About ten years ago, on April 15, 2006, 6 North Korean refugees
safely crossed the Mekong River at the Laotian-Thai border. 2 male and 4 females
all in their 20s and 30s were crossing the border on the "Day of the Sun,"
the most important holiday of North Korea, which celebrates Kim Il Sung's birthday.
It was God's grace that it was pouring heavily. They arrived at the New York,
JFK Airport on May 5, 2006.
The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was the first legislation
in the world for the North Koreans, it provides humanitarian aids to North Koreans
and helps them settle in the US as refugees. These six were the first to be
accepted in the US as North Koreans refugees since the Act was passed.
With the six Durihana members as the first settlers, there are
197 that have settled in the US as of now. 118 are female and 79 are male. By
age group, 56 were in their 30s, 49 in their 20s, 33 in their 40s. There were
30 people that were between 14 and 20 years old and 19 who were younger than
14. 8 were between 51-64 years old and 2 were older than 65.
27 North Koreans refugees have settled in California and Southern
Kentucky each, 20 in New York, 18 in Colorado, 16 in Utah and 15 each in Virginia
and Arizona. They also live throughout the US in Illinois (14), Washington (8),
Texas (7), Georgia (6), Florida (5), Maryland (5), North Carolina (2), Idaho
(2), Oregon (1) and Indiana (1). 97 of them have graudated highschool, consisting
about half of those settled in the US, 29 have graduated college and 11 have
graduated technical schools. This means that about 70% of the total have received
more than a high school education.
I applaud the 197 pioneers who have settled in the land of opportunity
and freedom and wish that they settle well and enjoy their lives. I hope that
they will become the key players for the unified Korea.
The New Underground Railroad
“A North Korean like you is
easier to kill than a chicken.”
BY MELANIE KIRKPATRICK Friday,
May 12, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
habits die hard-especially those whose disregard could mean death. So it is
understandable that the North Korean refugees with whom I met this week set
strict ground rules for our interview: no names, no photographs, no indication
of their location in the U.S., and no identifying details of the Southeast Asian
nation whose government risked the ire of China to permit them to depart for
asylum in this country after they sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy there.
and “Naomi” are
the noms de liberté of the women who were willing to savor a taste of
their new freedom by meeting an American journalist. Even so, they remain fearful
for the safety of the families they have left behind in North Korea. The relatives
of defectors can simply disappear--sent to the gulag or worse. “North Korea has many spies,”
says Naomi, through an interpreter. Even, it went unstated, in this country.
women's new names were bestowed on them by Chun Ki-won, the South Korean pastor
whose underground railroad led them, and four others, thousands of miles across
China to sanctuary in Southeast Asia this spring. No one knows how many North
Korean refugees are hiding in northeast China. Tens of thousands for sure, and
estimates range as high as several hundred thousand. Beijing, in violation of
its treaty obligations, refuses to allow the United Nations High Commission
on Refugees to help--or even to interview them.
Chun is a man of “miracles,” the
women say. Their own particular miracle is to have stepped off a plane in this
country late last Friday, the first refugees to enter the U.S. under asylum
rules set up under the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act. Naomi, Hannah and
the four compatriots who traveled with them had spent years in virtual servitude
in northeast China, along the North Korean border.
and Naomi are willing to share their stories, but first they wish to make a
statement. Hannah settles herself in her chair, opens a small notebook, and
reads in Korean the words she has prepared: “Before we begin this interview, I want to thank God for bringing
us to this land of dreams. We sincerely thank President George Bush and the
American government for letting us enter as refugees.”
She bows slightly, closes her notebook, and prepares to relive her ordeal.
“My husband was an officer in the army,”
she begins, and “I was a teacher.”
(Hannah, like Naomi, needs an interpreter.) They had a daughter together, who
is now 14. In 2003--she is careful not to give a more precise date--her husband
was seriously injured in a military exercise that left him unable to work. Without
his salary, the family had difficulty making ends meet, so when the mother of
one of Hannah's students offered her 300 won (about $136) to travel with her
to a town along the Chinese border to pick up the fabric she used in her clothing
business, Hannah accepted the job.
the North Korean border town, the women were invited to dinner at the home of
the middleman who was selling them the fabric. Halfway through the meal, Hannah
fell asleep--there was a narcotic in the food--and she woke up later in a dark
basement. “I was tied up,”
she says, “but I could hear my friend say, 'Teacher, I think we've been sold.'” They
were no longer in North Korea, but in China.
