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. 

Next Steps: Reaching back to move forward

Second Wave is a program Crossing Borders operates to show the compassion of Christ to the children of North Korean refugee women. According to a US Government report, 70 percent of all North Korean refugees are women and 80 percent of them have been trafficked.

Let’s do the math here. If there have been an estimated 500,000 North Korean refugees who have fled to China since the famine, then approximately 350,000 of them are women. This means that 245,000 North Korean women have been sold in China.

An important fact to remember, that helps us understand this astonishing statistic, is that every North Korean refugee in China is an outlaw. China denies these people the most basic human rights, even though the country signed the UNHCR Refugee Convention of 1951. It is illegal to help a North Korean refugee, according to Chinese law. North Korean refugees are hunted down, arrested and deported to North Korea and sent to prison camps where they face torture and possible execution.

This leaves many children who have been born to North Korean mothers at risk. Many of these children have had mothers stolen away from them at the hands of Chinese authorities.

When Jong was about 6 years old, his mother was captured by Chinese officers and has not  been heard from since. He vaguely remembers what his mother looks like. He is in his teens now.

Jong’s father is a farmer and walks with a limp in one leg. His father has had brain surgery in the past, and is very forgetful. Because Jong’s father is not able to take care of him, Jong was brought to a Crossing Borders group home and has been under our care since.

Jong is a kind-hearted boy, who often looks for the approval of his caretaker, teachers, and other adults. He has often struggled in school, and has been described as slow by his teachers. Because of this, he has lacked effort and interest in his studies in the past.

However, Jong’s attitude changed last year, when two new boys were brought into his group home. Jong was told that he had to serve as an example for these two younger children and he took this call to action to heart. This past year, he has been much more studious and has been making better grades at school.

On a visit to China by our team last winter, Jong was found in his bedroom studying by himself while the rest of this housemates were playing games.

This summer, Crossing Borders sent a team to run a camp for children in our Second Wave program. During free time, the counselors reserved a room where children could talk to counselors about their problems and ask for prayers.

Jong met with one of our team members  and shared that he was beginning to remember his mother. Memories of her come in brief flashes but had a powerful impact on him. As the counselor prayed for him, Jong cried. For the first time in his life, Jong realized he really missed his mother, and wished he could be with her.

Crossing Borders understands that though progress and healing is underway, some of  the wounds in the hearts of these children are deep and often suppressed. China is a land of progress and many children are encouraged to forget painful memories from their past and work toward a brighter future. But in our work, Crossing Borders has found that sometimes, this isn’t possible. For children like Jong, old wounds come back regardless of how much a child tries to stifle them.

At the heart of Crossing Borders’ work is an effort to give these children an avenue to express their pain and to teach them to deal with it through principles taught in the Bible. This is our primary task as an organization in the face of such hardship. As we add programs and structure, this will not change.

What will become of Jong depends upon how he can process these old memories. It is our hope that he would be able to do so in a healthy, productive way and that he would be ready for whatever life throws at him.

This story can be found in our Newsletter, which was published last week. To get a copy of our newsletter, click on this link and sign up.

The Black Mushroom Project - What has happened, what we've learned

In 2013 Crossing Borders launched a new initiative called "The Black Mushroom Project." The project was aimed at helping refugees support themselves through income-generating projects that would combat poverty. Over the past 18 months, we have been able to make a significant difference in the lives of those who we help through The Black Mushroom Project, though the ways it has helped has been unexpected.

One of the first people we helped through this project is "Me Hae." By going through the loan process with her, we have been able to learn how to shape this project going forward.

Me Hae grew up in rural North Korea. Her father died when she was eight-years-old. While he was alive, he would beat her mom so hard that they had to close their business selling small wares at the market because of the injuries she sustained. So Me Hae had to work odd jobs from an early age.

When she was in her teens, she went to a border city to find work but instead she was taken to China without her knowledge and sold to a Chinese man. Unlike most of the other refugees we help, Me Hae had never heard of China. She was never told that, if she moved there, she could eat and find work.

After just a year in China, Me Hae was captured by the Chinese police and sent to a prison camp in North Korea. She went back to China after she was released. All she wanted was to stay for a short period of time to make money on her second trip. She was staying with an aunt. Next door to her lived a man who fell in love with her. They married shortly after they met.

For more than a decade, they lived happily in Northeast China and had two children together. This was despite the systematic police raids that would happen in their village since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

When we launched The Black Mushroom Project in 2013, we thought she and her husband would be the ideal candidates for the project because of their strong relationship and the hard work both of them put into their farm.

But the raids persisted. The village where they lived is near China's border with North Korea and was home to a Chinese military installation. Earlier this year the Chinese authorities performed the most aggressive sweep of the area that Me Hae had ever seen. Many of her friends were either captured and sent back to North Korea or were so scared, they left on their own.

This left Me Hae with a difficult choice. After careful consideration, she chose to take the Underground Railroad with the funds she earned through The Black Mushroom Project. She has made it safely to Southeast Asia with one of her children and has promised to bring her husband and other child to South Korea as soon as possible.

In spite of her challenges, she was able to pay back her loan with interest.

The Black Mushroom Project worked for Me Hae because she was able to draw from the funds she earned from her loan to pay for her freedom. It didn't work as planned because the loan didn't give her sustainability, which is the primary goal of this project.

We have taken a hard look at this program and we have realized that it will only work if the refugee is in a place of safety. This is why it is so important for Crossing Borders to keep survey data on our refugees. Through our annual surveys, we can track how we are doing in our efforts to bring these people to safety.

Believe it or not, this is possible in China.

China's border with North Korea has a lot of military activity. Though China does not see North Korea as a military threat, they know that their ally North Korea is unstable. The closer one lives to the border, the more vigilant the Chinese authorities will be.

There are areas in China where the authorities are not trained to look for North Koreans. We have been engaging with villages in these outer regions to help the North Koreans who have found their way to these areas. The outlook and perspective of these refugees is completely different from the ones who live anywhere near the border.

We have found a promising location with a population of North Korean refugees, which number into the thousands. The refugees here have told us that they feel safe but that they need help generating revenue for themselves.

We will tell you more about this area in our next post. Stay tuned.