Staff Notes: North Korean Refugees, Memories, Home

The following post was written by Crossing Borders volunteer staff: Years before I started volunteering with Crossing Borders to serve North Korean refugees and orphans, I remember going on a brief visit to Northeast China with my grandfather. We stopped at a North Korean restaurant staffed by beautiful young North Korean waitresses. The North Korean government owns several restaurants throughout Asia, which are fully staffed and managed by approved North Korean patriots under the employ of their government. My grandfather, a North Korean refugee, who was born in North Korea and still had siblings living there, asked the women about their lives and their families. I knew he took pity on their situations. Although they were living in relative freedom in China they were, essentially, still enslaved to the North Korean government, working long hours for little pay. Yet with frozen smiles and identical expressions, each professed their undying devotion to their homeland and their “Eternal Father” Kim Il Sung. They each wore a small red Kim Il Sung pin on their uniforms and spoke no ill of their leader.

A few years later, I found myself watching a documentary entitled State of Mind, which followed the lives of two young North Korean gymnasts as they prepared with single-minded devotion for "The Mass Games”, a performance held in honor of North Korea's leader. The gymnasts placed all their efforts and hopes into the chance that they might perform for Kim Jong Il. Their months of labor and practice resulted in a flawless performance. But on the day of the Games, the Supreme Commander failed to show. , The disappointment and pain in their eyes was evident.

Many of the North Korean refugees assisted by Crossing Borders long to return to their homes in North Korea. Though they have been informed that their leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are not gods, that North Korea is not paradise on earth, their home still beckons them from a distance. Memories and shared histories are still too powerful to forget. This is perhaps why my own grandfather remains drawn to any news about his former home, why he continues to travel along the border between China and North Korea, hoping to catch glimpses of any North Koreans on the other side.

On one of our visits, while riding a tourist ferry along the Tumen River, we happened to see some North Korean children playing in the water. They were close enough that we could hear their laughter. My grandfather reached out his arms and wistfully remarked that he wished there was something he could give them. Only half-joking, he thought of throwing them small bags of rice or money. But soon our small tour boat turned around and we were headed back, moving further and further away from the shores of North Korea.