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.
a South Korean Shelter
North Korean refugees must take the arduous journey through China into Southeast Asia in order to find freedom. Most of those who make it, choose to settle in South Korea, where they are given a generous aid package as well as housing and job subsidies.
As more of Crossing Borders’ refugees resettled in South Korea we noticed a disturbing trend: North Korean refugees did not necessarily find peace or fulfillment even though their material needs were being met.
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 safe house in 2020.
We will call it Elim House.
Elim House will be a home 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.
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.
WHY Crossing Borders?
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.
According to the refugees we’ve interviewed, 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.
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.
The Meaning of Elim House
After the Israelites fled slavery in Egypt, they came to a place called Elim. By all accounts it was beautiful and full of the water they desperately needed in the parched desert.
“Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water,” Exodus 15:27 (ESV).
This is Crossing Borders’ hope for North Korean refugees, many of whom are fleeing slavery themselves that, not only would it be a place where they can be free from their bondage but also to find streams of living water and rest for their weary hearts.