North Koreans have been quietly migrating to China for decades. Their struggles are well documented on this site. But this is just part of the story.
More than 32,000 North Korean refugees have sought refuge in South Korea.
Those Who Make It
It is impossible to tell how many North Korean refugees have desperately attempted the difficult journey to reach South Korea. The number of those who have made it over South Korea’s borders, however, is clear. South Korea says that 32,147 North Korean defectors have sought refuge in South Korea through March, 2019. An overwhelming majority of North Koreans who have found safety in South Korea have endured a journey that takes refugees through mountains, caves, and jungles while hiding fearfully from authorities. It is what many scholars call the “Modern Day Underground Railroad” through China and Southeast Asia.
The subject of Crossing Borders’ intensive research since 2018, however, has been North Korean refugees who make it to South Korea. Our field staff has interviewed experts in South Korea and North Korean refugees living in South Korea to answer an important question:
“What happens to North Koreans when they arrive in South Korea?”
The answer to this question is sad, as many North Koreans who find refuge in South Korea do not necessarily find peace or fulfillment.
Strife and Struggle in South Korea
Upon entry into South Korea, North Korean refugees must pass through a program called Hanawon. The three-month program is a place where refugees learn basic skills such as using the banking system and riding the subway. Upon completing this program, refugees are given government housing. But according to our sources in South Korea, many North Koreans wait to receive this housing and are left to find shelter on their own in the interim.
South Korea has what many experts are calling a mental health crisis. The country ranks second in the world in per capita suicides, according to the OECD. They also have the most people in psychiatric care beds. South Korea is said to have the highest alcohol consumption rate in the world. Refugees and experts we have interviewed reported that South Korea’s care for the emotional health of North Korean refugees is paltry. What the interviews and data tell us is that some of the most psychologically scarred people in the world are seeking refuge in a country that is among the least equipped to address mental health issues.
North Koreans resettling in South Korea are also prone to becoming involved in abusive relationships. This is the case for many refugee women who come to South Korea with their husbands. Their North Korean or Chinese husbands, unable to cope with the stresses of a foreign country, often are treated as second-class citizens, express their frustrations toward their families - especially their wives.
About 70 percent of the refugees who have made it to South Korea are women, a staggering 80 percent of these women have been trafficked in China, where Crossing Borders currently operates. Many, ill equipped for the modernized economy of South Korea, will voluntarily prostitute themselves in the sex industry out of desperation.
Acclimation to Society
We have interviewed and discussed these struggles with both North Korean refugees living in South Korea currently and with working professionals who have served in government offices. Our research seems to indicate that North Korean refugees, while they are provided services and opportunities by the South Korean Ministry of Unification, often struggle to benefit fully from such aid. According to several individuals - refugees, pastors, professionals - the inability of North Korean refugees to fully take advantage of such opportunities is deeply rooted in a fear of instability.
Currently, there is no organization assisting North Korean refugees in establishing a firm footing of psychological, emotional stability that further results in the successful pursuit of a better life through the tools that the South Korean government has provided. While resources are given, the motivation and understanding of how to endure the difficulty of providing them are not.
a South Korean Shelter
Crossing Borders identified the needs of North Korean refugees in South Korea and officially decided that we must intervene to help this hurting population. We will do this by opening a safehouse in 2020.
We will call it Elim House.
Elim House will be a safehouse for hurt and abused North Korean women and their families. It would also be a temporary housing solution for North Koreans coming out of Hanawon. Ultimately, it is a platform for Crossing Borders to use our years of experience in ministry for more North Korean refugees in many areas of life.
Crossing Borders has a unique position that makes North Koreans more open to us than any South Korean ministry. It’s the fact that we are not from South Korea. While it is widely known that North Koreans are indoctrinated at an early age to see South Korea as the enemy, it is a lesser-known fact that the same is true about South Koreans. Many South Koreans also have been taught since childhood that North Korea is the enemy.
The topic of North Korea to a South Korean citizen is fraught with bitter fights that were and still are highly politicized. It is akin to the abortion issue in the US. With these factors in mind, it is no wonder South Korea’s relationship with North Korean refugees might be so complicated. South Koreans ministering to North Korean refugees complicates this dynamic by an order of magnitude.
South Korean ministries have been known to talk down to North Koreans and treat them as second-class citizens. Some North Koreans have reported being taken advantage of by South Korean churchgoers. Crossing Borders has heard as much from the refugees in our network in China and experts working with North Koreans in South Korea.
A Korean-American organization like Crossing Borders would have a distinct advantage in conducting meaningful ministry with North Korean refugees.
Crossing Borders also has a long history in ministering specifically to North Koreans. We have a wealth of knowledge on how to handle our relationships and how to set healthy boundaries. They also have many existing relationships with the refugees South Korea that Crossing Borders used to care for in China.
This kind of experience is unprecedented when it comes to ministering to this people group.
A Vision for Hope in Community
The goal for Crossing Borders’ safehouse is to build a strong community of 15 to 20 North Korean refugees in South Korea in two years. We would like to establish the beginnings of a strong network that provides support, counseling, help.
In China, Crossing Borders has been able to foster a vibrant community of Christian believers by bringing North Korean refugee women into community. This community has doubled in the past two years and more North Korean refugees are still being reached by the very individuals who are a part of our support network.
