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The world tells the tale of the nine North Korean defectors as tragedy.
In June the nine young defectors, all believed to be orphans between ages 15 and 23, followed a Korean missionary couple across the southwestern China border to Laos. That route is a well-used underground railroad; for years, the couple—identified only as Jang and Shin for safety reasons—used that path to guide many defectors safely out of China to South Korea.
This time Laotian authorities arrested them. They deported the nine—seven males, two females—back to China, where authorities sent them back to North Korea. They were last seen on North Korean state-owned television.
The story caused an international uproar. People assailed the Laotian and Chinese governments, blamed the South Korean government, and berated the missionaries for their failing to see the dangers. Everyone agreed someone had failed.
Shin said she was so heartbroken she couldn’t utter a word of prayer. “I don’t think I’ve cried this much before in my life, even after my mother died,” she said. “I asked God so many times, ‘Why, God? Why?’ I even told God, ‘I don’t think I can believe in You anymore.’”
Throughout the ordeal, the couple stayed media-silent. In September, they allowed an interview with CNN. But CNN told their story as a “this-is-what-happened” tragedy—and without any insight into their faith.
Just before Thanksgiving, the missionary couple sat down for another interview with WORLD via Skype. It’s been five months since that incident, and they’ve had time to wrestle God with questions.
This is their story retold, with the one component that changes all things: Christ.
THEY WERE THE Lord of the Flies, the Oliver Twists, the Huckleberry Finns. But Koreans have a special term for these homeless, parentless children: kotjebi, or literally “flowering swallows”—frail birds wandering in the wilderness. The term became popularized after the great North Korea famine in 1995.
These North Korean orphans were both conspicuous and invisible in a community used to such sights. With a chronic glower of hunger, they trolled the streets in gangs like rats. They scavenged, begged, and pitted gang wars over tossed chicken bones. Whatever scraps they collected, they boiled into watery porridge.
When Jang and Shin first started their ministry in 2002, they found one kid running around with a ripped, dangling ear. Another had been beaten so badly by the border patrol guards that the back of his head was crushed, oozing pus sticky with blood-crusted hair. Many had worms; one kid had a two-incher sucking his buttocks.
Some of them had dead parents. Others were abandoned or lost. Either way, they were parentless and alone, drawn to each other by a common gnaw of hunger and loneliness. Most waited until winter, when the Tumen River froze over, to cross over to China by foot.
“It seemed to me that nobody ever seriously considered these children’s future,” Jang said. “At most, a few passing strangers tossed them food—that was it.”
The couple tried to befriend them. They visited them daily to chat, join their little games, and buy them hot food. Every winter the missionaries patrolled the river to help cross-border defectors. Sometimes they found the children huddled and trembling atop cardboard piled over the frozen river.
IN 2009 JANG AND SHIN brought the first orphan home, an 11-year-old boy named Hajin. Jang first spotted Hajin as a dark blob wading across the polluted, freezing river. He rushed over to embrace the kid with his winter coat as soon as he emerged from the water. Despite the sight—a bundled, dripping boy and a coatless, anxious man—they managed to hail a cab and speed home to Jang’s wife.
After Hajin, the missionaries continued to house more young defectors. They sneaked many out of China through Southeast Asia; Hajin was one of several who made it safely to South Korea.
Even after the orphans followed them home, they required about a year to really trust Jang and Shin. For months, they pressed their ears against the wall to eavesdrop on the missionaries’ conversations, ready to bolt at any sign of betrayal. They even booby-trapped their room. One night, Jang walked in to check on the children and stepped on a bed of nails.
And why should the orphans trust them? They were defenseless, profitable commodities to child and sex traffickers; several had already been sold before and escaped. Nobody had ever shown them love or kindness, so they didn’t recognize it when they saw it. To them it made more sense to feel like calves being fattened for slaughter than children welcomed into a family.
TAKING CARE OF THESE ORPHANS was thankless, character-building work. Shin half-joked that she ran away from home a few times. Not only did the children watch them with distrustful eyes, they were wild, impulsive, and aggressive. Each day, they threw fists and curses at each other, tumbling until noses broke into bloody gushes. They lied and cheated about trivial things. When they didn’t get their way, they banged their heads on the wall.
It’s the strangest thing, Jang said, how quickly humans forget their hunger once their bellies are filled. After six months, the children developed picky eating habits like any other broccoli-hating kids in America. They flailed chopsticks at the best meats and scowled at plain rice. Apparently love for the Colonel’s 11 spices is universal; the kids demanded Kentucky Fried Chicken all the time.
“It was a daily warfare,” Jang said. “The language they use! Take out all the swear words and you won’t even be able to comprehend what they’re saying.” Yet, once Jang raised his voice, their eyes would water and their lips tremble. “They may be extreme and wild in their behavior, but their psychological state’s so frail and sensitive.”
Jang said he would not have persevered without Christ’s impossibly limitless love. He and his wife bathed and scrubbed the children. They bought them fresh new clothes. They squeezed out the pus from their wounds, shipped medicine from South Korea for their tuberculosis and skin diseases, then rubbed ointment over their sores and rashes.
