A Perilous Journey to Freedom

A school in South Korea is providing a new, brighter future for this young North Korean refugee.

Fellows 2016

By Ari Ratner

May 12, 2016

Also published by Global Daily

The first time Eva escaped from North Korea, she nearly drowned. As she waded across the Yalu River that marks the border between North Korea and China, the water came up almost to her mouth, and the harsh and cold current almost swept her off her feet. She couldn’t swim. She was 13 years old.

Image: From the stolid face of this nine-year old Korean child is reflected the infinite pain and unending hardship that was war in Korea in 1951. Carrying her small brother, all that remains of a dead family, she trudges past a stalled Patton tank on the outskirts of Haengju, North of Seoul. UN Photo/United States Navy

Born in the shadow of the North Korean famine that devastated the country during the 1990s, killing at least half a million people, Eva endured tremendous hardship growing up in what is the world’s most authoritarian and repressive state. Just last Friday, North Korea held its 7th Party Congress. The first in more than 30 years, the Congress cemented the rule of dictator Kim Jong-un, grandson of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and son of Kim Jong-il, who ruled during throughout the 1990s famine.

Eva grew up in the countryside, and only attended school until the third grade, when she dropped out to spend her days foraging for food on the mountainside for her and her family. Her father died while she was still young, and she was forced to live with an aunt and uncle who, hungry themselves, didn’t have the resources to care for her. On her own, she made the decision to flee to China.

After making it across the river, she encountered a first taste of the relative prosperity on the other side of the border: arriving in a safe house for North Korean refugees, for the first time in her life, she ate noodles. Eva spent almost a year just across the border in China, working as a waitress. She was blown away by the prosperity she saw in China, but she was even more taken by the freedom and prosperity she saw in the South Korean soap operas she eagerly consumed. She determined that she wanted to make it South Korea.

The journey for North Korean refugees from China to South Korea is often as perilous as leaving North Korea itself. There are more than 200,000 North Koreans hiding in China. They are considered to be there illegally by the Chinese government. If they are caught, they are often sent back.

The typical route to flee is by bus across China to Laos, and then on to Thailand, where refugees usually then take a flight to Seoul. All of this requires a fixer, luck, and a grueling journey often lasting months.

Since the end of the Korean War, nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled to the South. Millions of South and North Koreans were made refugees by the war itself. Only 1,276 made it to South Korea in 2015, with numbers declining from a 2009 peak of 2,914, due in large part to heightened security on both the Chinese and North Korean sides of the border.

But Eva was “lucky”. After nearly a year, she was eventually freed. At that point, according to her, “life in North Korea had no meaning.” She could not go back to what she describes as the dreariness, oppression, and corruption of the system. She decided to set out across the river again, this time with her brother and two friends. Once they made the perilous journey across, they were “like frogs”, leaping from place to place in order to avoid being discovered. After months of travel—this time through Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos—they eventually made it to South Korea.

The hardships for North Korean refugees do not end upon arrival in South Korea, even though the threat of hunger and oppression does. South Korea has an “open door” policy of accepting North Korean refugees and assisting with their resettlement, providing education and job training services, housing assistance, and a one-time resettlement allowance.

After an initial security screening to ensure the refugees are not spies—North Korea frequently attempts to infiltrate South Korea—all North Korean refugees have to spend three months at the Hanawon Resettlement Center. There, they are given an opportunity to begin integration into South Korea, a country that has diverged starkly from its northern neighbor since the armistice of 1953 to become a democracy and one of the wealthiest economies in the world.

The challenges for North Korean children in South Korea are particularly difficult. Of the nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea, 12,000 are under 20. Only 4,000 are in school. 2,600 are in grammar or high school—normally integrated into regular classes with their South Korean peers—1,300 go to university. 8,000 are out of school entirely.

Eva was first integrated into a regular South Korean school. The other school children, who had never met a North Korean in their lives, gathered around her. “I was like a monkey at a zoo”, she said.

