underground railroad

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:

To Stay or Leave - North Korean Refugee in China

You’re starving. You’re about to be arrested in North Korea for something that you wouldn’t give a second thought to in the free country. So you run. You walk through the night to elude the police. Avoid contact with people during the day. You’re tired. You’re starving. You wade across a river and make it to China.

But when North Koreans cross into China, they are not in the clear. They are often in danger and need assistance.

This is what is happening now to a North Korean refugee we are in contact with. She is a young woman who we will call “Soon Me.”

Soon Me went to China when she was in her teens. Her mother was sold to a Chinese man so Soon Me was left on her own to find safety and work. She picked up Mandarin quickly and started working at local restaurants as a waitress. For years she has lived like this. She works hard and stays in touch with her mom.

Recently, her step-father visited the restaurant she is working in and revealed to the owners where she was from for reasons unclear to us. He demanded the owners pay him to keep quiet.

It is illegal to help to a North Korean refugee in China. You can be jailed for giving a North Korean a meal. But now Soon Me is outed. She cannot work anymore and she is afraid to leave her house.

These are the issues North Korean refugees face on a daily basis in China. Even the possibility of someone revealing their identity can send fear through them. Soon Me is looking for safety.

Crossing Borders is working with her to see what her best option is. We can move her to another city or we can send her through the Underground Railroad that will take her to Southeast Asia where she will be granted refugee status and where she will be able to move to many free countries throughout the world.

The consequences for either of these options are daunting.

If she stays, she will live under a cloud of fear. Perhaps her father-in-law can find her and threaten her and the people who are helping her. Perhaps someone else will find out the truth and she will have to run again. She will most likely have to cut off ties to her mother.

If she takes the Underground Railroad, she might be caught, arrested and sent back to a North Korean prison camp where she will be tortured and even executed. Also, there are many unsavory people who operate as mercenaries on the Underground Railroad. Soon Me can be mistreated along the way. She could get on an operator’s nerves and be left behind with no one to help.

These are just a few of the daunting consequences we have to consider with Soon Me before we move her.

Over the past 11 years we have helped people like Soon Me who were in predicaments like these and take extra precautions to mitigate the dangers. Many North Koreans around the world have found freedom and many more receive life-sustaining aid through our partnerships with donors.

Please pray for us as we make our next decision with Soon me. There are no perfect answers, only perfect peace through Christ.

**Update**

A couple months ago, we connected Soon Me with another organization who has a vast amount of experience on the Modern Day Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad stretches from Northeast China to Southeast Asia and has delivered many North Korean refugees safely out of China so they can start new lives in countries such as South Korea and the US.

Soon Me was instructed to meet a Underground Railroad guide in a public place and when she did, she told us that she was mistreated and was again in hiding.

She made it to one of our workers one day to seek help and after staying with her for a couple weeks, she again left, this time in the middle of the night. She only left a note saying she was thankful for our help and would contact us soon.

She has not contacted us and we do not know where she is. Our field worker said that she didn't seem unhappy or that Soon Me expressed any desire to leave.

The lives and motivations of North Korean refugees are complicated. Crossing Borders helps them if they want help but don't press them. They are in fear. Often times their fears are unfounded but we respect that this is how they are.

North Koreans grow up under a cloud of scrutiny. They can be punished for expressing their feelings. So it is often difficult to read them.

It is likely Soon Me has moved to another city in China and has started a new life. She has our phone numbers and we have expressed to her that we will always be there if she needs help but for now, she's gone.

It is sad to think about the tens of thousands of North Koreans who, like Soon Me, are living on the run with no plans for their future and living day to day. They carry with them the pain of leaving their homelands and the suffering of entering a country who does not welcome them.

Crossing Borders exists to help people like Soon Me, this generation of North Koreans who are starving, hurt and lost. Though we have helped thousands find safety in China and freedom outside of China, it is stories like Soon Me that affect us the most. Our doors will always be open for her and our phones always on.

