During a recent Asia Pacific Teen Challenge Conference held in Seoul, South Korea, Teen Challenge of the Four States executive director Jim Lowans and his wife, Kathie, heard an interesting story.
"Our director in South Korea mentioned to me that he had become friends with a pastor in South Korea that had been traveling into North Korea and doing his best to rescue people as he could out of North Korea," said Jim.
"So it was not really a scheduled event on our calendar, but once we found out about this, we wanted to arrange a meeting with him. We had him come and speak to our directors. He actually brought along three ladies and a 15-year-old boy that had all been rescued out of North Korea."
Jim serves as the Asia Pacific regional representative.
"So every year, we have a conference and usually move it around from country to country and then the directors from the other countries come for three days of training," he said. "This year, we had actually gone on a three nation tour Cambodia, Thailand and South Korea."
The pastor not only had the North Koreans with him, he also had some secret videos to show during the conference.
"Well the story to be told (by) the pastor and the videos he shared with us, he shared four videos, three of them he allowed us to have and one he didn't allow us to have because of the sensitivity of the video and the individuals on the video," he said. "You know, it was very clear the way that I describe it is a '50 plus year Holocaust' going on in North Korea between the brutal treatment of the people and the starvation and just the lack of basics for life. Somebody actually [said] rather than the leader of North Korea being seen as a dictator, they described it in more to me as a 'cult,' that at least the people that you see you see on TV, if you see any news reports they will always talk so highly of their leader. That he is god to them."
Another powerful moment for the Lowans was hearing that these particular North Koreans smuggled into South Korea was that they had never seen Americans before.
"We did talk with them and the most interesting thing – which we didn't realize – was when Kathie and I went over to meet them and speak with them, the one lady said, 'you are the first Americans that we have met in our lives' even though they had been out of North Korea for a while," said Jim. "The stories that they had been told about Americans were not true which included she said from a very young age they are taught to hate Americans, to despise Americans. She even said that they are taught that Americans eat Korean babies. So their perception of Americans from a very young age has been total negativity."
Page 2 of 3 - Kathie said it was a surreal experience.
"It was very surreal being there and having a woman who has been taught to hate Americans and to kill Americans about my age or younger, smiling, she is a Christian and I am a Christian, but she is trying to put those things together," Kathie said. "It was a privilege to pray with them, and to have that connection, that spiritual connection. After the pastor was done speaking it was like 'what can you say?'"
A tale of two centers
Jim stated there are a couple of Teen Challenge centers in Cambodia, one devoted to men and the other one to women.
"The men's center is pretty well full, 40-50 men and boys, it is not just for men there is a men's division and a boy's division as young as 8 years old in the program," Jim said. "The men's program is pretty much what I would say a traditional United States type Teen Challenge in the sense that the men that come in there are [battling] drugs or alcohol."
The women's center is different.
"It is really women and children because most of the women in the women's program are rescued off of the streets," he said. "Quite a few of them had been in the sex trade were severely abused, raped and literally, they are rescued right off the streets and brought into the program and their children are there with them in the program. But in the women's center, it takes on a little different flavor. The majority of the women probably have abused drugs to some degree, but it is mostly the sex trade and just the abuse that they face trying to rescue them and give them a life after. In Asia, [the sex trade] is very prominent and unfortunately, a lot of it serves people from Western or developed countries."
In Thailand, Jim said the goal is to have the Teen Challenge men's center opened by the end of the year.
Jim said overall, the recent trip was very productive.
"It was a very productive trip and probably one of the things that the pastor plead with us to somehow figure out how to start a Teen Challenge in North Korea," Jim said. "I look at that and say, 'how would something like that be possible?' One of the things that he (pastor) told me, which surprised me, I had no idea about it, he said, 'up along the China border in North Korea, there are a number of NGO (non-government organizations) that operate in humanitarian ways that North Korea allows them to come in.' Obviously, you couldn't go in there as any kind of Christian organization at least overtly, but never the less, even for somebody to look at you and plead and say, 'please come to North Korea and help the people.'"
Page 3 of 3 - Jim said they plan on going back.
"We will be following up and reviewing that," he said. "Obviously, we will be going back to Asia, we make regular trips to Asia along with the Pacific Australia the other areas of the islands we are working with. As far as this invitation from North Korea, obviously that one is going to take a little more thinking, praying, strategy verses going into Thailand to start a Teen Challenge."