The last member of the group is particularly nervous. He was caught once before and sent back. Chun's mission channeled $10,000 through a web of sources to free him and the cocky 25-year-old. Both had been threatened with execution in North Korea.
Chun will leave the seven early in the rough four-day trip in a green-and-yellow 1960s-era train to the Mongolian border. A trusted Chinese Korean man will accompany them the rest of the journey and keep in touch with Chun by cell phone.
Chun appoints the missile-factory worker as the group leader.
"She knows everything," he tells the group, assembled now in the living room of a downtown Yanji safe house. "Just obey her. Don't ask her any questions.... I told her everything, and I told only her. If I tell everybody everything, you'll get into a fight. You can't make it unless you pray to God."
The woman from the missile factory and the forced bride are to sit together and act like sisters. The couple will stick together, and the other three men will pretend to be friends.
"Now, let's pray," Chun says. The group leader weeps softly.
As dusk falls, they slip out of the apartment two by two by three and walk to the train station. Chun pays for their tickets, $50 apiece, for the journey in hard, turquoise seats. They dare not fly or even travel in the train's sleeping compartment because officials would check for identification cards.
Around them, passengers hoist big burlap sacks onto overhead luggage racks. Dim fluorescent tubes barely light the cars. By the time the seven board the train, just an hour after it started its journey, the squat toilets already reek.
As the train chugs out of the station, the cityscape quickly gives way to fields and horse-drawn carts, illuminated by a brilliant harvest moon. Vendors hawk grilled chicken, corn on the cob and magazines. Four of the seven shell out some of the pocket money Chun has given them, buying several copies of the same magazines. Chun chastises them: "Spend the money carefully. Just buy one and share it."
Chun uses the time after he has left the train to call on accomplices and visit more safe houses. On his way to Hohhot, the capital of China's Inner Mongolia province, he is asked which of the seven will do well in South Korea.
The forced bride? "She'll just be trouble," he says.
The young couple? "They'll just give me a hard time."
Why does he bother, then? He believes it's his Christian duty.
"If you look at their character, there's no reason to bring any of them in," he says. "Some people say, 'Why don't you just bring in the good ones?' But I think that's wrong. They're all God's people, and we have to save them because otherwise they'll die.... It's my mission."
In Hohhot, Chun hires a taxi for the five-hour drive to the border. On the way, a camel occasionally comes into view in the brown fields. Sheep and goats outnumber people. Huge trucks heaped with sacks of potatoes rumble by. He uses the daylight to videotape the fence where the refugees will make their crossing. But the taxi gets stuck in the sand. After several attempts to push it out, the driver flags down one of several trucks working on what appears to be a road-building operation.
He makes a deal with the truck driver to carry a group of "researchers" back to the fence that night on his flatbed. The truck seems like a Godsend. It will take them directly to the crossing point. A previous group had to start farther back and wandered for two days. A 10-year-old boy died of dehydration.
Arrival by Train
Now in a private room of a restaurant in Erenhot, the last town before the Mongolian border, Chun greets the refugees who have arrived by train. He gently teases them.