We also believe that one measure of Crossing Borders’ ongoing success is based on our surveys with the refugees in our network. One of the key questions we ask North Koreans in our care is “How healthy do you feel?” on a scale of One (Extremely Unhealthy) to Five (Extremely Healthy).
In 2014 the average number the refugees rated themselves was 1.8. This statistic has steadily increased over the years and in 2018 the average was 2.91.
We believe this score is more than an indication of physical health but also a reflection of how refugees have expressed their feelings of psychological stability. Refugees feel more firm and secure in their overall well-being in our assessment. Refugees’ self-assessment of personal health has steadily increased even as persecution in China has increased.
Each year Crossing Borders has also asked refugees if they felt an immediate threat of repatriation. This number has increased since 2017 in shocking fashion.
It is clear that while a reason for anxiety has increased in China, as North Korean refugees in our network express their concern for the threat of repatriation or arrest increasing, the individuals in Crossing Borders’ community are growing in their feelings of health and stability. This is also expressed in refugees’ attendance in Crossing Borders’ retreats as in 2018, the year with the highest expressed concern of arrest in China, the largest number of North Korean refugees and children to ever attend Crossing Borders’ retreat (41 individuals) participated in our programs. We believe that, through the powerful effects of community and the gospel, the refugees in our network feel more confidence in enduring through potentially distressing circumstances.
It should be noted that Crossing Borders has worked extensively with both North Korean orphans and refugees to help provide a stable, supportive network that encourages independence and self-built stability. While Crossing Borders has helped North Korean refugees financially in the past, the aim has always been to counsel refugees in believing that they have the agency and ability to build responsible, capable, sustainable lives. It is important that North Korean refugees do not lose sight of their hopes alongside others who are experiencing such situations with them. Relationships, both to counselors and other refugees are vital.
Crossing Borders plans provide North Korean refugees with training and direction, but most importantly, to build community.
Seeking: Security, Safety, Support
Based on our experience, Crossing Borders believes that the long-term success of the North Korean refugees hinges upon their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Many of these needs are not being met for North Korean refugees in South Korea.
Crossing Borders prioritizes physical and psychological stability when aiding those in need. While Crossing Borders wants to speak into refugees desires for meaning and purpose, the work must always begin by helping North Korean refugees to feel safe. This is especially the case for women who are fleeing abusive husbands or the sex industry. For North Korean refugees in South Korea, the provision is much greater and ensured by law. But for those who find themselves at the mercy of abusive or malicious relationships again and again, there is very much a threat to personal physical safety that is always present.
North Koreans have experienced immense trauma in their homeland and in their escape through China and Southeast Asia. According to a 2017 meta study funded by the National Research Foundation of Korea, between 49 and 81 percent of North Korean Refugees witnessed at least one type of life-threatening event and about 26 percent of all North Korean refugees have been repatriated back to North Korea.
The study states that between 33 and 51 percent of North Korean refugees were classified as having depressive symptoms. Such information is aligned with the diagnosis of medical professionals Crossing Borders has brought to China, who stated that numerous North Korean refugees within our network have ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The study conducted by the National Research Foundation recommends that “affective support from personal relationships (e.g. family, friendships) plays a more pivotal protective role than does official support in NKRs’ mental health.” This is consistent with how Crossing Borders provides therapy for North Korean refugees in South Korea and how Crossing Borders approaches our care in China.
By counseling those in struggling marriages, helping support families who are directly out of Hanawon and introducing North Korean women in the sex industry to a community of peers, we believe that we will be doing exactly what is recommended. The initial goal is to build trusting relationships with North Korean refugees who often need a listening ear or caring words of advice.
The only way that North Korean refugees can thrive long-term is through healing the many wounds that these people have accumulated in North Korea and in China. Depression, anxiety and trauma do not always have material solutions. We believe that the best way for Crossing Borders to address these issues is through the gospel of Christ.
The gospel is both a short-term and long-term solution to the difficulties in North Korean refugees’ lives. The spiritual crisis that confronts North Koreans who leave their country is weighty. North Koreans are born into a nation filled with lies. When they flee to China, these lies are contested by the outside world. North Korean refugees are taught, from birth, that their nation’s leaders are like deities who will protect their country from the outside world. Their service is more than nationalism or loyalty, it is akin to worship. But following their shameful, guilt-ridden escape from North Korea, many refugees realize, for the first time, that the accumulation of all their violent suffering has been a result of the Kim regime’s greed and lust for power. This betrayal is a deeply disturbing and painful realization.
Additionally, 80 percent of the women who flee into China have experienced human trafficking. Many of these relationships are verbally, physically abusive in nature. There are no laws protecting North Korean refugees in China - even from murder. Some women are sold several times.
The truth and practical reality of the Christian gospel responds directly to this abused population of North Koreans. It provides existential purpose and clear, life-altering hope. Only the gospel can heal the heart from many years of abuse and oppression.
The gospel is inherently self-perpetuating. North Koreans, upon hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, will share it with others. More people will get into community and find healing. We have witnessed this in small communities of North Koreans in China and we expect that this will continue in South Korea.
ELIM HOUSe Budget
Start-up Costs: $5,000**
Social Worker: $18,000
*Deposit will be for the apartment and applies only for the first year.
**Start-up costs include legal fees, government fees, apartment furnishings and supplies, etc.