“I was from Pyongyang,”
Hannah says. “I had absolutely no idea of the things that happen around the
border. . . . How can this happen? How can such an event occur in this world?
. . . What would happen to my family, my child? . . . I felt like I was living
She was soon sold to a farmer for 20,000 Chinese yuan, or $2,500.
are prized in China, where there is a shortage of young women thanks to Beijing's
one-child policy, Chinese families' preference for sons, and the government's
blind eye toward rampant female infanticide. In northeast China, where many
ethnic Koreans live, North Korean women are “known to be polite and clean,”
says Hannah. “Young Chinese women from rural areas marry into the cities,”
adds Naomi. “It's difficult to find young women in the countryside.”
North Korean in China--even one who is there against her own volition--quickly
learns that there is a worse fate than being sold into sexual slavery: being
captured by the Chinese authorities and repatriated. It is a crime to leave
the North, and Koreans who are sent back end up in prison camps or worse. “I had no choice but to depend on the man”
who bought her, Hannah says. But “for the first time in my life, I felt like a sinner, because
I had a family in North Korea and I was living with this man.”
beat her--once breaking her breastbone. He would threaten to kill her or turn
her over to the police. “North Koreans like you are easier to kill than a chicken,”
he once told her. Hannah soon found herself pregnant, praying that her husband's
abuse would cease once she gave him a child.
behavior did not improve after the birth of their daughter, leading Hannah to
consider suicide. But “I have two children, one in North Korea, one in China. . . . How
sad my daughters would be to know that they didn't have a mother. I decided
I had to live for my daughters.”
led to the decision to run away from her Chinese husband. He “had no other children, and he really did love the child, and he
treated her well.”
She spoke to her mother-in-law and persuaded her to take care of her daughter
until she came back. “So I left when my daughter was asleep.” A
missionary helped Hannah get to Beijing, where she connected with the underground
railroad. It was more difficult to blend in in Beijing, where there were few
ethnic Koreans, and Hannah was afraid she would be captured. “It's unspeakable, the fear.”
has sat quietly during Hannah's story, leaning from her seat only to touch Hannah
gently on the arm when she breaks down in talking about her daughters. Now she
starts to speak, in a voice so soft that I have to lean across the table to
“From 1994 there was a famine and it became very difficult to eat,” she
begins. She lived with her parents and brother in a city near the Chinese border.
“Even though we all had jobs we did not get paid . . . and we had
to pay the government [a tax] for development projects.”
father had been born in China, and in 1998, with the family in debt and still
struggling for food, she decided to see if she could find her relatives there
and ask for help. She was befriended by a Chinese traveling salesman, who offered
to guide her to her relatives' address. She left in the middle of the night.
“I didn't want my parents to know I was leaving,” she
says. “I thought I would go for a few days and come back.”
merchant led her across the Tumen River to an apartment in a city on the Chinese
side. It was then that she realized that the wares her salesman-friend sold
were human--and female. She was given to a farmer, exchanged for the Korean
he had purchased a month earlier, but who had turned out to be ill. “The day after I arrived, a neighbor reported me so five or six
security people came to the house. I was so frightened and confused.”
The family paid a 3,000-yuan fine for the authorities to pretend she wasn't
spent the next three years in hard farm labor, suffering a back injury so severe
that she couldn't walk for nearly a year. The family refused to get medical
treatment for her because they were afraid someone would find out they were
harboring an illegal refugee. After she did not become pregnant, the family
eventually allowed her to leave to search for her relatives. When she finally
found them, they ordered her to marry a man they picked out for her. Six months
later she became pregnant.
“When I was eight months pregnant, I was captured by the Chinese,”
she says. “Somebody from my neighborhood reported me. . . . [The Chinese]
pay people to report North Koreans.”
Her relatives paid the fine, but seven months later, when her son was still
nursing, she was captured again. This time she was sent back to North Korea.
