North Korean Refugees: Food and Nostalgia

Some of the most reminiscent and nostalgic discussions we have had with North Korean refugees in our Restore Life program have been about food. Close your eyes for a moment and think about the food that best encapsulates your hometown. Whatever it is, a sandwich, a taco, a hot dog or maybe even a certain soup, how would you feel if you could never go home and eat it?

Many of us on staff, while in China, will talk for hours about the food we miss from back home. These discussions are often accompanied by distant looks in our eyes as we long for things like pizza, peanut butter or French fries.

North Korean refugees have the same conversations. However, unlike us, they have little hope to ever eat their favorite dishes again. North Korean refugees have an even deeper connection to their food because the famine made every morsel all the more precious.

Our missionaries recently took three North Korean refugee women out for dinner and they had one of these conversations. These women are usually shy and muted but the topic of food brought life to their faces.

These were some of things the North Korean refugees in our care missed:

“HeeKyung”: Salted Pollack Soup

“My family would sit together and eat this when it would snow so high that it reached above our knees. On those days I would eat fresh salted Pollack. The taste would shoot in my mouth. I wish I can taste it again.”

“AeHyun”: Potato Noodles and Pyongyang Style Nengmyun (buckwheat noodles with beef broth)

“The noodles are very clear and thin. It’s my favorite noodle.  You can have it in hot soup or mixed with spicy paste. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. And there is nothing compared to Pyongyang buckwheat noodles! I miss it so much.  The Chinese don’t have buckwheat noodles. Pyongyang noodles must be made with buckwheat. During the famine, we only dreamt about food, especially white rice. We left our homes for food. It’s sad.”

“OakSoon”: ‘Eun Eo’ Sweet Roasted Yellowfish

“Only in XX city people could eat it because there were many business people. They could afford to buy fish. Also, I miss corn noodles in hot soup.”

Please pray for these North Korean refugee women who long for more than a taste, but for their homes. They are foreigners in a strange land with a different language and unfamiliar foods. Please pray that their hunger might be filled by the only One who can satisfy.

Prayers for North Korean Refugees: A Look Inside

Despite the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees that have crossed illegally into China, there are a few ways for a North Korean to visit China legally: 1. by visiting a relative, 2. by obtaining an official work visa and 3. by visiting on official state business. Recently Crossing Borders had contact with a North Korean woman who was visiting her relatives in China. We will call her “Lee-hae.”

We interviewed her at a house of one of our local field workers. She was skinny. She rarely looked up at the interviewer. She cried when speaking about her children. It was striking that, despite her legal status in China, her situation was no less desperate than the hundreds of North Korean refugees we’ve met with “illegal” status.

She was able to give insight into the current situation in North Korea and why things are still miserable there, despite recent attempts at reform.

Lee-hae said that the food situation in North Korea is still desperate. Many aid organizations that have access to the country say that the situation is as bad, if not worse than the famine of the 1990s.

“In the city people can eat once or twice a day but on the farm there is nothing to eat because the government takes all of the harvest for the military,” Lee-hae told us.

She lives in a small town near the border and often sees balloons flying in from South Korea with pamphlets and sometimes small morsels of food. The government orders the pamphlets and food to be thrown away. They say that the food is poisonous. But Lee-hae was so hungry that she ate it anyway.

Despite her troubles in North Korea, Lee-hae said that she would continue to go back and forth to China because she doesn’t want to abandon her husband.

If given a chance, this is what most North Koreans would do. They would go back and forth from China to North Korea to eat and then return to their homes to be with their friends and family. This is precisely what is happening today, except the overwhelming majority of the estimated 100,000 North Korean refugees do so illegally and are at risk of being captured, tortured and even executed because they are hungry and have the wherewithal to do something about it.

But despite the dire situation there are glimmers of hope. On one of Lee-hae’s legal trips to China, she became a Christian.

“When I heard the Gospel first time I could not believe it because I was very afraid of the North Korean government,” she said, sobbing.

Crossing Borders will continue to be a contact point for North Koreans and North Korean refugees in Northeast China. We will share our faith with them and hope that some, like Lee-hae will bring the gospel home.

We believe that we have both sowed and reaped seeds of the underground church inside North Korea over the past 10 years. Please pray that we would be able to effectively minister to North Korean refugees and the North Korean people and that someday our work will create true, lasting change inside the country.