Prayer for North Korean Refugees: A Quiet Migration

North Korean refugees have been making their way through China to South Korea for about 15 years. About 27,000 of them have made it through the Modern Day Underground Railroad through Southeast Asia to freedom in South Korea and the rest of the world. But there has been another migration from China to South Korea that has been impacting North Korean refugees in the area. Koreans in China have been migrating to South Korea in droves over the past few years. The Chosun Ilbo recently reported that more than 600,000 Korean Chinese have migrated from China to Korea in 2011. And Bloomberg News reported in 2009 the beginnings of a mass migration of South Korean citizens from China back to their homeland.

This secondary migration has made it even harder for North Korean refugees to hide in the region. There are fewer people who are sympathetic to their needs and fewer members of the underground church to aid them as they seek refuge from the world’s most repressive regime.

Recently, Crossing Borders took in a young girl named “Sunnah”. Sunnah's mother is a North Korean refugee who fled to South Korea through the Underground Railroad. Sunnah and her father were beckoned by her mother to South Korea, where they lived until 2010. In a new country with new possibilities, her mother began to ignore Sunnah and her father. Sunnah's parents began to fight and eventually Sunnah's father returned to a life of poverty in Northeast China, bringing his daughter with him.

To make things worse, Sunnah’s father has a degenerative bone disease. He can no longer walk. They stayed with Sunnah's uncle, who also lived in abject poverty.

Their local underground church was poorly equipped to help because many of their members had moved to South Korea in search of economic opportunities. Our missionaries report rapidly diminishing numbers in congregations of underground churches. Many are left with only the elderly in their congregation.

It was by God’s providence that we met Sunnah and her father through friends of friends. She is being put into a boarding school and is doing better.

Please pray for North Korean refugees in this rapidly changing landscape, many of whom are finding it harder and harder to find help.

The Problem with Numbers and North Korean Refugees

One of the biggest hurdles in trying to convince people to help North Koreans is that there is so much mystery surrounding North Korea. For all the press on the Great North Korean Famine of the late 1990s, experts still disagree on exactly how many North Koreans died from starvation. In 2001, North Korean foreign minister, Choe Su-hon told UNICEF that 220,000 North Koreans died of starvation between 1995 and 1998.

A 1998 memo to the House International Relations Committee stated that 300,000 to 800,000 North Koreans were dying per year at the famine’s peak.

But there is another phantom statistic that makes it hard for Crossing Borders to promote our work: how many North Korean refugees are there in China? People like solid numbers and the absence of one makes people skeptical that a problem even exists. With an absolute statistic people can assess what exactly needs to be done. They can put a dollar figure next to the issue and throw the appropriate amount f money and resources to experts who work in the field.

In 2003, when Crossing Borders officially started work, most experts estimated that there were between one hundred to three hundred thousand North Koreans hiding in China. A recent study by W. Courtland Robinson from Johns Hopkins University pegged the figure at 10,000.

The only thing we know for sure is that the number is big but that’s the equivalent of going to the international community, spreading our arms as wide as we can and saying, “we need this much help.”

Crossing Borders is among the few organizations that has kept our eye on the situation among North Korean refugees for a prolonged period of time. Though we cannot quantify the problem objectively, we are noticing that the number of North Koreans is decreasing in the area in which we work. In 2004 our wait lists for those who needed support were long and the problem at hand was too big for us to handle. Today North Korean refugees are still plentiful in the area but there is no waiting list.

Despite the absence of a solid figure, we have an amazing amount of anecdotal evidence backed by the testimonies of North Koreans who have defected to the South. We also meticulously vet each person who comes through our doors to get the clearest picture on the refugee crisis and on how we can expand our work. We have people on the field who keep their ears to the ground in refugee communities and underground churches. Thus far all the evidence we have gathered indicates that the great number of North Koreans who need our help throughout China are not going away any time soon.

If only that were enough.