Her son was wrenched from her.
spent the next period of her life in a succession of prison camps. “I went into the Musan Security Center. There if you even spoke
a word, they would make you hold out your hands and beat you with a large wooden
She did farm work in another camp. It was harvest season. “You start at 4 o'clock in the morning and work until 10 or 11
When the guards moved prisoners from camp to camp, “they would use shoelaces to tie our thumbs together to the thumbs
of the person next to us so tightly that our thumbs would swell up.”
eventually was returned to a detention facility in her hometown, where she was
required to write a confession. “One day they took me to a big public event and we were forced
to read our confessions to the crowds,”
she recalls. “There were several hundred people there. The authorities said,
'This is what happens to people who go to China.'”
she was released, she sneaked back in to China. “I had to go because of my son,”
she says. It was too dangerous to stay in the same town, so she tied her son
on her back and moved to another city with her husband. Fearing discovery--and
with a husband who kept threatening to report her--she switched jobs constantly.
She worked as a cook, as an Internet chat girl, and even danced nude for a Webcast.
2004, when listening to the Voice of America--Naomi confidently pronounces the
in English--she learned about Pastor Chun's underground railroad. She used the
Internet to find his organization's fax number and sent him a plea for help.
Her mother-in-law agreed to take care of her son, and Naomi decided to make
a run for it.
is 36 and Naomi 34. Their eyebrows are plucked, their hair is stylishly straight,
and they are dressed in cropped pants and high-heeled slides--styles as popular
in East Asia as they are in this country. The only sign that they might not
be from here is their lack of jewelry--with the exception of the cross Hannah
wears on a chain around her neck.
interview over, the women relax and begin to talk about their first few days
in America. “It's completely different from what we learned. It is difficult
to accept that there is a world like this,”
Hannah says. “They [the North Korean government] teach us that America is a
country that shouldn't be allowed to exist.”
“When we were in China,”
Naomi says, “we always had to hide. Now we don't feel that way anymore.”
“We still do feel lonely,”
says Hannah, “but my heart feels free.”
Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
1st North Korean Defectors Arrive in L.A.
by members of a church coalition that pressed for their safe passage, they tell
of famine, enslavement, torture and repression.
By Valerie Reitman, Times Staff Writer
North Korean defectors - the first refugees the U.S. has admitted from the totalitarian
nation - arrived in Southern California on Saturday bearing accounts of famine,
sexual enslavement, torture and repression.
group was met at Los International Airport by leaders of four large Korean congregations
in Southern California, all members of the Korean Church Coalition, which has
pushed the government to take in North Korean refugees.
hugged each of the refugees and handed them bouquets of fresh flowers as they
emerged near the baggage area, accompanied by Chun Ki Won, the missionary who
helped them escape via an underground railroad through China and Southeast Asia.
leaving the airport, church leaders joined hands with the defectors and prayed
for North Koreans still living in the hermit kingdom or hiding in China.
“This is the moment we've been hoping and praying for for years,”
said Sam Kim, a lawyer and member of the Bethel Korean Church in Irvine.
refugees, four women and two men ranging in age from 20 to 36, got off the plane
wearing vivid new clothes, jeans and brightly colored sweat gear they said would
have been forbidden in North Korea.
it's not certain where the group will settle, church members have offered to
help the defectors start new lives in California, home to the largest number
of Koreans outside the Korean peninsula.
interviews with a reporter in Washington last week, group members told harrowing
stories of their paths from North Korea to the U.S.
Mi Shin, 20, spoke of foraging for grasses, the only food her family could find,
to make broth and of being so hungry during the famine that killed millions
that she started hallucinating that an accordion's keys were cookies and candies.
through an interpreter, she and the three other women - Na Omi, Young Nah “Deborah”
Choi and Ha Nah - explained how each had been sold as brides or prostitutes
to already married Chinese men who paid the equivalent of a few hundred dollars
for them. Shin was sold into marriage three times within a year of turning 16.
24, who stands about 5 feet 7, is taller than the others, perhaps because her
father, a Communist Party official, had a higher standard of living than most
North Koreans. But after Choi's father was sent to prison for five years, the
family was ostracized and Choi was banished from school.
paid a broker to help her escape to China in 2004, but the agent instead sold
her to a married man who confined her to a small room and raped her repeatedly
for two years.
was slowly starving when she fled to China. A man she hoped would help her instead
sold her as a bride to a Chinese man, whose family treated her like a slave.
She was eventually deported and spent time in a North Korean prison before once
again crossing into China.
