Thailand and Laos hold a special place in the heart of almost all North Korean defectors because it is here, when crossing the Mekong River, that they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they have at last reached some semblance of safety. From here they turn themselves in to a local detention facility, and then the South Korean Embassy is notified to take custody of them and initiate the process of bringing them to South Korea.
This time in Thailand and Laos is a more complicated and dangerous process than it sounds, as there is no road map to detention facilities, and brokers do not risk crossing the Mekong for fear of their identities being discovered. So when North Koreans exit the skiffs onto the other side of the river they simply wander in the direction they’ve been told by their broker to go. In the case of Thailand, the northern part is mountainous, beautiful, and dangerous, with many poisonous snakes and mudslides. Small prisons dot the border landscape.
We partnered with two volunteer missionaries, Brother P and Brother P, who travel from Chiang Mai to the border region twice a month to bring care packages of hygiene items to newly arrived NK refugees. They had contacted us through our sister ministry, Voice of the Martyrs/US, asking for Korean New Testaments, and with VOM/US’ help we were delighted to supply them 200 of our North Korean dialect New Testaments at no charge.
Dr. Foley and I brought two Underground University (UU) missionaries with us, KWO and LCS. Each of our UU students must go on at least one mission trip with Dr. Foley and me, getting involved hands-on, side-by-side with us in the field to minister to their fellow North Koreans.
Both KWO and LCS were absolutely stunned to learn that they were experts, able to teach Brother P and Brother P many things about North Korean refugees ranging from possible refugee routes to the items most needed in prison to what happens to NK refugees once they arrive in the detention facilities. Brother P and Brother P were eager learners.
Further, the trip was extremely emotional for both women but especially KWO, since the area we visited was the exact area where she had crossed to freedom, and one of the prisons we visited was the prison where she was detained. It was interesting to learn that both women had a large number of repressed memories from their defection journeys, both positive and negative, and these memories came flooding back during our trip. I was grateful that Dr. Foley was there, given her background in licensed clinical counseling. It was easy to tell that this was a powerful healing moment for the women.
Picture taking is of course strictly prohibited at the detention facility. Still, in my years of doing this work I can recall few experiences as moving as the moment that the UU missionaries and the refugees melted into each others’ arms, crying freely. It makes me tear up to think about it even now. For some experiences, words fail.
Having the UU missionaries there made Brother P and Brother P’s ministry exponentially more effective, as they themselves attested. They do not speak Korean, and so they can’t explain who they are and why they are giving the items. Our UU missionaries were able to give the refugees the New Testaments and explain what the books are for. Our UU missionaries shared with Brother P and Brother P that there is absolutely nothing for NKs to do in the detention center, and so they sit all day long for hours on end doing absolutely nothing. They were excited that the refugees will have North Korean dialect New Testaments to read, and they know that the refugees will have many hours to ponder the statement of the UU missionaries that “God sent us to greet you.”