to free refugees from Communist North gets more dangerous, frustrating
Oct. 20, 2011
By Josephine Jung Taipei, Taiwan
Reverend Chun Ki-won has many mouths to feed.
His family is bigger than the average household: Mr. Chun
is responsible for taking care of the North Korean refugees living at his shelter
in South Korea, as well as rescuing as many as of the 200,000 North Korean refugees
hiding out in China today as he can.
Mr. Chun operates a modern Underground Railroad, which helps
defectors from Communist North Korea escape across the Chinese border and make
the long and dangerous trip to a life of freedom in South Korea. After defecting,
North Koreans must journey through China, hiding from Chinese officials to avoid
being sent back to North Korea. The ultimate goal is to reach Southeast Asian
nations where they are recognized as political refugees and wait to be sent
to South Korea. Mr. Chun works with Durihana, a mission group devoted to this
“It’s mentally grueling and terrifying for the defectors
making the trip,” says Mr. Chun. “If one person is caught, the rest of the
group, as sad as it is, must keep moving. Most defectors say that they would
sooner kill themselves rather than be sent back.”
North Koreans began crossing into China in greater numbers
beginning with the food crisis in 1997. The Kim Jong-Il regime takes resources
and allocates them to party loyalists, leaving the rest of the population to
starve, with no other choice than defecting as a means for survival. Defecting,
however, is a serious crime in North Korea, punishable by imprisonment, torture
and death. Families who have a member who has defected are subjected to equally
China does not accept North Koreans as refugees, despite pressure
from the U.S. and the international community.
“China expatriates North Koreans that are hiding in China
back to North Korea, in defiance of international human rights laws,” says
Mr. Chun. “Those who are caught and sent back are subjected to cruel public
executions. Attendance is mandatory, even for children who are not yet 10. It
is a message, to instill fear in the people and discourage them from defecting.”
Most of those who make it to South Korea safely are still
separated from family who stay behind. Mr. Chun works to contact and bring out
the families of the refugees he has rescued.
But now, it seems, the opportunity of escape is getting narrower.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for North Korean refugees
to escape out of North Korea and China,” says Mr. Chun, with a dark expression.
“China doesn’t want these North Koreans flooding over the border, so they’ve
tightened border security. North Korea in turn, has also become more severe
with border security on their side, because of the power change in the Kim regime.
… There is a new policy in North Korea of immediately shooting anyone who is
trying to defect.”
Scott Snyder, a Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council
on Foreign Relations, says the strengthening of border control is the main reason
it's getting harder to get out of North Korea.
The flow of defectors "has been stanched due both to
pre-Olympic security sweeps on the Chinese side of the border and measures on
the North Korean side to strengthen border security,” Mr. Snyder says.
Sokeel Park, a research and policy analyst at LiNK, a humanitarian
organization similar to Durihana, says that while it is becoming harder for
North Koreans to leave, “the Underground Railroad is fighting those trends,
and with time the people operating the Underground Railroad gain experience
and hopefully it gets better established. But there is a constant battle with
Angela (name altered to protect her identity) is one of the
North Korean refugee who was rescued by Mr. Chun in 2002. Her dream is to be
able to give children the education that she was denied by becoming a teacher,
she says. Angela is 25, an age at which most take advantage of their youth and
pursue their dreams. But Angela does not have that luxury-because she is North
“I left school when I was 12,” she says. “It was a better
use of time to go find food than to go to school. The priority was to live.”
This is the case for many North Koreans, says Mr. Chun.
Angela comes from Musan, in the northern part of North Korea,
right next to the Duman River, which marks the border between China and North
Korea. She escaped North Korea at age 16 in search of food, and spent six years
wandering in China until she found out about Mr. Chun’s organization. She contacted
him immediately, and he arranged for her escape through missionary workers stationed
along the Underground Railroad.
North Korean defectors who cross the border are often sold
as commodities. Mr. Chun says although they suffer human rights violations such
as forced prostitution, refugees are powerless to do anything about it because
of the threat of being sent back to North Korea.
“I am one of the luckier ones, because I didn’t have to
sell my body or [be] trafficked,” Angela says. “There were others around me
who were subjected to much worse, but I couldn’t do anything but watch.”
With Angela now safe in Seoul, Mr. Chun now faces the task
of helping her sister, brother in-law and nephew out of North Korea. So far,
his efforts have been unsuccessful.
“We’ve had incidents where the guides who we pay to lead
the group of refugees out of China were frauds and cheated us,” he says. “Many
try to swindle rescue mission funds, by telling us that they will help the refugees
and then disappearing after they have been paid.”
Angela waits nervously.
“We’ve tried to bring them out once already," she says.
"They were caught and taken to a prison in North Korea, and the soldiers
beat my sister and her husband unconscious."
Mr. Chun says it's frustrating not to be able to do more.
"With Angela’s family, we have to tread carefully, because North Korea
will show no mercy to those who attempt to defect more than once.”
“It’s also difficult because I can’t be there myself,”
says Mr. Chun. Mr. Chun was arrested and imprisoned in China in 2002 when he
was on one of his rescue missions. Caught trying to smuggle people illegally
out of China, he has since been barred from entering China, and monitors each
mission remotely from South Korea.
That task is only getting more difficult, due to tighter border
policies on both the Chinese and North Korean sides.
“I want to give hope to these North Korean refugees. But
what they’ve gone through is unspeakably horrible, and it’s hard to make things
better for everyone,” says Mr. Chun. “A lot of the time, I’m frustrated and
disappointed because it’s unimaginable that such horrors exist today. My job
has a lot of sadness come with it.”
So why does he do it?
“Because I can’t sit here and just watch them suffer the
greatest pain known to mankind,” he says.