2004 North Korean Human Rights Act mandates that the United States take in refugees,
but until this month, none had been admitted, in part because South Korea and
China thought that such a move would set back six-nation talks aimed at getting
North Korea to dismantle nuclear weapons.
few North Koreans who resettled in South Korea have applied for asylum in the
U.S., claiming they were treated badly in South Korea. One such application
was granted in April.
the same time, Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy on North Korean human rights
appointed by President Bush last summer, signaled a sharp change in U.S. policy.
“We will press to make it clear to our friends and allies in
the region that we are prepared to accept North Korean refugees for resettlement
Lefkowitz said in a meeting with a House of Representatives subcommittee.
“The United States has a tradition of being a refuge to vulnerable
people seeking haven from despotic regimes, and we will do our part to help
this vulnerable population,” said
Lefkowitz, who is said to be close to Bush and was a policy advisor during his
many defectors, new U.S. arrival Young Chul “Joseph”
Shin, 32, the brother of fellow refugee Chan Mi Shin, went to China in 1997,
during the famine, seeking food for his family.
recalled his astonishment upon seeing the abundance of food even in the rural
areas just across the river from North Korea. Dogs were being given rice porridge
to eat, he recalls, “big bowls of it.” Rice is a luxury in North Korea, he
said, eaten only on one's birthday and New Year's.
said he was sent back to North Korea three times in six years, each time crossing
the river back into China. He spent 18 months in labor camps, prison and torture
“The torture that I experienced, I didn't even know existed,”
he said. “They would take a wrench and clamp it on my finger and break
asked by a reporter if he still has scars, he pulled up his shirt to reveal
faint red marks on his back that remain from beatings with a steel whip.
Seoul-based Durihana Mission and others maintain a number of clandestine safe
houses to hide defectors in northeastern China, where human rights groups estimate
anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 North Koreans are living.
spirits defectors out of China by train, bus, car or foot and into sympathetic
countries that allow them to go to nations that will take them as refugees.
South Korea has taken in about 8,000 North Korean refugees in the past few years,
including about 1,400 this year.
a few days in Washington last week, the refugees began many of their meetings
with officials by thanking Bush, members of Congress and others who helped them
reach the U.S.
“If it were not for their efforts, we'd still be in China being
sold, experiencing severe racism,”
“Now that we've come here, it's hard to believe that such a world
as North Korea can exist,”
Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who was instrumental in getting the refugees to the
U.S., said the meeting he attended with the refugees “was one of the most profound I've ever had.”
in attendance were Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and two members of the House, Republicans
Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois and Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania.
described a little of each refugee's experiences; the North Korean women sobbed
as they listened.
“I was just stunned at what they had experienced,” Brownback
said in a telephone interview Friday. “Just to hear their stories and to see their faces. It had that
surreal quality…. Only one month ago they were living in China in hiding, and
now, here they are sitting in the U.S. Senate office building.”
the refugees seemed to exude an optimism bordering on giddiness when they spoke
of their hopes in their new country and the remarkable change in their fortunes.
for example, who worked as a cook in China, wants to help other North Koreans
escape. She said she also wants to learn English and computer skills and get
her driver's license. In North Korea, women can't even ride bicycles and must
wear skirts. The refugees laughed as she spoke, recalling how girls wore pants
under their skirts, hiking up the pant legs so they wouldn't show as they walked
North Korean refugees have workers' visas and Social Security numbers that are
valid for one year, after which they can apply for permanent residency. Within
four years, they can apply for citizenship.
Saturday, church officials ushered the new arrivals into a van and headed back
to Bethel Korean Church for a banquet in the refugees' honor. This morning,
the refugees are to be introduced to the rest of Bethel's 5,300-person congregation
at the two regular Sunday services.
refugees are trying to take it all in.
Manhattan and in New Jersey, where they first stayed on arriving in the U.S.
two weeks ago, Joseph Shin said he was struck by “people in all kinds of fashion and different colors. It hit
us that we are in a different country.”
size of the houses where they stayed in a suburb of Washington, D.C. - a neighborhood
much like Los Angeles' Hancock Park - astonished them too, a huge contrast to
the single rooms of most North Korean families. The homes are “like a palace or a castle,”
said his sister, Chan Mi.
Johan Shin (who is unrelated to the other Shins) described it differently.
Defecting From Despair
A perilous odyssey aided by the Internet gives N. Korean refugees
a chance to settle in the U.S.
