The long road to South Korea

North Korean defectors rest in a hotel room in Thailand. They will be sent to Seoul, where they will become South Korean citizens.   (Paula Bronstein / For The Washington Post)

North Korean defectors rest in a hotel room in Thailand. They will be sent to Seoul, where they will become South Korean citizens. 

(Paula Bronstein / For The Washington Post)

Instead of the short one hour and 45 minute flight from a Shenyang, China to Seoul, refugees who defect from North Korea face a much more grueling and dangerous route to safety.

Via buses, long walks over mountains, boats and hiding in the dark at border checkpoints, these refugees will journey from North Korea, through China, Laos or Vietnam, and finally Thailand, where they can request asylum and be transported to South Korea.

"I kept thinking: Imagine if I made it this far and then I got caught in Laos," a young mother said.

The article follows a group of refugees who have paid smugglers to transport them through any means possible – for the hope of a new life in South Korea. Whether it’s for new economic prospects or the fear of returning as a repatriated defector, each traveler focuses on their motivations to escape as they continue along the “underground railroad.”

Read the full Chicago Tribune story here:

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. 

PTSD and North Korean Refugees

For North Koreans in China, finding help from anyone can be difficult. This is especially true for finding medical care. But for those who struggle with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD), finding help can be impossible. China struggles to deliver quality medical care to its citizens. The World Health Organization has ranked China’s medical care system 144 out of a possible 190 countries.

We found this to be true when we recently brought a doctor from the US to assess the medical needs of the refugees in our network. Refugees who had access to some medical care were often misdiagnosed or over prescribed medicines that didn’t treat the cause of their symptoms.

We also found that the refugees in our network were relatively healthy. They do not suffer from issues that many people in the developed world suffer from, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes. Many of the symptoms that the refugees suffer from can in fact be related to PTSD.

Along with the internal symptoms of this condition (irritability, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, angry outbursts, etc.), many of our refugees display psychosomatic symptoms of PTSD. These are symptoms from a mental disorder that manifest themselves physically.

The symptoms that our doctor saw last year were all in line with textbook PTSD. Even in our new area where the refugees feel safe from immediate harm, they still display strong symptoms of PTSD.

It is important for us to handle this condition in a way that is consistent with our faith and is culturally sensitive.

The good news is that treatment for PTSD was already occurring. We have and are forming new faith communities. These communities are a place for our refugees to gather together for worship and fellowship.

This is happening in our communities now. This year we started three churches in the new area we are working in. Already, these churches are thriving and they are helping our people deal with the trauma they experienced in North Korea and China.

We will continue to improve our services but the bulk of their needs are being met. Please pray for us as we continue to support these churches and further expand our reach.