A North Korean Refugee in China

The mission of Crossing Borders is to show the compassion of Christ to North Korean refugees and their children in China. The following story portrays how this mission has played out in the life of one refugee woman who we helped from 2012 through 2015.

“Ok-seo” was married to a man of high means in North Korea. Her husband’s family was politically connected. She did not experience suffering in the ’90s during the famine. Unlike many of our other refugees, she lived a life of privilege until her husband took her 10-year-old son and left for another woman.

This began her life of struggle. The only way Ok-seo could survive was to steal copper in North Korea and sell it to Chinese merchants. This, according to Ok-seo, was a severe crime in North Korea. If she was ever caught stealing copper from an electrical line connected to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, she would have been executed.

Arrested and imprisoned for trading this stolen copper, Ok-seo subsisted on soup with exactly 24 kernels of corn in each bowl. This was her ration for the day. It was in prison where she heard stories about how one could live and eat in China.

Immediately after she was released from prison, Ok-seo headed to China. Her friend, who was also in the copper business, told her that she could make about $500 per month in a tailoring factory in China. When she finally made it across the border, she knew she had been deceived. She was not going to a tailoring factory. Ok-seo was being sold.

Ok-seo and her son living in China.

Ok-seo and her son living in China.

Ok-seo had heard stories of North Korean women being sold to Chinese men with disabilities so she cried and pleaded with her captors to sell her to a man with no physical defects. She got her wish and was sold to a Chinese farmer who, according to Ok-seo, had an overwhelming amount of debt.

She worked on her husband’s farm but each year most of their profits went to service their debt. When things got particularly desperate for the family, Ok-seo’s husband would sell her into prostitution. Her husband’s family would also physically and verbally abuse her and, as a result, she had terrible headaches.

Ok-seo knew another refugee woman in her village who was under the care of Crossing Borders. This woman invited her to church. Ok-seo became a Christian and her headaches disappeared shortly after, she said.

One of Crossing Borders’ objectives for the people we help is to get them to attend church. Our support for the people in our network is in no way affected by whether or not they convert. However, we realize that churches can provide access to resources that are simply impossible for refugees to find elsewhere.

Though Ok-seo’s faith changed, her personal life remained a struggle. Her family went without heat in early 2014. We were helping her with a small, monthly stipend since we first met her. But her husband decided later that year to stop working for reasons unclear to Ok-seo.

China’s northernmost recesses are extremely cold in the winter. Ok-seo lived near the border of Siberia, where it can reach 30 to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit without wind chill.

It would have been easy for us to give the family extra money to heat their home but we feared this would give her husband even less incentive to work. We could have also cut our support entirely to encourage her husband to work but this would have left the family without enough food.

When we visited the following Spring, Ok-seo’s husband was working again. Financially, Ok-seo’s life had improved. However Ok-seo realized that something important had not changed. She was still at the whim of her husband’s choices. Not only did he rule over her life by force, he prevented her from changing her family’s situation because he did not allow her to work.

North Korean women who have been sold to Chinese men have varying degrees of freedom. If they live near the North Korean border, they are constantly in hiding because of frequent police scrutiny. Many women who live far away from the border are free of these fears. But some of these women are still in bondage if their husbands do not allow them freedom of movement and freedom to work.

Ok-seo feared that she would be in virtual bondage to her husband and his family for the rest of her life if she stayed in China. A move through the Underground Railroad to South Korea would free her from this bondage. She would have an ID. She would be able to file grievances if she was being abused. She would be able to freely look for work. And she would be able to speak her native language.

Ok-seo in South Korea with her citizenship I.D.

Ok-seo in South Korea with her citizenship I.D.

We went through all the scenarios with Ok-seo, laid out the pitfalls for North Korean refugees in South Korea and the dangers of going through the Underground Railroad. Her decision was made.

Early in 2015, Ok-seo took the Underground Railroad to claim such freedoms for herself. We contacted a partner organization to escort her out of China, into Southeast Asia, where she would receive refugee status and then be sent to South Korea.

In June of 2015, we received word from the organization helping her through the Underground Railroad that she had made it through safely and was living as a free person in South Korea.

This is precisely why Crossing Borders exists, to usher North Korean refugees through the difficulties of living in China, to help them to fulfill their God-given worth.

Ok-seo has now reached freedom. Moving forward, we pray that she would use it for the glory of God.