By the Numbers

North Korean women gathering for a seminar at our annual retreat for refugees.

North Korean women gathering for a seminar at our annual retreat for refugees.

The Crossing Borders team at our 2018 retreat for refugee women was overwhelmed as they registered our attendees. Each North Korean woman and child who arrived had to be given a name tag, a pen, a notebook and assigned to a room. But rooms at the small motel in the countryside were filling rapidly, and the name tags, pens and notebooks were running low.

Amidst the talking, singing, laughing voices, the team members hurried to and fro in the bustling motel lobby and its rooms. Every once in a while, one of them would look around at the sheer number of the women and children pouring in through the entrance, astounded.

In 2016, Crossing Borders began an annual retreat for North Korean refugee women and their children in China. Its goal to build a community that the North Korean women in hiding could call their own.

The project began very small but our hopes were high. The retreat was to be held every year in a quiet, isolated motel in rural China. The staff was minimal. Twelve women and 10 children attended the retreat in 2016. In 2017, 16 women and 13 children came to join the team in sharing, praying, and counseling.

All of the women in attendance, at one time in their lives, had fled into this foreign country. Almost every one of them were sold on the black market. Several had been physically and psychologically tortured in North Korea’s infamous prison camps. They shared about their traumatic memories, their ongoing hurts, sorrows that seemed to have no end in a world that persecuted them, hated them.

But in this small community, many of the women found a small but significant solace. They could share the unseen scars of their experiences. They could offer encouragement and strength for one another. They could pray desperately together.

Each year, as the annual retreat ended, the Crossing Borders team was thankful that they had the opportunity to provide a small, safe place to share and to pray. But what we did not realize was that we had begun the roots of something much greater than a yearly gathering. We had planted a community.

It is true that the group of 22 refugee women and children following our retreats in 2016 and 2017 was small. But it was also one that remained faithful - even after the retreat had ended.

Women in this community began to share with each other and with their neighbors, not out of necessity but with open and willing hearts. Women like Lois, who we wrote about in our 2017 Annual Report, began to understand that a place of safety did not only provide her comfort, but the strength and motivation to share the compassion she received. The little graces they had received were paid forward and multiplied. Even the North Korean children taught their friends how to sing and dance to the songs they had learned at our retreats.

The community grew.

When our team arrived in China this year for our annual retreat, they were greeted by 36 North Korean refugee women and 40 of their children. Their audience had grown threefold. Friends of friends, neighbors, every North Korean refugee within reach had been shared to. Together, our team and the women and children did not only endure the hardship and persecution they faced. Instead, they thrived.

Michelle's Time for Healing

Michelle (left) after meeting with a Crossing Borders volunteer in China.

Michelle (left) after meeting with a Crossing Borders volunteer in China.

“Michelle’s” face lit up when we asked about her hometown, Musan, North Korea. She described the fresh air, the pink azalea flowers that grew along the mountainside. Everything else about her past that she described to us was misery. We are hoping that, as a new part of our network, things can turn around for her.

Michelle was one of the hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees to flee her country because of the famine that killed an estimated 3 million people in the mid 1990s. She fled north into China with her mother in 1998 but awaiting her and so many others was a different form of misery.

North Korean women were trafficked en masse when they flooded into China in the wake of the famine. They were given no human rights and if caught, they were immediately sent back to a North Korean gulag. So they couldn’t call the police and tell them they were being trafficked. They were stuck.

Michelle and her mother were sold to different men in different cities.

The family who purchased Michelle was cruel. They treated her like a slave and made her work their farm all day and all night. As a result, she has severe back pain and an injured hip, which prevents her from working. We are supporting her with a $50 per month stipend.

Sick of her situation and weary from her injuries, Michelle fled her family but was caught again by a human trafficker and sold to another man, with whom she lives today. Her current husband is good to her, she told us. He allowed Michelle to reunite with her mother and they live together today.

In addition to Michelle’s monthly stipend, entering into our network means that she will be connected to a community of North Korean refugees. She will not be alone in her struggles and she will have people who she can relate to and share about her past trauma. She will have job training available to her as well so that she can pursue a different job that will not require pressure on her back. She will also have access to doctors and therapists that Crossing Borders sends into China to give her quality health care.

Post Trump-Kim Summit: What Now?

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shaking hands at the June summit in Singapore.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shaking hands at the June summit in Singapore.

The Trump-Kim summit came with much fanfare and anticipation. The meeting, which took place in Singapore, was the first time leaders from the two countries met in person. After several hours of discussions, the two nations emerged with a joint agreement by which the two nations agreed to work towards denuclearization. The US has agreed to temporarily stop military drills and North Korea has committed to recovering the remains of fallen soldiers from the Korean War.

This was a good start for the two countries, which just a year ago were threatening the region with nuclear annihilation. But as they say, the devil is in the details. Though a commitment to peace and stability is nice, the two countries must work through a number of contentious issues in order to reach peace and stability. Let’s look at where the negotiations are at now and what these negotiations mean to North Korean refugees.

Negotiating Bumps

After a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month, North Korea said that the US had a “unilateral gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”

It seems that both sides are currently at a virtual standstill in negotiations. The US wants North Korea to denuclearize before they agree to anything. But North Korea wants security assurances before they denuclearize.

This does not mean that the negotiations will fail. We have already seen some surprise twists and turns in the lead up to the June summit and we expect to see some more in the coming weeks and months.

North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal

North Korea showed promising signs toward denuclearization leading into the June summit. They stopped all missile tests and destroyed a nuclear facility.

But recent reports indicate that, despite North Korea’s pledge to work toward denuclearization, the country is quietly working to confuse the international community about the size and scope of their nuclear arsenal. If North Korea is able to successfully deceive weapons inspectors, there is no way for the world to know if the nation will ever truly denuclearize.

Experts fear that, if North Korea does not make any concrete commitments, time will pass and so too will the precious window to make a deal.

North Korean Refugees

You would think that North Korean refugees around the world would not want to go back to their homeland. This is the homeland that has betrayed them, according to their accounts. This is the homeland that many refugees associate with suffering and sorrow.

But most do want to go back if the current regime falls. Like most refugees, North Koreans identify strongly with the people and culture of their country. They have escaped to freedom and truth and many want the same for their countrymen.

The refugees in our network have expressed guarded excitement at the prospect of the talks between the US and North Korea. They feel that change can occur but that change would be extremely difficult to achieve.

We are living in a time where that change is possible, however remote. We know that ultimately, our hope is not in people but in God. We will continue to pray for change in North Korea.