By Valerie Reitman, Times Staff Writer October 16, 2006
△PRAYER FOR SAFETY:
South Korean missionary Chun Ki Won, second from left, leads a
group of North Koreans in prayer in a safe house in northeastern China. Chun
leads such refugees along an Asian underground railroad to South Korea. They
risk death or torture if they are captured. (Bryan Chan / LAT)
“Help. I'm a North Korean enslaved by a married man in China.”
February, Young Nah “Deborah”
Choi surreptitiously posted her plea on a website she discovered by typing talbukja
-- Korean for “escapee from the north”
-- into an Internet search engine.
reply directed her to Chun Ki Won, a pastor in Seoul who is hailed by some as
a modern-day Moses. His underground railroad has spirited more than 500 North
Koreans out of China and on to South Korea.
years earlier, Deborah had fled the world's most closed nation with a broker
who promised to support her starving family if she wed his wealthy Chinese client,
who sought a North Korean virgin. Instead, the 25-year-old woman was sold to
a married man in Beijing as a sex slave. There would be no wedding.
captor threatened to kill her or report her to police -- whose policy is to
return all defectors to North Korea -- if she left the room in which she was
“Would you help me, pastor?” Deborah
implored. “I don't want my life to be wasted, being used for his sexual
this year, Chun received a cluster of e-mailed pleas from or about other North
Koreans hiding in China. Among them: a brother and his little sister who said
they had been tortured in North Korean gulags after a failed attempt to escape
from China; a young man who at age 13 first waded across the Tumen River into
China to look for food for his starving family; and women who said they'd been
sold as wives or sex slaves to rural farmers.
desperate situations were not unusual, but Deborah and the other defectors would
receive an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite the stories of their lives.
They would be offered the chance to become the first North Korean refugees allowed
to resettle in the U.S., thanks to Chun and his diverse connections, including
an Evangelical Christian socialite from Midland, Texas; a Jewish director of
a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank; and Korean American churches in
first, they would have to be smuggled out of China.
Living in Fear and Secrecy
in North Korea aren't as dire as in the 1990s, defectors say, when famine killed
2 million people. But food shortages persist and conditions could further deteriorate
as the international community starts to respond with sanctions in response
to North Korea's nuclear weapon test last week.
or perhaps hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be living
clandestinely in China, where markets beckon with cheap vegetables, meats and
kimchi. The defectors can fill their bellies, but otherwise, conditions are
grim. They live in constant fear of being caught, sent to squalid detention
camps in China and then to North Korea's gulags, where many prisoners die or
are executed. Hundreds of those Chun helped get to safety in South Korea report
abuses in China and North Korea similar to those in World War II concentration
△FEAR OF DISCOVERY:
A 20-year-old North Korean woman, front, peers over her shoulder
as her train leaves Yanji, in northeastern China. Behind her are regular passengers
on the trip to Mongolia. The woman, her boyfriend and other refugees with them
hope to eventually settle in South Korea. (Bryan Chan / LAT)
rescuers operate at great peril as well. One of Chun's compatriots drowned while
helping defectors cross a river in inner tubes. Five others are in Chinese prisons.
Chun, a former businessman turned preacher, spent seven months in a central
China prison in 2002 after defectors, whom he guided to the Mongolian border,
were caught and reported him.
plight of the defectors torments Chun; the gruesome details of their e-mails,
he says, compel him to continue despite regularly receiving death threats.
An E-mail Lifeline
journey to Chun, and out of China, started when her captor taught her how to
play video games on a computer he placed in her room. Later, a tutor hired to
teach Deborah the Mandarin language showed her how to use the Internet.
Chun received Deborah's e-mail, he questioned her for hours via computer instant
messaging. Convinced she was telling the truth, he instructed her to leave immediately
for Shenyang, a seven-hour bus ride from Beijing. Deborah's captor had gradually
allowed her out to shop for food, and she bought a ticket with money she'd saved.
contact in Shenyang met her and took her to a safe house where she waited for
her passage to freedom.
Brother and Sister on the Run
the next year, she would be kidnapped and sold twice to men who raped and abused
her. After she was caught trying to escape China through Mongolia, she was sent
to a North Korean gulag where she was forced to do heavy labor for 19 months.
Three to five inmates died each day in the work camps from beatings and hunger.
