The Great Escape

Reaching North Koreans Who Flee to China

May 07, 2013

Persecuted Christians are not the only North Koreans who risk their lives to attempt escape into neighboring China. Scarcity of food, low wages, and skyrocketing prices propel people from all levels of society to seek a better life for themselves and their children. Some of the fortunate ones are finding help and hope through a ministry assisted by Christian Aid Mission.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to China since the famine of the 1990s, and thousands continue to defect each year. Adding to the ongoing hunger crisis are seasonal floods like the ones last summer that inundated cropland. Others say the primary culprit is the North Korean government itself, whose policies and mismanagement of resources have ultimately made the situation worse.

That view is upheld by a North Korean ministry contact who communicates regularly with the Southeast Asia staff of Christian Aid. Based on these reports, a Christian Aid spokesperson concludes:

“It is beyond explanation why a government would intentionally allow a major percentage of her people to starve, when the country could feed its own if they wanted. Most live on the verge of starvation all of their lives, eating whatever they can scavenge from nature around them.

And the conditions in the labor camps are far worse,” he said. “Faced with constant deprivation and the boot of an inhumane government, desperate people will do anything to seek food and freedom.”

Those who cross the border are ordinary people, like grandmothers and working professionals. Some plan to go to China long enough to get a good job, save money, and then return to their families. As difficult as it is to leave North Korea, many refugees discover it is just as harrowing to re–enter the country without detection.

North Korean authorities consider it a political offense for their citizens to leave the country–even for reasons of survival–without State approval. The Chinese government is not sympathetic to their plight either, and treats the refugees as illegal economic migrants.

Chinese border police and North Korean government spies in China work together to apprehend defectors. If caught, the refugees are forcibly repatriated back to North Korea where they face harsh punishment.

Following interrogation, detainees who are not considered politically dangerous are sent to North Korean labor camps for up to three years. The cruelest sentences are meted out to retired government officials or military personnel who are considered “politically sensitive” individuals. They are sent to political prison camps or executed.

That same stiff penalty is handed down to refugees who become Christian converts, or to North Koreans who are in touch with religious groups during their time in China.

Spiritual warfare is fierce in this part of the world, and God´s people are rising up against seemingly insurmountable odds to spread the love of Jesus Christ. One of these channels for the gospel is carried out by an underground church planting ministry that operates in North Korea and China.

With help sent through Christian Aid, the ministry is training and supporting North Korean believers. An important aspect of their work involves outreach to North Koreans who have fled across the border into China.

Missionary workers share the good news with refugees and disciple them. For those who successfully return to North Korea, they are encouraged to reach others with the gospel and to start house churches. Often these believers are trained in a vocation and given a small amount of money in order to start their own small business. This gives them a good foundation from which to minister and to host an underground house church.

Yunhee Chung*, a 63–year–old woman from Kangwon province, is one of several North Korean residents who missionaries from the ministry met recently in China.

“My older son left our home to avoid hunger in 1998. After my husband died in his young age, I also left my hometown to flee to China with my two other sons,” recalled Chung. “I met missionaries in Xian and believed in Christ. I studied the Bible to become a better Christian.

“In 2002, when my two sons went to Shandong province to work, both were arrested by Chinese police, repatriated to North Korea, and I never saw them again,” she said. “I heard later that both had died in prison.”

Six years later, Yunhee was also arrested and repatriated to North Korea, where she was imprisoned. She later became severely ill. Prison authorities did not want to see her die in prison, so they released the elderly woman to die in her home. By God´s grace, she recovered from her illness and did not die.

Yunhee misses her sons. She now wants to trust in God only and in the power of Jesus Christ to change hearts. She wants to start a small restaurant in her hometown as a means of spreading the gospel message.

Even refugees who find shelter in China live precariously and are vulnerable to exploitation of every kind. Because of their illegal status, jobs are hard to come by. Most end up working in service industries. Others resort to begging.

Junsik Suh* is a physician from Hamheung City. Dr. Suh was tired of seeing the look of hunger in the eyes of his wife, 13–year–old son, and mother. He crossed into China to make more money so he could provide food for his family. After 40 days in China, he still could not find sufficient employment.

A break came when Dr. Suh met one of the ministry´s missionaries, who introduced him to other Christians. They provided food and shelter and prayed with him. He was so thankful to meet people who cared!

Life in the outside world has been a culture shock for Dr. Suh. All he has ever known has been the propaganda of his homeland´s government. He was told that North Korea is the most prosperous country with the most advanced people on earth.

“Because of his indoctrination in North Korea, Dr. Suh always tries to adapt everything to the Juche ideology of their leader, Kim Il–sung. He believes all the fundamentals of life lay in this ideology,” the North Korean contact stated. “He talks about revolutionary leadership and the leader, and he feels this is the solution to all problems.”

Like Dr. Suh and Yunhee Chung, every month refugees are receiving spiritual and/or material assistance through the ministry. The training center in China has been particularly fruitful. In the past five years, the team has met and sent 176 North Korean citizens back to their homes as believers. They plan to work with 40 more this year.

“Ultimately, the only true freedom for the people of North Korea will come from the Word from God. Though welcomed, government efforts can never bring to the people of North Korea the true freedom they need,” commented the Christian Aid spokesman. “That is why we are helping a ministry that is doing evangelism, discipleship and church planting in North Korea.

“We know that today, many thousands are in prison labor camps and many others are on the brink of starvation. Tens of thousands are in cruel labor camps because of their faith in Christ. While I cannot personally overthrow the gruesome government of North Korea, I can do the only thing that will bring freedom to those who are suffering, and that is to do all I can to bring the Light of Christ to them,” he said.

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*names changed to protect identity