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The North Koreans cross the Chinese border and arrive at a guest house in Laos.
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The North Koreans cross the Chinese border and arrive at a guest house in Laos.

The other side of failure

North Korea | Caretakers find solace and take stock after nine North Korean orphans are deported from Laos

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

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. 

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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.

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