Chan Mi was released after two years in September 2005, she was “half-alive,”
Joseph wrote to Chun.
recuperated for a few months, then left for China again, only to be abducted
and sold as a slave to a family in Shandong province, southeast of Beijing,
eventually was able to contact Joseph by cellphone, and he hired a car for the
four-hour trip to fetch her deep in the countryside. When brother and sister
were reunited after eight years, Joseph e-mailed a plea to Chun: “Please save me and my sister.”
A Wife Must Flee
the meantime, Chun had been alerted to the plight of a defector named Na “Naomi”
Omi, 33, by a South Korean college student who had met her on a “body chat”
website where customers pay women to strip in front of a Web camera.
1998, Naomi had left North Korea with a man who promised to help her find her
aunt and grandmother in China but instead sold her as a housewife for $500 to
another man, who forced her to “work like a slave.”
told Chun that she ran away seven months later, found her relatives in northeast
China and married a Chinese man.
when she was eight months pregnant, police came to her home, handcuffed her
and announced plans to repatriate her the next morning. They let her go after
her relatives paid a $600 bribe, but police warned she'd be sent back to North
Korea in a year.
baby was only 6 months old when police dragged her out of the house again and
sent her back to North Korea to do time in a labor camp, where she hauled logs
across a snowy mountain.
won early release by making a speech about why she'd never leave North Korea
again, but as soon as she regained strength, she sneaked back into China to
rejoin her husband and child.
reunion lasted a day before police returned.
was away, and when she learned the police were looking for her, she fled for
the large city of Dalian, where she discovered Internet stripping. It paid $200
a week -- enough for her to send money for her child and save a little for herself.
told Chun that she had contemplated suicide but hesitated because “my husband loved me and my son very much. I hope to lead a true
and new life by the grace of God.... I want to work hard for my kid, but I can't
achieve anything in China because I'm a North Korean refugee.”
Appeal to the White House
spent hours poring over the pleas from Naomi, Joseph and Chan Mi, Deborah and
the other stranded defectors. He knew the United States government had yet to
implement a key part of a 2004 law mandating that the country begin accepting
North Korean refugees. So he concocted a plan that involved a number of his
sent the translated letters to Deborah Fikes, a Texan with whom he meets frequently.
Fikes, 49, directs the Ministerial Alliance of Midland, Texas, a human rights
activism group with global influence. Its letterhead trumpets its presidential
connection: “Hometown of George and Laura Bush.”
200 Protestant, Catholic and Evangelical church organizations, the alliance
aims to make the promotion of international human rights -- including religious
freedom -- a pivotal part of U.S. foreign and trade policy. The backing of the
alliance helped the North Korean Human Rights Act sail unanimously through Congress
in 2004, although logistical and political hurdles had prevented any defectors
from being admitted.
△Members of Los Angeles Korean Methodist Church embrace North
Korean refugee Na "Naomi" Omi (back to camera). Na Omi was one of
several defectors brought through an underground railroad of safehouses and
agents set up by the church's pastor, Chun Ki Won. (Bryan Chan / LAT)
an elegant woman with a Texas drawl, says she was moved profoundly by the defectors'
pleas. “The women being victims of trafficking, it broke my heart even
weekly meetings, the alliance began praying for each of the defectors by name:
For Deborah. For Naomi. For Joseph and Chan Mi. For Yohan, who began crossing
the Tumen River into China at 13 and was staying in a safe house with another
missionary. And for Ha “Hannah” Nah,
35, who was drugged, kidnapped and sold while traveling from Pyongyang, the
capital of North Korea, to China to purchase sneakers for her daughter.
communicated with Naomi by instant messaging, via a translator, telling Naomi,
“I'm praying for you, and I believe I'm going to meet with you
says Fikes personally delivered their letters to her fellow Texan, President
Bush, urging his help. Fikes maintains that she didn't hand-deliver the letters
to Bush but sent them through “proper channels” at
the State Department and National Security Council.
Horowitz is Jewish, Southern Baptist magazine in 1997 named him one of its 10
“most influential Christians,”
along with Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Horowitz lobbied for laws that would
allow Christians persecuted abroad to qualify for asylum in the U.S., just as
most other persecuted religious groups could.
who helped draft the North Korean Human Rights Act, says he feels an affinity
for the North Koreans suffering in prison camps: “There were people in my shoes living in Washington in the 1930s
and 1940s who, if they worked harder and smarter, could have rescued some of
in Hitler's concentration camps.
informed Chun on March 30 that the United States had agreed to accept some North
Chun called the defectors individually to ask whether they wanted to go to the
U.S. or South Korea. He explained that in South Korea, the defectors would know
the language, share a more-or-less common culture, automatically gain citizenship
and receive up to $30,000 from the South Korean government to help them resettle.
