Features

Underwater railroad

North Korea | A network of activists is trying to help North Koreans flee the starvation, oppression, and despair of Kim Jong Il's brutal regime-and not be sent back

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

In a North Korean prison camp, inmates went about their work in a furnace-backbreaking labor their jailers forced them to perform 18 hours every day. As they worked, many of them appeared to be mumbling under their breath. They were not complaining; they were singing hymns. The prisoners were Christians-locked up for the crime of believing in God. Eventually, a guard noticed a female prisoner singing-and trampled on her face.

This woman got off relatively easily, compared to those caught trying to escape North Korea into China.

North Korea's leaders especially hate Christians. By some accounts, 90 percent of those who help people trying to escape the North's brutal regime are followers of Christ. Many live along the border between China and North Korea, descendants of Koreans who moved into China fleeing the famine of the 19th century and persecution from the Japanese occupation force during the first half of the 20th century.

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South Korean Christians offer a helping hand, as well, often risking their lives to provide aid and comfort to the enemies of Kim Jong Il-that is, his own people-who steal into China, Laos, Vietnam, Russia, Cambodia, and Mongolia along a modern Underground Railroad.

Their help is desperately needed. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans have sneaked into China alone in recent years and live fearfully in hiding. If they're caught, Beijing ships them straight back to North Korea, ignoring the United Nations' 1951 convention, which China signed, commanding protection of refugees. (The Chinese skirt the mandate by insisting that escaping North Koreans are "economic migrants," not refugees.)

Some are smuggled through China into Mongolia. Once there, they head for the South Korean embassy in Ulan Bator. According to Douglas Shin, an American pastor living in Seoul, the embassy staff keeps "a lot of blank passports on hand, and just slap the refugees' photos on them." The South Korean government pays for their flight to Seoul to begin new lives of freedom.

The whole process takes only a few days, which means there are no refugee camps in Mongolia. Camps won't form unless the stream of refugees who manage to escape turns into a flood, Mr. Shin says.

If this happens, as some human-rights observers predict, people like Mr. Shin will have helped make it possible. A few years ago he formed an organization called Exodus 21, devoted to helping Koreans escape the starvation, oppression, and despair in the North. Mr. Shin has personally helped some 40 North Koreans escape through Mongolia. After twice being arrested by Mongolian authorities, he now devotes himself to publicizing the plight of North Koreans and prodding other nations, especially the United States, for policy changes.

Last year, nearly 600 North Korean escapees received official asylum in South Korea, including dozens who rushed into foreign embassies in China; this year, at least 1,000 are expected. Last month, the largest refugee group ever to arrive by boat-11 adults and 10 children-chugged into the port of Incheon, escorted by the South Korean maritime police.

Once in Seoul, refugees can expect help from both the South Korean government and Christian churches. The adjustment is far from easy. Although the South Korean government considers North Koreans to be citizens, they must go through a month of interrogation "because they might be spies," Mr. Shin explains. Next, they spend two months undergoing training to adjust to a society far more sophisticated than the one they left. They're taught how to use pay phones, automatic teller machines, computers-even television remotes.

The government gives each new citizen resettlement money ($28,000 per person-more for families) and access to a tiny, state-subsidized apartment. While the amount of money may seem large, "It's nothing, because the cost of living here is exorbitant," Mr. Shin says. "They have a tough time adjusting. Both the government and churches are doing their best to provide job training, but it's a long way to go." Refugees who are reunited with family members in the South "are much better off," Mr. Shin notes.

These are the ones who survive the desperate and dangerous journey through China, a passage that has become far more perilous in recent months. Under pressure from Pyongyang, China has begun cracking down on the refugees hiding among them. If the smuggling of North Koreans into China evokes memories of America's own Underground Railroad, China's hunting down of Korean escapees chillingly echoes the era when Nazis hunted down Jews. Chinese police frequently stop buses to search for refugees; anyone lacking an identity card or who cannot speak Chinese is immediately arrested. Surprise house-to-house searches are common. Villagers are threatened with punishment if they offer refuge to North Korean defectors. And like their Nazi predecessors, Chinese authorities offer money to those willing to betray neighbors who hide Koreans. Some refugees are tortured to reveal the identities of those who helped them, according to American human-rights activist Timothy Peters.

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