work in aiding North Korean refugees who escape out of the Hermit Kingdom, Crossing Borders is careful to keep up-to-date on the news coming out of the country. Some of the information coming out of North Korea this year has been heartening. A shorter hemline signals a country that is beginning to change with the times. A first lady is making the regime seem more people-friendly. All of these things are great. Recently North Korean media released text of a speech Kim Jong Un made to the Workers’ Party on July 26, which called for reforms to the country’s economic system. In the speech, Kim stated that the party would focus on “developing the economy and improving livelihoods, so that the Korean people lead happy and civilized lives.” Even better.

But if nation would really like to show its strength, it must welcome North Korean refugees back into the country without the risk of punishment.

In spending time with North Korean refugees along the border and in South Korea, it is obvious to many of our field workers and staff that they miss their families back home. Because North Korea maintains a stranglehold on all forms of communication, it is very difficult for families to communicate and virtually impossible for them to see each other.

This is the agonizing decision that all North Korean refugees who fled their country have made. One family in this position comes to mind.

Our staff met the "Lee" family in a restaurant in Northeast China a few years ago. They were upstanding members of the Workers’ Party and, according to them, they had never starved because of their class standing and they had never committed a crime. This was until they couldn’t find food around 2007. The patriarch of this family of four had to make the tough choice to go into the illegal money transfer business.

Within months he was caught and had a few hours to decide what to do. He fled with his wife and his teenage daughter to China. His son, who was in elementary school, was left with relatives. They feared he would slow the family’s escape. When the family met with our staff for dinner, they could hardly focus on the meal as they told their story. All they could talk about was their son who was trapped in North Korea.

As a response, Crossing Borders helped send money into North Korea to get their son out of the country.

What do Kim Jong Un and the Democratic People's Republic leaders fear most about allowing North Korean refugees back into their country? Information. With an inflow of people who have seen the prosperity of the outside world, North Korea is afraid that their people might grumble for change and the ruling elite might lose power.

But change is already afoot. DVDs from the outside world are secret, but commonplace. People get news regularly from foreign news outlets beaming short wave radio signals into the country. Illegal cell phones connected to the Chinese networks are available to some through the black market.

What is North Korea trying to shield its people from? The cat is out of the bag.

For people to live in happiness they must be given the opportunity to see their families. New economic reforms will undoubtedly open the country up even more. There is no risk in slowly allowing North Korean refugees back to help rebuild the country that they love. This will help North Koreans live, as Kim Jong Un states, "happy and civilized lives."