But he explained that many North Korean defectors were miserable there, viewed
as country-bumpkins by the thoroughly modern South.
the U.S., Chun advised, “You'll start with nothing, but if you work hard, you will be
rewarded. If you look down the road, America will be a better place for you
△Pastor Chun leads a prayer for North Korean refugees at Los Angeles
Korean Methodist Church, a U.S. chapter of Chun's Durihana mission based in
Seoul. At the service, church members contributed more than $15,000 to Chun's
efforts to bring more North Korean defectors out of China via his underground
railroad. Chun, a businessman-turned-preacher living in Seoul, has been helping
defectors since a visit to China in 1999. (Bryan Chan / LAT)
defectors later said that the decision tormented them. In North Korea, they
had been taught that South Korea was a bad country with a puppet regime and
the U.S. was “wolf-like.”
Chun's advice, plus the more favorable things they'd heard in China about the
U.S., spurred Chan Mi, Naomi, Joseph, Hannah and Yohan to opt for the U.S.
was torn but decided to go to Seoul. So did two sisters who were staying in
the safe house with her. But Deborah happened to be online when Chun messaged
a few days later that those heading for the U.S. were leaving shortly. “Now's your chance if you want to go to America,”
he wrote. Deborah rushed to catch a train to Beijing, where she met up with
Yohan and Hannah for a four-day cross-country train ride to Kunming in western
Naomi used her savings to buy tickets for Joseph and Chan Mi, as the three made
their way from Dalian. The two groups converged in Kunming and called the broker
whom Chun had hired for $13,200 -- $2,200 per person -- to escort them through
southeast Asia. For three days they traveled on buses to get to their intermediate
was waiting just across the Mekong River at the appointed time: April 14, 8
p.m.. An hour passed. A car delivered three of the defectors' bags, but no defectors.
Another hour elapsed before Chun's cellphone rang. “We can't make it tonight,”
the broker told Chun tersely, telling him they would cross at 10 a.m. the next
day -- most likely in full view of police and border patrols.
light rain started to fall the next morning as six North Korean defectors made
their way to the pier after breakfast. They climbed single-file into a long
narrow skiff. As the boat motored away from shore on its half-hour journey,
the sky grew darker. Soon, torrents of rain fell so hard the travelers could
barely see ahead. Police and border guards on shore ran for shelter and the
defectors were able to cross without incident.
but exuberant, they hugged Chun and climbed into a waiting van for the last
leg of the journey to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. They hid in Chun's Bangkok
safe house for two weeks, until they boarded a United Airlines 747 bound for
the United States.
Finally, a Taste of Freedom
weeks after landing in Newark, N.J., the refugees were in Washington, briefing
legislators and celebrating with Korean American church members.
had a chance to frolic like tourists, snapping pictures at the Washington and
Lincoln monuments in their new jeans and brightly-colored sportswear -- fashions
outlawed in their homeland.
a few days in Washington, the refugees flew to Los Angeles on May 21, where
several Korean American ministers from Los Angeles and Orange County churches
met the plane with flowers and embraced the refugees. It was a day they had
long been praying for.
North Koreans, most of whom are barely 5 feet tall because of malnutrition,
seemed to glide almost seamlessly between tears and glee as they thought of
the horrid past and living in the sumptuous present. One minute they were all
talking at once about the grisly details of public executions they witnessed
regularly in North Korea and how they foraged for leaves and grass to keep from
starving. The next, they were laughing with Chun during a hotel pillow fight
or filling their plates at Korean restaurants.
a press conference at the LAX Hilton, the defectors wore sunglasses and baseball
caps pulled low over their faces, fearing their families still in North Korea
would suffer retribution if they were recognized.
△Pastor Chun dabs a tear as the refugees recount their stories
to international media in L.A. The defectors are the first group of North Koreans
to be repatriated in the U.S. Chun has succeeded in moving more than 500 North
Koreans living clandestinely in China to freedom via his underground railroad.
