The jailer and the prisoner’s
Last Updated: February 14. 2009 9:30AM UAE / February 14. 2009 5:30AM GMT
Chun Ki-won, a South Korean pastor, stands in a
Chinese prison. Courtesy durihana
BEIJING // It was the most unconventional of love stories: the
daughter of a South Korean pastor jailed in China for helping North Koreans
flee their repressive homeland, and the Chinese interrogator who threatened
the pastor with death.
It all started in Dec 1999, when Chun Ki-won, the South Korean pastor, helped
the first of what became hundreds of North Koreans to safety.
At the time, Stalinist North Korea was experiencing its worst food crisis, resulting
in the deaths of between one and three million people from famine.
Thousands were making the risky flight across the border into China, where
they are considered illegal migrants and if caught, deported back to North Korea
to face jail and possible death. Even if they avoided capture, life on the run
in China could be unbearable.
In the mid 1990s, Mr Chun, at the time a small-scale hotel owner, was in China
looking for business opportunities.
As he travelled through cities along the border with North Korea he witnessed
first hand the desperate plight of North Koreans.
In Tumen, he saw a frozen corpse floating in the river; it was that of a
refugee who had died while trying to wade across the river that separates the
In a nearby city, a group of North Korean children, about five years old, were
beaten by Chinese police for begging. Later that night, he saw a North Korean
woman screaming as she was dragged down a street by a group of men.
His Chinese guide explained that “whoever catches her first, can own her”.
That sombre experience was a turning point for Mr Chun. After he returned
to South Korea, he enrolled in a seminary. When he became a pastor in 1999,
at the age of 42, he made it his primary mission to help North Koreans escape.
Most North Korean defectors rely on the help of missionaries or commercial brokers
running underground railways that organise perilous journeys by train or on
foot through the Inner Mongolian desert or south to the borders with Vietnam,
Myanmar and South East Asia, with the eventual aim of landing in South Korea.
Many of the brokers are themselves defectors, charging about US$3,000 (Dh11,000)
The South Korean Embassy in Beijing estimates there are about 30,000 North Korean
refugees hiding in China. In recent years, many have sought refuge in foreign
embassies in the Chinese capital, often scaling the missions’ walls in dramatic
attempts to avoid capture and deportation. It is thought that about 10,000 North
Koreans have fled since the mid 1990s, and by 2001, Mr Chun had helped 250 of
But then, on Dec 29 of that year, as he led a group of 12 defectors across
the China-Mongolian border, he was arrested. He was held in prison in China
for eight months, during which time he was threatened with the death penalty
unless he revealed who was the real mastermind helping the defectors to escape.
For the eight months he was detained, he was asked daily who he took orders
from, and each time, Mr Chun replied that he answered only to his own conscience
and to God.
Then, one of the interrogators approached him while the other two were away
and again asked the same question: “Who’s behind all this?” Mr Chun recalled.
When he repeated the same answer, the guard asked: “Do all people who go to
church do this, like you?”
A few days later, the same guard asked if someone like him could read the bible.
Mr Chun was worried. He thought the guard might be trying to trap him. In atheist
China, missionary activity is illegal.
But still, he replied that it was possible.
Mr Chun was eventually released from jail with the help of international human
rights organisations and petitions from US legislators and deported back to
South Korea. Although he was banned from China until 2012, he has remained active
in helping North Koreans to flee. By Oct 2007, about 500 people had escaped
with the help of Mr Chun’s group.
A few months after his return to Seoul, Mr Chun received a phone call from China.
It was the interrogator who had asked about the bible. “He was thinking about
coming to Seoul for travel. I told him to come over and stay at my home,” he
“The second day of his arrival was Sunday. I needed to go to church. But
I didn’t ask him to go with me because I knew he was a Communist Party member
and worked for the Chinese government.”
So it was a surprise, he said, when the man asked to join him, something Mr
Chun put down to curiosity.
“There were about 3,000 people in the church and they were really surprised
to see a Chinese man who had prosecuted me, now standing together with me,”
Mr Chun said.
The Chinese interrogator stayed for a few more days before going back to
But a few months later, he was back, this time staying with Mr Chun and studying
international commerce at Korea University. It was at this time, that the interrogator,
who has asked that he be identified only by his surname, Jia, met Mr Chun’s
“The summer came and my daughter who had been studying in Beijing came back
home. Since my daughter spoke Chinese, the two clicked very well. My daughter
took him to many places for sightseeing. They spent a lot of time together,”
Mr Chun said.
So it should not have come as a surprise when Mr Jia asked if he could be
“friends” with the pastor’s daughter.
“I questioned him some more. And he said he wanted to marry my daughter.”
But to Mr Jia’s surprise, Mr Chun refused the match. “Not because he was Chinese
or because he was a prosecutor, but I told him that when I became a pastor,
I pledged to God that I would find a pastor to marry her.”
It is here that Mr Chun’s recollection diverges with that of his former
jailer. Mr Chun recalls that Mr Jia told him he was prepared to become a pastor,
and with that the marriage was granted. But Mr Jia, in an interview in Beijing,
said he only told his father-in-law he was thinking about joining the church.
In fact he did not become a pastor and went on to work for a multinational company
in Beijing, where he lives with Mr Chun’s daughter.
The wedding drew an unusually large number of guests, many of whom came to
see the marriage of the interrogator and the prisoner’s daughter, Mr Chun says
with a laugh.
