What Is It Like to Serve North Korean Refugee Women in China?
An Open Door’s staff writer recently met with sister Hwa-Young* to talk about her ministry among North Korean refugees, trafficked women who hide in China. For security, they met in a “safe church” hundreds of kilometers away from Hwa-Young’s mission field; extreme caution was taken. Following are excerpts from the interview.
“We get tea from the church kitchen and sit down in a basic, small meeting room with some plastic chairs and table. She warms her hands by covering the paper cup and smiles genuinely. She is happy to see me and has a lot to share.
“We’ve spoken many times in the past,” I tell her. “This time I want to look back over the past few years. Would you mind telling me about how you became involved in Open Doors ministry for North Korea?”
“It’s a long story, but let me give you the short version. When I was younger, I prayed for missionaries. Whenever I prayed for mission work, I always had this picture of North Korean women in my mind. Still, it took me twenty years to get really involved. For twenty years I served local churches until finally, the call came.”
How did you feel about joining the women’s ministry?
She sips from her tea. “The first two years were the toughest. I had no experience, and I didn’t speak Chinese. The culture in China is completely opposite from what I was used to back home. It’s like a jail without bars. You are always under pressure, and that is very intense. Dealing with North Korean women is also really hard. Then there’s the security issue. How do you avoid being arrested? I felt lonely, pressured and homesick all the time.
“And now I don’t have any fear of death. I’m a single woman, and if it’s necessary, I don’t mind dying for this cause. The hardest part was the fact that I couldn’t rely on anyone else. When I feel lonely, there’s nobody to talk to.
“It’s the first thing you learn when you join this ministry: You cannot open yourself up to others. Explaining your feelings means you have to explain how we do ministry, and that is dangerous. For me and for others. I have to be very strict. I cannot share stories over the phone. I cannot become a church member. I cannot confide in a pastor. I currently have two friends, but even with them, I share only about 50 percent of what’s troubling me.”
How are North Korean women different from South Korean women?
“There’s such a big difference. You can hardly compare them. South Koreans are average, like women all over the world. But the North Korean women are, metaphorically speaking, still, prisoners in a jail called ‘North Korean women.’ They don’t know the outside world. Whenever I tell them stories about things happening outside North Korea and outside North East China (where the ‘NK ladies’ live illegally), they cannot grasp what I tell them. Also, the women feel like victims all the time. If I give them something, they don’t receive it as a kind gesture. To them, it feels like somehow I’m taking advantage of them.”
Can you explain why North Korean women are so different? So broken?
“One of the big reasons is that they were raised in fear. They go to pre-school when they are about five-years-old. But they are still forced to watch public executions. Sometimes friends or neighbors were murdered in front of their eyes. Even when they are older and leave the country, they still experience that psychological pressure of fear. There is much more freedom here in China, but the women are still not safe here. So they continue to live in fear. Additionally, most of them have been abused, both in North Korea and in China. They feel numb. They don’t even feel the hurt anymore. Another thing is that they grow up in severe poverty. They are always hungry. All of them know what it is like to worry about every meal, to eat from the trash and to beg for food. They also have been betrayed by people they trusted. That’s one of the hardest things for them.
“Sometimes, in our group meetings, I invite them to forgive others. I ask, ‘Do you know any people whom you can’t forgive? Everyone knows at least one person whom they just can’t forgive. Understanding the process of forgiveness is difficult. But you can see the Lord work in them. Many of them made progress in that area. It sounds impossible, but with God, it’s possible for the ladies to forgive. God uses every suffering for good. We go through experiences of hardship and have to learn how to embrace them. I’ve experienced the power of forgiveness myself and I’ve seen how these North Korean girls change and forgive.”
One day, Hwa-Young, received a phone call that she hoped would never come. Grace*, one of the North Korean sisters in her group, was missing.
“I was shocked,” says Hwa-Young, “and didn’t know what to do. I was very afraid of being caught myself. I was the leader. Through me, they could find the other sisters as well. I was very fearful. Not for myself, but that others would be arrested too.
“This sister is such an example of someone who has been changed by Jesus through the ministry,” she continues. “At first, she was so angry with everyone that she sacrificed the marriage she had with her husband. He had bought her from a human trafficker, but unlike most Chinese men, he tried to be good to her. She ran away and left her daughter with him. A friend who belonged to one of my groups invited her to our meetings and gradually she changed. She repented, and all she wanted was to reunite with her husband and daughter. This was a miracle because most North Korean girls only fall in love with money. But her husband refused to see her.”
Then the day came when Grace was stopped by the police, who asked for her papers. The 36-year-old didn’t have these papers, so they asked her to call her husband, which she did. But even though she was still married, when the police called him he couldn’t help or wasn’t willing to.
Grace was repatriated to North Korea and brought to a police station near her hometown, as is the custom for arrested ‘defectors.’ A police officer asked her if she knew anyone with money. He was willing to release her for $2,000, an incredibly high amount. She made a desperate phone call to China and friends were able to collect the money and send it to the police station.
But the month in prison was unbelievably hard.
Hwa-Young explains, “When Grace was in prison, she didn’t experience much torture. The other inmates told her how to behave so she wouldn’t get punished. But she went very hungry. She only received meager meals of rotten corn crumbs. She even had to sell clothes to get some salt which she could mix with water. After they let her go, she stayed with her sisters for six months to recover. Then she escaped to China again and we welcomed her back in our group.”
“We held a wonderful celebration, though we didn’t have any cake or bread—only the normal side dishes we always have. We let her share about her experiences, the people she met, the hardships she went through, and also some funny things. Like most North Koreans, she didn’t share much emotion, just the facts.”
She has not yet reunited with her husband and daughter, “but she keeps praying for that to happen. She went to South Korea, got a South Korean passport eventually, and then traveled to China for her family. The husband is not ready yet. So, she will go back to South Korea, earn money and hopefully, God will work in his heart and she can bring them over to South Korea. She also wants to bring her sisters out of North Korea.”
Through this experience, Hwa-Young has learned that God is in control. Next time, she will be less afraid.
“The goal of our women’s project,” she explained, “is to raise up female leaders for the future. Right now, I have three appointed already. Every summer and winter we have more intensive Bible studies for ladies who show the willingness and potential to grow into leaders. My personal desire is to simply be steadfast in doing what the Lord requires of me. I will continue to enjoy dwelling in His presence, especially when I’m lonely.”
Reflecting on the needs of the North Korean women with whom she works, Hwa-Young says, “The North Korean people are indoctrinated 24/7 and have had to idolize Kim Il-Sung. That is so strong that Kim Il-Sung is stuck in everyone’s soul. Even when people start believing in God, it’s difficult to replace this idol in their hearts. God needs to break the idol. Even when refugees have lived in China or South Korea for some time, they often cannot handle when someone says something negative about Kim Il-Sung. He’s been dead since 1994, but it’s like he’s always present.
Father, the power of the North Korean indoctrination is great and we call on You, through the redeeming work of Christ, to release the women from that power. We pray Your protection over Hwa-Young as she ministers to them, that You will grant her wisdom, authority and power to speak the truth from Your Word into their lives. And we pray that You will raise up from these broken and fearful women strong leaders to expand Hwa-Young’s work, so that the name of Christ might be glorified in the land of China. One glorious day, we pray that the power of darkness will be broken in North Korea by the light of Christ. In the name of Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.