188. 1st North Korean Defectors arrived at the New York, JFK Airport
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  Name : durihana Date : 2016-05-05 오후 6:44:13
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.




Past Featured Article PASSAGE TO FREEDOM

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

Old 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.

“Hannah” 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.

The 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.

Pastor 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.

Hannah 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.

At 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 in hell. She was soon sold to a farmer for 20,000 Chinese yuan, or $2,500.

North Korean brides 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.”

A 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.

Hannah's new husband 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.

His 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.

That 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.

Naomi 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 hear her.

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.

Naomi's 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.

The 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 wife 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 there.

Naomi 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.

She 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 stick. 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 at night. 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.

Naomi 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.'”

After 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.

In 2004, when listening to the Voice of America--Naomi confidently pronounces the letters V-O-A 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.

Hannah 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.

Our 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.

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

1st North Korean Defectors Arrive in L.A.

Greeted 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
May 21, 2006

Six 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.

The 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.

They 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.

Before 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.

The 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.

Although 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.

In interviews with a reporter in Washington last week, group members told harrowing stories of their paths from North Korea to the U.S.

Chan 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.

Speaking 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.

Choi, 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.

She 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.

Omi's family 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Around 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 here,” 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 first term.

Like 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.

He 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.

Shin 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 facilities.

“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 it.”

When 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.

Chun's 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.

Chun 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.

During 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,” Omi said.

“Now that we've come here, it's hard to believe that such a world as North Korea can exist,” she said.

Sen. 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.”

Also 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.

Chun 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.”

Yet, 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.

Omi, 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 by police.)

The 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.

On 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.

The refugees are trying to take it all in.

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.”

The 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.

Refugee Johan Shin (who is unrelated to the other Shins) described it differently.

“Wasteful,” he said.

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.”

In 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.

A 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.

Two 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.

Deborah's 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 imprisoned.

“Would you help me, pastor?” Deborah implored. “I don't want my life to be wasted, being used for his sexual needs.”

Earlier 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.

Their 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 Southern California.

But first, they would have to be smuggled out of China.

Living in Fear and Secrecy

Conditions 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.

Tens 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 camps.

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)

The 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.

The 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

Deborah's 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.

After 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.

Chun's 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

Over 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.

When Chan Mi was released after two years in September 2005, she was “half-alive,” Joseph wrote to Chun.

She 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, for $2,300.

She 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

In 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.

In 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.”

Naomi told Chun that she ran away seven months later, found her relatives in northeast China and married a Chinese man.

But 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.

Naomi's 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.

She 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.

The reunion lasted a day before police returned.

Naomi 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.

Naomi 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

Chun 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 well-placed contacts.

Chun 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.”

Comprising 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)

Fikes, 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 more,” she recalled.

At 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.

Fikes 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 someday soon.”

Chun 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.

Although 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.

Horowitz, 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 my people” in Hitler's concentration camps.

Horowitz informed Chun on March 30 that the United States had agreed to accept some North Korean refugees.

Elated, 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.

In 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 to live.”

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)

The 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.

Deborah 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 China.

Separately, 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 destination, Thailand.

Chun 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.

A 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.

Drenched 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

Two weeks after landing in Newark, N.J., the refugees were in Washington, briefing legislators and celebrating with Korean American church members.

They 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.

After 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.

The 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.

At 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)

Chan 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 three-year terms.

When 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.”

The 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.

During 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.”

But 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.

New Opportunities

With 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.

But 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.

At 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.

Naomi 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)


Deborah, 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.

Hannah 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.

Chan 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.

Three 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.

Chun, 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.

Every 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.

The 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.