“We truly tried to take care of them as if they were our biological children,” Jang said. “And gradually, they came to understand our sincerity and heart.” The orphans started calling them ahbeoji and eomeoni—respectful, endearing terms for “father” and “mother.” They became so fond of the couple that they quarreled over sleeping beside them.
IN THE BEGINNING, the couple had big plans for the children: read the Bible together, teach them Mandarin and perhaps some English, so they’re prepared for higher education in the real world. But these children couldn’t read Korean—or use the toilet. One thought the toilet was a basin and washed her hair in its water; another understood but then tried to scoop out his feces with bare fingers.
Such basic things can be taught quickly; minds and hearts take longer. When Jang criticized North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during dinner, one child flung his spoon across the table and stormed out, screaming, “You think you would mouth such things if you were in North Korea?”
But the greatest challenge was sharing the gospel. None of the kids grasped the concept of God, much less of Jesus Christ. “They can’t see God, so how can they believe in something they can’t see with their own eyes?” Shin said.
Even the basic concept of sin was foreign, Jang said: “Growing up in North Korea means you have to lie, cheat, and steal to survive. These kids didn’t realize that it’s sin. They didn’t think they were sinners. So to tell them that someone died for their sins? That’s just unbelievable to them.”
THE MISSIONARIES had to start slowly. They taught them Korean, then read the Bible. They had Sunday school every day: Bible stories, Bible verse quizzes, worship sung in whispers. But Jang realized that such education had its limits—the kids were reciting indoctrinations without letting the gospel actually take root in their hearts. A majority of them flat-out told the missionaries, “I don’t believe in God.”
But even through their doubts, the children prayed constantly—from asking God to overcome their worries and anxieties to asking for miracles during a life-threatening crisis—and God answered their prayers in sweet, visible ways. Gradually, God went from nonexistent to abstract to a concrete, living, interactive Being.
Jang chuckled as he recalled, “Gosh, we have so many stories! The moment we start sharing all of God’s answers to their prayers, we won’t be able to stop.”
“These kids are desperate enough to pray,” Shin added. “They were in constant danger of being deported, so they needed someone to lean on during a time of great fear.”
THAT'S WHY IT ALSO ALARMED and disappointed the missionaries to see the children’s faith wobble soon after they settled into South Korea. Most of the children transition into schools and live in a dorm or institution. Free and safe in a nation of people who look and talk like them, many North Korean refugees still feel imprisoned by their inability to adjust and belong.
The younger refugees, particularly, lack mentors to guide them through the drastically different South Korean culture, no parent to admonish them when they make mistakes. Many of these youngsters, disillusioned by South Korean society and unfettered by parental authority, slip back into the same rambunctious, streetwise lifestyle they once led in North Korea and China.
They frequently asked Shin, “We experienced so many miracles in China. So why aren’t there any here in South Korea?” Shin said it’s because they lost their sincere desperation for God. They may still lack peace and stability in their hearts, but all their basic needs are met. They no longer have to worry about being deported or fight over food. They stopped praying.
BEFORE THE MISSIONARIES traveled with the last nine orphans to Laos, they offered a different prayer to God: “Lord, You know what happened to Your children. When they got too comfortable with their lifestyle, they lost their faith and forgot You. Please, don’t let these kids become that way this time round. ... If You really have a purpose for them, allow some challenges in their life.”
But the couple admitted that after the nine orphans’ deportation, they couldn’t accept that incident as an answer to that prayer. They wept, wailed at God, and pounded their chests in anguish. Why, when God had performed so many miraculous accomplishments, would He allow such devastating “failure”?
For months, they read the Scriptures, prayed, and finally listened, Jang said. Now, he says he believes “God delivered them to North Korea as martyrs and missionaries … and when God has called them for that purpose, who am I to say no? Who am I to cry, ‘No, not my children! You can’t use my children!’ So I’ve come to accept God’s heart.”
Shin said the nine youngsters’ faith is stronger than the other refugees she’s rescued. This fact gave the couple assurance that the orphans are “Josephs who can implant the foundation of a gospel in a spiritually barren land.”
“Living comfortably in South Korea is a blessing. But the biggest blessing is being able to maintain your faith and fulfill God’s purpose in your life,” said Jang. “These kids may be in North Korea. I know they will suffer there. My human heart is tearing apart at that thought. But I also believe that God has a huge award ready for them.”
SO THE COUPLE reshaped their prayer: “We pray that [the children] never forget that they are no longer slaves to sin. That even when imprisoned in darkness, the word of life that’s been seeded inside their hearts will help them overcome all hardships and fears. … We hope that one day, when we reunite, they can share many testimonies of how they guarded their faith.”
Through a secular viewpoint, the orphans’ sufferings seem senseless and devastating, and questions arise: Did the missionaries make a mistake? What went wrong? But a Bible-believing Christian can gain peace and comfort in the faith that the Christ who has risen makes no failure.