Mi-Ok* lies face down in a small backyard… motionless. Having crossed the river between China and North Korea, she sighs in despair. Crossing the river was treacherous, and she was helpless to save her daughter who was swept away by the strong current. The girl was not strong enough to cross the river. Mi-Ok is in shock as she confronts the reality that she is alone in the world. There seems nothing left to live for. All hope is gone.
“The first months I did my work among female refugees I cried so much my eyes were constantly red and swollen,” says an Open Doors worker. “Their stories are horrific. It happens often that after a meeting with them I cannot eat anything, sometimes I even vomit. One lady told me how she had a baby with her handicapped Chinese husband. They were too poor to take care of it. She thought it was better if the child would die, so she stopped giving it milk. After several days the baby still cried for food. Then a neighbor advised her to grind medicines into a bottle of water. She gave her baby the drink and the child died soon after. She now feels so guilty.”
Sun-Hi*, a veteran in this women’s ministry, knows all about these hardships. “The pain goes so deep I cannot even touch it. I cannot bring it into words. I just pray that God will take this burden away from me.” Despite the hardships, Open Doors continues to work with 50 to 100 women refugees in China each year. It is not easy for the workers, not only because of the emotional pressure, but also because some North Koreans cannot be fully trusted as some may be spies sent to reveal the location of the safe houses.
Nobody knows how many North Korean refugees are hiding in China. Estimates vary from 50,000 to 500,000. But more than half of them are women. There are complex reasons that women escape from their country. In the highly patriarchal North Korean society, deeply entrenched with Confucian values, a woman’s principal role is to maintain the family household. During a food crisis, this task becomes increasingly difficult. Many women look to China as a last resort. And of course, women are easy victims for human traffickers who sell them for an amount somewhere between 400 and 10,000 Chinese Yuan, roughly $50 to $1,250 American dollars. Most trafficked women end up in forced marriages, though some marriages are consensual. However, the line between the two is extremely thin. The North Korean women often have no choice, and most say that anything, even abuse by the Chinese husband and his family, is better than starving to death.
A smaller percentage of women are forced or agree to work in prostitution. They work in brothels or karaoke bars. “After my friend and I crossed the border, we learned that we were sold for 2,000 Yuan (around $250) each. We have to assist guests and drink at their tables. In return, we receive 20 Yuan ($2.50) as a tip for each table and receive 50 Yuan ($6) if we go to bed with the guests. We cried many times late at night thinking about our poor fate, living as prostitutes in a foreign country. Still, I hope to save enough money so that one day I can go back to North Korea,” said one lady.
For some, the abuse is so bad that they had to escape their situation to survive. A North Korean woman who brought her son to a third marriage told what she had to endure. “My Chinese husband beat me. He started to beat me on my back and everywhere else. After that, he went out to beat my child, and I fought against that. We got away, and when I saw my husband did not follow us, we took a taxi. I was still in my underwear. I asked the driver to bring me to a church. The people there wept when they saw me with my child.”
In spite of these horrific stories many North Korean refugees have come into contact with God’s Word. Local Chinese Christians who are there to help share the Gospel with them. “God’s Word is the only hope we can offer.”
Also Open Door s operates safe houses for these refugees. “These women are utterly desperate and tell heart-rending stories, some true, some not; it is difficult to know,” shares an Open Doors worker. “These women need money for their families. They don’t use it for themselves. That’s why I give them financial support. And I listen to their stories [and] try to connect with them, to build a real relationship. Sometimes I say something about the Bible or I even read a small portion. Sometimes they want to listen, sometimes they don’t. But the more they trust me, the more receptive they are to God’s Word.”
So is there any real hope for these women? “There is only one hope,” the Open Doors worker says as she points toward the black book on the table. “That hope is enclosed in the Bible. God’s Word is the only hope we have to offer. But we have to bring the hard, difficult, biblical messages to the surface. The Bible says that you have to bless those who persecute you. And I direct the women to how God feels about them, how precious they are in His eyes, about what Jesus Christ did for them on Calvary. Thanks to His sacrifice there is hope.”
Jesus, our Savior, we fall before You and weep for these women. They have so little of this world’s bounty and they live in a profoundly dark world. Only You can bring light into their darkness. There is a battle raging in the heavens for their very souls. Thank you for these humble workers in China who, in the midst of their own hardship, do battle on their behalf, who minister Your mercy and compassion to these women. Fill them each day with Your Spirit as they face the tasks before them. Provide them with wisdom and discernment and opportunity. Overwhelm them in their weariness with Your strength. Give them glimpses of Your work in their midst. Amen
*Name changed to protect identity