SUFFOLK, United Kingdom — The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea, is a country boarding South Korea, China and Russia. The population of North Korea was 25.89 million in 2021. It is impossible for citizens to leave the country without special privileges, such as sports, leaving millions of people in poverty-ridden and abusive environments. More than 200,000 North Korean refugees have escaped to China, where they are prosecuted and deported if found. Many who escape to China are trafficked and put in possibly worse conditions than they were originally in.
There are only a handful of charities and organizations supporting refugees. Dan Chung and Mike Kim founded Crossing Borders in 2003 and it is one of these organizations working in China, South Korea and the USA to help North Korean refugees have a better life through Christian faith and refugee and orphan care. The Borgen Project spoke with the executive director and co-founder Dan Chung to answer questions about Crossing Borders’ support of North Korean refugees.
Locating North Korean Refugees
In the mid-1990s, people began fleeing North Korea due to hunger. An interview by NK News in 2019 stated around 80% of refugees left due to economic factors, which have since changed to politics. Currently, fewer defectors are risking their lives crossing the river and are now fleeing through safer routes that outside organizations created. However, family members who defected to countries such as China, Australia, the United Kingdom, Russia and Japan are motivating those who attempt to leave North Korea. Some are further traveling to South Korea due to language barriers.
However, in the last decade, 30 defectors attempted the route back to North Korea. When a person arrives in another country, they encounter new hardships that others often forget, such as trafficking. One defector explains that while he became a cleaner and lived a relatively safe life in South Korea, he faced accusations of being a spy. Many refugees have to leave their families behind and those whom they traveled with could have died, or at the least been separated from each other. Many mental difficulties arise and most refugees likely need therapy that not many organizations offer.
Operating in China
There are approximately 2 million ethnic Koreans in Northeast China, where many have businesses and live in the same neighborhoods, Chung explained. This is because North Koreans often look to ethnic Koreans for support. However, as Crossing Borders’ work in China is illegal, no refugee is aware of the organization. Crossing Borders partners with Korean churches, which they privately support and often meet with. Refugees are found through these ethnic-Korean churches in China and when a North Korean refugee is identified, the church contacts Crossing Borders and works together to help them. From there, each case is different and every person needs specific support. Approximately 70% of North Korean refugees are female and are in need of more support due to excessive “abuse, trafficking and suffering,” Chung said.
Volunteers Risking Their Lives
The majority of staff working for Crossing Borders are ethnically Korean but are Chinese citizens, who are unaware of the organization’s name. This is to protect the staff and keep refugees safe as some get threats, including their families. Crossing Borders offers an experience for volunteers and potential partnerships and operates three personal “qualifications” for staff on the ground helping North Korean refugees: being “trustworthy”, “using discretion” and “aligning with our core beliefs and values,” Chung explained.
However, ethnicity and fluency in Korean and Chinese help staff camouflage and further protect them. Due to the pandemic, Crossing Borders is not looking for volunteers in China, but is locally finding staff in South Korea.
The majority of the funds Crossing Borders receives through online donations via its website. All of the funding Crossing Borders receive are “from individual donors and private foundations” from the U.S., but there are global donations too, Chung explained. Before the pandemic, the organization held a fundraiser in Chicago annually but currently doesn’t plan it for the future.
Crossing Borders achieved its two primary goals in 2022. The first was “to further develop the Elim House ministry in South Korea”, which started in 2020. The second was “to continue the care in China in spite of the government’s COVID-19 restrictions,” Chung said.
As of 2023, the organization is still developing its plans. Though Crossing Borders is not currently planning to expand into other countries, it is open to the opportunity. “Our mission is to show the compassion of Christ to North Koreans and their children. This can happen anywhere in the world,” Chung explained.
However, Crossing Borders is currently looking at how to further support North Korean refugees within South Korea. “This is a complex situation and we are slowly learning the landscape and needs and getting to know the key players involved in this work,” Chung said. There is much support that refugees need that is not possible for the South Korean government to address.
Though, Crossing Borders has identified “trauma” as a crucial factor and are looking to build a “trauma-informed therapy” service for refugees. “We also think to find that North Koreans don’t quite understand the need for mental health services and, much like the rest of the world, there is a stigma attached to counseling and other forms of psychotherapy,” Chung explained
Goals and Achievements
To end, we asked Dan Chung if he would like to add anything about Crossing Borders’ goals and achievements over the years. Here is what he had to say, “As Crossing Borders’ co-founder, I have seen the many ups and downs involved in running a nonprofit. The fact that we are still thriving after 20 years of service is, in and of itself, amazing.”
“There’s one story that I share that I find exemplary of when everything goes right. ‘Susanna’ was blind from cataracts and her husband, who purchased her, would not pay for the procedure to allow her to see again. In a twisted way, her husband and his family liked that she could not see because she was less likely to flee. Through her friends in the Crossing Borders network, she received the help she needed to receive surgery. Her eyesight was restored and literally leaped for joy when she saw our missionaries again. You can read more about her story here.”
– Deanna Barratt