Eventually, Eva made it to the Jangdaehyun School, the first alternative school for North Korean children to open outside of the Seoul Metropolitan area. The Jangdaehyun School is a live-in Christian school opened in 2014. Jangdaehyun’s current enrollment is only 18 students, but the school has plans to expand to 75 in the next two years. The vast majority of its 40-person staff are volunteers. While now accredited and supported by the South Korean government, the school still remains independent and its plans for growth are funded largely off of private donations.

The school offers both standard and elective courses. Standard subjects include areas such as math, English, and history, while elective courses include nutrition, Taekwondo, and computer science. The school also offers therapy for students, many of whom are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, including art and dance therapy as well as counseling. While not imposing religion on its students, the school also offers instruction in “Christian worldview” and Bible study.

According to Changho Lim, the founder and principal of the school and a pastor and professor at a nearby Christian college, the school is designed to prepare its students for both life in South Korea and for a leadership role in North Korea following the eventual unification of the Korean Peninsula. It’s name, ‘Jangdaehyun’ is borrowed from one of the largest churches that used to exist in Pyongyang, which was once known as the Jerusalem of Asia for its large Christian population. Originally founded in 1907, the church and its associated school were shut down when Kim Il-sung took power in 1948.

The role of religion in smuggling refugees out of North Korea and integrating them into South Korea is not unique. South Korea has one of the most diverse and vibrant religious cultures in the world. Christians comprise 29 percent of the population (18 percent Protestant; 11 percent Catholic). 23% of South Korea’s population identifies as Buddhist and there are strong influences of Confucianism and native Korean Shamanism as well. Still, 46% of South Korea’s 47 million people are not formally affiliated with any religion at all, and separation of church and state is protected by the constitution.

For refugees fleeing what is officially an atheist state in North Korea, the encounter with religion is frequently a part of the refugee experience. At Hanawon, representatives from different religious organizations, including various Christian and Buddhist denominations, by request, offer spiritual counseling for refugees.

There are also Christian missionaries who secretly go to North Korea to preach the gospel—together with a gospel of freedom. At a small North Korean church in Seoul, I met Min-jun, a North Korean refugee who broadcasts frequent sermons and political messages to North Korea and ministers to the North Korean population in Seoul. More dangerously, he goes into North Korea via China to minister to North Koreans as well as to provide basic supplies including medical supplies and food.

Min-jun is convinced that the North Korean regime is closer to collapse than many in the international community or in South Korea believe. While North Korea remains a dominant political issue for South Korea as a country, for most South Koreans the country remains out of sight and out of mind on a daily basis.

Min-jun himself became a Christian while he was living as a refugee in China for seven years. Enduring an isolating and precarious existence, Christian missionaries were among the first to help him. He views it as his Christian and patriotic duty to prepare for both the overthrow of the North Korean regime and the rebuilding of the country along free lines.

I met Min-jun at his Church during North Korea Freedom Week, a week-long annual event hosted by the North Korea Freedom Coalition and other human rights and religious organizations aimed at calling attention to the lack of human rights and freedom in North Korea.

The interplay between freedom and religion is part of Korea’s encounter with the world. Confucianism and Buddhism themselves came from China in the 4th century CE. Catholicism was first introduced in the 1600s and 1700s by Korean diplomats who encountered it in China and Japan. Protestantism was largely introduced by American missionaries following the opening of the Chosun dynasty to the wider world in the late 19th century. Christianity later played a key role in the fight against the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945.

Following the Korean war, religion in South Korea continued to explode, with heavy influence from America. These ties continue. South Korea sends the second most missionaries abroad—after the United States. North Korea Freedom Week is put on in conjunction with churches in America. While a native-born Korean, Jangdaehyun School principal Changho Lim also served as a pastor to Korean churches in Texas for ten years.

As for the future of their students, Jangdaehyun’s successes are becoming widely noted in the area. Its students are doing exceptionally well. Many of its students plan to attend university before starting their careers. Like Eva, who eventually hopes to return to help build a free North Korea, they are planning for a brighter future for both themselves and their homelands.

Ari Ratner was on assignment as a fellow with The International Reporting Project. 

Note: Names have been changed to protect the difficult work of South Korean missionaries in North Korea and the family of Eva and other students at Jangdaehyun who still live in North Korea.

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