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. 

Prayer for North Korean Refugees: Effects of Hiding

A member of our American staff recalls his experience not too many years ago, standing over the Tumen River on a broken bridge. Not far from where he stood, across the river, was North Korea. Our staff member remembers seeing a few guard houses, mountains stripped of their vegetation. The river had frozen solid in the Siberian cold, and in the snow were the footprints of North Korean refugees who had fled across the ice. Once a North Korean refugee flees into China, their lives depend on how quickly they are able to blend in. Steps must be taken to avoid being noticed. Clothes must quickly be changed in the dark. They must clean themselves of any marks of travel or fatigue. Two things have a potential tip their hand: their height and their language. They must always be mindful of who is watching. Fear and suspicion begin to settle into their every waking moment as their lives depend on how cautious they are in everything they do.

Our staff was able to visit a small village in the Chinese countryside where the police had raided and captured much of the North Korean refugee population. One boy, now an orphan, had witnessed his mother being tackled by the police and dragged away.

One of the few remaining refugees approached our missionaries, dropped to her knees and begged. She pleaded, “Can you please help me get out of here?”

She couldn’t muster up any other words. She was shaking and visibly terrified.

North Korean refugees are aware that they have been watched for almost their whole lives in their homeland. Relatives and even their own children may be asked to inform on them as a test of their loyalty. They have heard of spies who will report any "unpatriotic activities". But in China, where refugees cannot grow close to anyone, cannot distinguish generous help from malevolent deception, cannot begin to even consider trust as a valid option, North Korean refugees are trapped in a state of unending instability and paranoia.

Some North Korean refugees in China have lived with this looming shadow of fear for more than a decade. For them, the anxiety and dread has seeped deep into their lives and have taken their toll.

One North Korean refugee who made it to South Korea after more than five years in China told us that, the day she got her legal ID, she slept with it in her palm and cried herself to sleep.

Please pray for those who are hiding this week. It is no way to live. Please help us as we minister to them, comfort them, and pray for their healing in the security and protection of Christ.

"Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, 'Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.'"

- Isaiah 35:3-4