In this case, Chun knows authorities will want to debrief the woman who works in the missile factory. The higher the Communist party rank in North Korea, the more thrilled the government is.

Once in Seoul, North Koreans are interrogated to determine whether they are who they say they are. Because the northerners have no passports, birth certificates or other documents, the South Koreans are always on the lookout for spies, or for Chinese pretending to be North Koreans to get the resettlement bounty. Then it's off to a residential camp where they learn how to shop, use the subway and Internet, and drive.Chun sets out from home early on a Saturday morning on this trip, leaving behind his girlfriend and his two beloved dogs--a schnauzer and a poodle--named Duri and Hana.

Flight to China

Aboard a direct flight from Seoul to Changchun in northeastern China, Chun fiddles with his newest gadget, a hand-held global positioning device. It will come in handy in the Chinese hinterlands.

He is met at the dingy airport by a Korean Chinese missionary whose cell phone rings to the tune of "Amazing Grace." In a beat-up truck, they head to nearby Jilin and a safe house located in a cluster of drab buildings. The local missionary helps Chun with the three suitcases, a box and a knapsack filled with donated clothing.

At this first stop, Chun will minister to refugees' souls and try to soothe their anxiety; he won't include any of them on this trip. He realizes that he controls their fate, and it weighs on him heavily. All the same, he has no formula for choosing who will go, and when. The decision is part practical, part political, part gut.

If he brings too many on one trip, they are more likely to be caught and the South Korean government might balk at accepting them. Those with relatives already in the South get preference. He considers the mix as well: whether children should go, and with whom; who is in the most danger; who will do well in the South and who has become a committed Christian.

Chun and the local missionary climb several filthy flights of stairs and slip into a sparsely furnished apartment. Two bare bulbs light a tidy room. The smell of simmering rice wafts in from the kitchen.

Ten North Koreans are sprawled on green-foam tiles that might be found in an American playroom. Futon mattresses lie on the side of the room. A few Korean-language Bibles are strewn about.

Each day, the refugees rise at 5 a.m. to worship and read the Bible. There is little else to do, and the refugees take the stress out on each other. They fight. Fighting is one reason so many get caught; it draws the attention of neighbors, who alert the police.

Chun knows that some of them might be convicts or North Korean double agents. Once, a woman tried to use him as a drug-runner.

Chun still vacillates between sympathy and anger.

"They are just people at the end of their rope," he says, adding in jest, "If I wasn't religious, I'd kill them."

Just now, the group seems quite civilized--and savvy. But they are auditioning for a future trip. They cluster around as Chun preaches, telling the group that faith is not just about praying or reciting the Bible. "It's about how you deal with people.... If you fight with others, you're attacking God."

"Being wealthy is not what makes you happy," he continues. "When you get to South Korea, you'll have money and housing. But the South Korean guy who doesn't have that, has friends and family. Is that fair?"

"If they study one hour, you have to study 10 hours. When they walk, you have to run. In South Korea, you can't catch up because you're not in a fair game. You start complaining, and that's the problem. North Koreans are taught to be lazy. From the time you're born, everything is free."

Visiting Safe Houses

This time, Chun's entire group will be from another area, around Yanji, at the eastern end of the Chinese-North Korean border. Many of the elderly Korean Chinese citizens here arrived when the Korean peninsula and adjacent area were under Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Hence, some of those who come across the border from North Korea have distant relatives to help them.

In the next two days, Chun will shuttle among five safe houses, preaching, reassuring and making his choices.

He stops by one tidy apartment where a woman cares for four North Korean children. They look healthy and well-adjusted--but very small for their ages. For many, it is as if they stopped growing precisely when the famine started in their home country in the mid-1990s.