North Korean Refugees: A Meaningless Epidemic

What is it like to realize that everything you once thought true is not? How does it feel when you realize up is down and down is up? This is happening to tens of thousands of North Korean refugees and people today today. "Eun," a North Korean refugee, lived a relatively normal life in North Korea. She worked odd jobs, as a child, through the famine. She had full belief in her government until she heard a knock at the door of her home. It was a North Korean woman who had returned from a stay in China. The woman was pregnant and about to give birth.

Eun worked as a midwife when she was 12. She helped this complete stranger deliver a baby in her living room. When it was discovered that the baby was conceived in China, word spread quickly to the authorities and the woman and child were sent to prison. Eun was interrogated harshly for days about her association to this woman.

“It was then I began to question the regime and everything that I knew,” Eun said. “I was lost.”

Many North Korean refugees speak of a point in their lives when they began to question what their country taught them. North Korean children are indoctrinated at a very early age to believe in the god-like power of their founder, Kim Il Sung. They are also taught that they live in paradise on earth.

North Koreans do not have legal access to any information that can dispute their government’s claims. All foreign media is banned. They have no Internet access. They are in a bubble of lies. When the bubble pops, they are often left in shock, grief and lives that feel as if they are void of meaning.

With information from the outside world leaking into North Korea and North Korean refugees spilling out, there is a crisis of depression growing in North Koreans around the world.

This weight of self-doubt and betrayal only adds to the already treacherous and terrible conditions many North Korean refugees suffer in China. Most women who enter into China are sold as commodities to the highest bidder. Many are treated like slaves and forced to cook, raise livestock and farm.

North Korean refugees are also hunted down by the Chinese police and forced to live in terror. If caught, they are sent back, imprisoned, tortured and even executed. Many women in China stay inside and keep an eye on a window. Fear and insecurity rules over their every waking moment.

It is in this crisis that Crossing Borders enters into the lives of North Korean refugees. Many tell us how that they disjointed they feel after they realize they’ve been lied to their whole lives.

North Koreans are taught to hate Americans and especially Christians. Americans are supposed to be cannibals. Christians are supposed to be evil, wicked people who will bring them pain. When North Korean refugees realize that their only means of sustenance and safety are delivered by American Christians, they feel upside-down.

Crossing Borders works to bring meaning into the lives of North Korean refugees by empowering them to follow their dreams. Eun arrived in China with her father, who unable to receive proper treatment for edema. He died shortly after they arrived in China. When our missionaries first met her, she was afraid, mourning in the wake of her father’s death.

Eun experienced great mistreatment following her father's passing because she was recognized as a North Korean refugee. She hid in the guardianship of a woman who used her for long hours of unpaid labor as a maid. Eun worked so hard that the skin on her hands began to crack. She came to us only as she realized that her "guardian" was in the process of negotiating a deal to sell her to a Chinese man in a forced marriage. Having encountered the world outside of North Korea in such a harsh and cruel way, having lost her father and all hope for a life outside of fear and poverty, Eun felt as if her life was crashing down around her.

Crossing Borders worked quickly to verify Eun’s story, understanding that time was of the essence. Once we determined she was telling the truth, we helped her escape China. She was able to attain North Korean refugee status on the Underground Railroad and enter South Korea.

However, like many North Korean defectors, Eun had difficulty in South Korea, where she was discriminated against. She thought she would be better off in Canada, where she lives today.

It is an amazing thing to see Eun living now, outside the oppressive conditions of China and North Korea. She recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy with her husband who is also a North Korean refugee. She emails our staff pictures and thanks us for helping her. She wrote this in one of her emails to our staff:

“Teacher, I will live diligently for the day of reunification of North and South and for my home village in North Korea. I have a dream. Some people tell me that my dream cannot come true. But, I believe my dream will come true someday if it's Jesus' will. And, in whatever I do, I want to be a person who spreads good news about God.”

Eun is now living a life of meaning. Not only because she has gained freedom from Chinese and North Korean authorities. It is because through her journey, she was able to find God's compassion in our work, to find meaning in the gospel which drove us to such lengths to help her. Crossing Borders is thankful to have been a part of the process of sharing and revealing God's love for her in our work to free her from physical and spiritual bondage.

Please pray for Eun and the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees who have not experienced the liberating power of the gospel. Please pray for Crossing Borders to continue to show the compassion of Christ to these people.