(Bryan Chan / LAT)
Mi strutted to the podium, carrying the white stuffed bear she calls Badook
-- “my friend”
-- that she hadn't put down since she bought it for $15 at an airport shop.
Talking without notes, she described how the corpses of fellow prisoners in
North Korea were piled onto trucks and taken to the mountain for burial: “We dragged the bodies one by one onto the ground as if they
were dogs. We dug holes 2 feet by 2 feet, and before we buried them would take
a shovel and break the bones from head to foot”
-- the state's punishment for failing to live long enough to serve out their
the refugees were asked what should be done to end the repression, Chan Mi charged
up to the podium again, Badook still in hand. “I want Kim Jong Il to die,”
she said. “I want to ask the members of the international press to please
pray for the death of Kim Jong Il.”
audience chuckled, taken aback by a statement that would certainly have brought
death by hanging or firing squad in North Korea, where homage to Kim is mandatory.
their five days in L.A. and Orange County, the refugees were also treated to
the tourist experience. Chan Mi was particularly enchanted by Disneyland, where
she rode the King Arthur Carrousel twice by herself. She and Joseph giggled
hysterically as they rode through It's a Small World, captivated by the dancing
animals and miniature people but seemingly unaware of its symbolism.
“If there's a place like this on Earth that is so beautiful,”
she said of the park, “I can't even imagine what heaven is like.”
delight gave way to nightmare as she fell asleep in the van on the trip back
to the hotel. “Don't break my bones.... I'm still alive, I'm still alive,”
she muttered in Korean as she slept.
their one-year worker visas and Social Security numbers, the defectors can work
or enroll in school. They'll be eligible for permanent residency after a year
and U.S. citizenship after four years. The Korean-American Church Coalition
has offered shelter and work at any of its 2,300 churches nationwide.
first, the North Koreans were required by the International Refugee Committee
to go back to their U.S. entry point in New Jersey for a few weeks, after which
they could choose anywhere to live.
the Long Beach airport, Naomi and Chan Mi cried as they said goodbye to Chun,
whom Chan Mi calls “my daddy.” His eyes welled too. Chan Mi lingered for a
long time after she passed through the security gate.
tried to give Chun $2,000 to help other defectors -- the amount each refugee
received from the Korean church community. Chun declined it but was deeply moved.
Few of the defectors he's succeeded in getting to South Korea have donated anything
for others. Most don't work, go to church or pray in South Korea, he said. They
squander their money on gambling and booze. He hears from most of them only
when they want help getting a relative out of China.
“There aren't many refugees like these,”
Chun said of this group. “They have such beautiful hearts.”
△North Korean refugees Ha “Hannah” Nah, left, and Na “Naomi”
Omi weep at their single press conference held in Los Angeles, as they listen
to their fellow refugees recount the abuses and torture they endued in China
and North Korea. The accounts reminded them of what they had endured in their
repressive homeland and while living clandestinely in China. (Bryan Chan / LAT)
who lives in New York, studies English, works in a sushi restaurant and contemplates
becoming a dental assistant. Naomi moved to the Washington, D.C., area and commutes
two hours each way to a school where she is learning how to sew.
lives in a Buena Park town house provided by a Korean church and was thrilled
recently to pass the written test for her driver's permit. Yohan works in a
bakery in New Jersey.
Mi lives above the New York nail salon where she is an apprentice, earning about
$80 to $100 on a good day. Joseph works part-time doing construction in New
York. “He spends so much and he's using all his resources to get a car,
when he should be saving money,”
Chun says, as he alternates between anger and compassion.
more North Koreans arrived in the U.S. over the summer, this time directly from
China, a sign that Beijing may be relaxing its stance. A senior State Department
official says the agency welcomes all North Korean defectors and is reaching
out to churches and aid groups to locate them. But the pace is slow.
meanwhile, has several other defectors who have been accepted by the U.S. and
await exit visas in Southeast Asia. Among them is the mother of Chan Mi and
Joseph, their last remaining relative from North Korea.
day, Chun's inbox fills with 10 to 15 new e-mails from North Koreans in China,
pouring out their pain and begging for help. He can only tell them to wait;
he'll help them as soon as he can.
reporter and photographer traveled with Chun in China in 2001 as he met with,
selected and shepherded seven North Korean defectors across China and under
a fence into Mongolia, which allowed them to go to South Korea. For more photos
and past stories, see latimes.com/nkrailroad.