But while his efforts to free North Koreans eventually brought happiness to
his daughter, he is no longer able to see her as he has been banned from travelling
to China until 2012.
“What my father-in-law does goes against the Chinese law. I am his son-in-law
and live in China. I also sometimes feel that I am watched,” Mr Jia said.
Mr Chun, meanwhile, has become an expert on North Korea.
“In the past, North Korea was an isolated country. People there really believed
that they lived in a paradise. But as the number of refugees increases, and
as more information penetrates society, North Koreans also know the truth and
what the outside world is like. But they cannot do anything about it due to
the government’s repressive policy,” Mr Chun said.
“But it won’t last long.”
Ex-drug smuggler revealed as
North Korea's defector hunter
Last Updated: April 16. 2010 12:17AM UAE / April 15. 2010 8:17PM GMT
The Rev Chun Ki-won, of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, points
to a border village between North Korea and China where two of his people were
arrested. Lee Jin-man /
BEIJING // A South Korean drug trafficker who was arrested when he entered
the country from China has an explosive backstory that has left southerners
enthralled and analysts dumbfounded.
It turns out the 55-year-old man, currently being investigated by authorities,
is a bounty hunter who divided his time between tracking down North Korean defectors
living in China and smuggling them back to the North, and gathering information
on South Korean intelligence operatives working in China.
The man, surnamed Kim, had fled to China in 1999 while being pursued by southern
authorities, but had to go back to the South again after Chinese security caught
on to him. He was arrested trying to re-enter South Korea from China, southern
The case is particularly strange given that South Koreans typically help people
to escape from the north rather than send them back.
“This is such a bizarre case,” said Chun Ki-won, a well-known South Korean
Christian activist, who smuggled hundreds of North Koreans hiding in China to
other countries, mostly to South Korea and the US. “This is the first case,
as far as I know, in which a South Korean citizen did such a shameful thing.”
South Korean media have spent the past week recounting the man’s story.
Before 1999, Mr Kim was just a regular drug smuggler working mainly in China’s
coastal province, Shandong, according to South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
In that year, he was approached by a female North Korean agent who promised
to supply him with“high-quality” narcotics. He moved to Yanji, a Chinese city
on the border with North Korea.
In February 2000, Mr Kim entered North Korea from China and travelled to
Pyongyang where he received spy training for 15 days, plus 2kg of narcotics
and an additional US$10,000 (Dh36,700) in cash for “activity fees”, according
to the prosecutor’s office in Seoul, which is conducting a joint investigation
with the South’s main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, the newspaper
Mr Kim was dispatched back to China with instructions to kidnap both North Korean
defectors and South Korean activists who help them to defect, and transport
them to the North. During this time he lived with the female North Korean agent
in Yanji near the South Korean border, according to the newspaper.
Starting from March 2002, he was also instructed to collect information on
South Korean intelligence agents working in China, it said.
Now, Mr Kim is being investigated for kidnapping a 50-year-old North Korean
male defector in China and sending him back to the North in 2006, working together
with a “kidnapping squad” sent by Pyongyang. He is also suspected of two failed
attempts to kidnap other North Korean defectors in China, the newspaper reported,
North Koreans wanting to defect to the South usually attempt to do so through
China, as escaping through the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas is
After Mr Kim’s arrest, the female North Korean agent returned to North Korea,
according to a South Korean government official who deals with North Korean
Drawing from his own experience in China, Mr Chun, who is now in Seoul, said
the case may be related to other cases of South Korean aid workers disappearing
The South Korean official said Seoul keeps track of those incidents but does
not publicise them, given the sensitivity involved.
Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean presidential aide for national security
and member of parliament who follows North Korean affairs, said the case in
no way indicates that other southerners may be working with Pyongyang to capture
defectors from the north.
“This is quite an uncommon case,” he said.
“This is also related to drug trafficking. And it may yet indicate the start
of a new trend that we may have to know more.”
The case has also drawn attention to the plight of North Korean refugees hiding
China does not acknowledge North Korean defectors in China as refugees, but
considers them “economic migrants” ? North Koreans who temporarily crossed
the border seeking food.
The country has come under severe criticism for its policy of sending them back
to North Korea where rights groups say they will face harsh punishment, including
torture and even death.
Lu Chao, a Chinese expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social
Sciences, near the North Korean border, said the criticism is unfair.
“China and North Korea have a bilateral treaty under which China is obliged
to send North Koreans, who illegally cross the border, back to their homeland.
It’s similar to the treaty the US and Mexico have. Illegal entry is not allowed.”
The North Korean refugee matter, in fact, is an issue regularly raised by journalists
at Chinese foreign ministry press briefings, to which the foreign ministry spokesperson
invariably answers: “China deals with the issue, factoring into its decision
domestic regulations, international law and humanitarian considerations.”
“These three principles are correct,” said Mr Lu. “And the humanitarian
aspect is already there. The external human-rights organisations are exaggerating
Mr Jang said the issue ultimately requires the US government to take initiative
and persuade the Chinese government not to repatriate the North Korean refugees.
“But that will be easily perceived by China as the US interfering in China’s
domestic human-rights conditions, [a subject on] which China doesn’t feel very
confident. So, it’s an agenda difficult to push,” he said.
According to South Korean government data, more than 18,000 North Koreans
are estimated to have fled the starving country since the 1950-53 Korean War.