prison camps

North Korean Refugees Now – Part 5: Reason for Hope

If you've been following along with us as we post the latest about North Korean refugees, you might have been dismayed. Yes, North Korea continues to wield its influence in the world through essentially pitting the two largest world powers against one another. And yes, the most powerful agent of change, reunification, does not seem likely as interest wanes in South Korea. But as stacked as the deck is against the North Korean people and North Korean refugees in hiding, it's not all doom and gloom.

Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University, reported last year that North Korea's prison camp population is in sharp decline. Refugees report that the tactic of punishing a refugee's whole family for a single person's crime is no longer enforced. He sites the number of North Koreans in prison camps at around 80,000 to 120,000, down from around 200,000 just a few years ago.

Famine seems unlikely despite the North's claims as such. North Korean farmers are being given an unprecedented amount of freedom and these changes seem to be paying off. China has also said they would supply food aid to North Korea, should the worst occur.

But what makes us at Crossing Borders the most optimistic has nothing to do with policy decisions, it has more to do with spirit and strength.

One North Korean refugee who we helped early on, told us a story about his life and times in North Korean prison camps. He described the cramped cells he had to sleep in where people were packed in so tight that no one could move. They slept without mats or blankets on concrete floors and their bodies would develop sores every night from being in the same position for hours.

This young man said that during these times, he never laughed so much. The people he shared these cells with became his best friends and that there is a certain fondness he still holds for his time in what is known as the worst system of political prison camps in the world.

We make sure that, along with helping the people in our network, we try to play games with them and have fun. One very popular game we like to play is called “This is Fun.” It’s basically a staring contest where a group of people sit in a circle and try to make others laugh while not cracking a smile themselves. If you smile, you're out.

A couple years ago, we were playing “This is Fun” with some of our refugees and orphans. One of our US staff members and a master at this game was left with one other refugee woman in the circle. This woman endured the famine, was sold, was placed in hard labor in North Korea’s prison camps, and was raising a daughter under China’s brutal zero tolerance policy for North Korean refugees. She is a strong woman.

During this game, her eyes became cold and she would not crack. The other staff members who witnessed this said that the look in her eyes terrified them. The game ended in a draw and everyone who witnessed this was left mildly disturbed at how strong-willed this woman was.

But this strong, seemingly-callous exterior is symbolic of the millions of North Koreans and North Korean refugees who have survived the worst of conditions. These people may seem cold and hardened on the outside but this is because of their impervious will to survive. It comes from a heart that would not allow the worst of all evils to bring them to dismay. It comes from people who could laugh at the most desperate of circumstances and come out without going insane.

This is what gives us the most hope. It’s not for a better political future. It is for these people who have endured famine and death. It is for those who have seen the very worst of humanity: lying, cheating, stealing, and even cannibalism. And yet many North Korean refugees have found a way to protect themselves and their dignity.

No matter what these people have endured and will face in the future, no matter how long they will have to witness such horror, they will not be broken. In this, we see the grace of God.

The faith that is at the core of what we do inspires and motivates us to make our operations the best they can be. It drives us to help more people. A people certainly worth helping.

Director's Notes: Rapunzel and North Korea

The following post was written by Crossing Borders' Executive Director: For the past year the animated film “Tangled” has been on heavy rotation in my house. It’s Disney’s take on the classic fairy tale, “Rapunzel.” My daughter has really latched onto the story and the songs. If you’re not familiar with the movie, it’s about a girl with magic hair who was kidnapped by a witch when she was a baby. The witch locks her up in a tower and raises her to think there is nothing outside her tower but suffering and pain. Rapunzel escapes, finds love and lives happily ever after.

After about the fifth time watching it, I began to study the film. I analyzed the plot, I picked out bad dialogue and I found holes in the story.

“A woman is locked up in a tower by an evil witch her whole life and she shows no signs of PTSD?” I asked my four-year-old, who wasn’t listening.

Around the eighth time watching it I began drawing parallels between Rapunzel and the North Korean people. Like Rapunzel, North Koreans have been trapped in their own “tower.” But instead of a witch controlling the information that comes in from the outside, it’s a government with a strong army.

North Koreans have no access to the Internet. Their phone network is completely cut off from the rest of the world. It is outlawed for them to watch television shows from the outside (the punishment can be time in their brutal system of labor camps) or listen to songs the regime deems threatening (almost every song that is not originated in North Korea). If someone hears you speak ill of the government, you could be reported, sent to a prison camp and maybe executed.

We have shared on this blog about our North Korean refugee Ae Young, whose job in North Korea was to teach her people about Juche, North Korea’s ideological construct or, as some people have called it, their religion. Even after fleeing out of North Korea for food and seeing the truth and prosperity of the outside world, she still maintained that the North Korean regime had built the greatest government on earth, that all they needed was food.

It was only after two years that she acknowledged North Korea wasn’t the best. She simply said, “They need God.”

After years of captivity, North Koreans, like Rapunzel, are hungry for the outside world.

Rapunzel was starving to see the world outside her tower. She was starving to see the lights of the nearby town, which lit up on her birthday.

Today, North Koreans are starving for DVDs with Korean dramas, shrugging off punishment because such blackmarket items are commonplace. People are smuggling in USB drives with Korean pop music and information about the outside world. Teenagers with cell phones are exchanging files through Bluetooth with music and videos from the outside. And most significant to Crossing Borders, North Koreans are still illegally moving to and from China in search for food and freedom.

Every human has an innate sense of right and wrong, not just when they are confronted with lying or stealing but in a global sense of how the world should or should not be. Both Rapunzel and North Koreans have found a way to climb down from that tower into the truth of the real world.

For those who are willing to take the risk of stepping out into the world, Crossing Borders will be in Northeast China to greet them just over the border. Our mission is to show the compassion of Christ to them and their children with no strings attached. Please pray for us as we continue this work.