Hwa-Young* works in China with women who fled North Korea or were abducted by people traffickers and taken across the border. Many of the women are tempted to leave behind a miserable life when they are told there are jobs waiting for them in China. But often they are sold on to brothels or into marriages with poor Chinese-Korean men.
About half of the 250 women who’ve found refuge through small church groups have been helped by Hwa-Young in the last year.
Speaking to a worker from the charity Open Doors, which supports Christians under pressure for their faith around the world, she explains how she is occasionally rewarded in her work by seeing women go on to a better life. But, on the whole, it is a dangerous and lonely job.
‘Never assume you are safe’
Hwa-Young hopes that refugees from North Korea will one day return there to rebuild the Church. The capital, Pyongyang, was once known as “the Jerusalem of the East” because it had a high number of churches, but now churches are mainly secret and hidden.
In her forties and of Korean descent, she works in north-east China and travels long distances to meet women who have crossed the border from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. She has one rule when travelling: never assume you are safe. She hopes the churches where she meets women from North Korea are not bugged, but she would never make that assumption about a hotel. She advises them to take the same precautions.
If the women – who are living illegally in China – are caught and repatriated as defectors, they can be dealt with harshly by Kim Jong-un’s government, often disappearing into a labour camp.
Hwa-Young fulfilled a long-held desire to work with women trafficked from North Korea when she gave up 20 years of working in a church, where she built up counselling and administrative skills that would later help her work organising group meetings.
The first two years were tough, she says: “I had no experience and didn’t speak Chinese. The culture in China is completely opposite to what I was used to back home. It’s like a jail without bars. You are always under pressure. Then there’s the security issue. How do you avoid being arrested? I felt lonely, pressured and homesick all the time.
“Dealing with North Korean women is hard. They had to idolise Kim Il-Sung [founder of modern North Korea and grandfather of current leader, Kim Jong-un]. He’s stuck in everyone’s soul. When people start believing in God, it’s difficult to replace this idol in their hearts. Even when refugees have lived in China or South Korea for some time, they find it hard when something negative is said about Kim Il-Sung. He’s been dead since 1994 but it’s like he’s always present wherever they go.”
Despite the difficulty of Hwa-Young’s first two years, she has overcome some of the pressures. “Now I don’t have any fear of death,” she says. “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. And when I feel lonely, there’s nobody to talk to.”
When she started, she could tell no-one what she did. If she spoke about how lonely she felt it would invite too many questions. “That’s dangerous for me and for others. I cannot share stories over the phone, become a church member or confide in a pastor. I have two friends, but even with them I share only 50% of what’s troubling me,” she says.
Being lonely is the most difficult part of the job, she says: “Sometimes I feel the need to have a partner. I go to work alone and come back alone. There is no-one waiting for me.”
Hwa-Young says the women she works with are not your “average women”; they are mentally scarred from their time living in North Korea: “They are 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 north-east China, they cannot grasp what I tell them. They 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.”
She feels the reason for their brokenness is that they were raised in fear. “They go to pre-school at about five, but they are still forced to watch public executions,” she says. “Sometimes friends or neighbours are murdered in front of them. Even when they are older and leave the country, they still experience fear. There is much more freedom here in China, but the women are not safe and continue to live in fear.
“Most of them have been abused in North Korea and in China. They feel numb, not even feeling the hurt anymore. They grow up in severe poverty, always going hungry. All of them know what it is like to worry about every meal, to eat from the rubbish and beg for food.”
North Korean women carry a sense of betrayal, she says: “It’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.”
One day Hwa-Young received a call to say one of her group was missing. It was Grace*, a 36-year-old who’d been sold by people traffickers to a Chinese man. Although he married her and treated her well, she ran away, leaving her daughter with him. Through a friend, Grace started going to Hwa-Young’s group and, under her leadership, began a process of change that led her to want to reunite with her husband, although he refused to see her.
Grace had been stopped by the Chinese police, who asked to see her identity papers. She didn’t have them and her husband refused to help, so she was repatriated back to North Korea. At a police station an officer said he was willing to release her for US$2,000. “It was an incredible amount given her circumstances,” says Hwa-Young, but she managed to raise it through friends in China.
Before Grace was freed, she spent a month in prison, where she survived by selling some of her clothes to buy salt to purify her water – and eating rotten crumbs of corn. She recovered with her family for six months before escaping back to China.
Hwa-Young recalls their reunion: “We held a wonderful celebration – no cake or bread but the normal side dishes we always have. She told us about her experiences, the people she met and the hardships she went through. Like most North Koreans, she didn’t share much emotion, just the facts.
“Grace eventually got a South Korean passport and has a job. She still hopes to reunite with her husband and bring him, as well as her sisters, to South Korea.”
North Korea holds tens of thousands of dissenters in prison, many for not showing sufficient reverence to its leader, Kim Jong-un. Because they worship a higher authority, Christians are particularly vulnerable and are forced to meet in secret. On the recently released Open Doors 2017 World Watch List, North Korea is once again considered the worst place in the world to live as a Christian.
*Name concealed to protect her identity