Defecting From Despair
“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.
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
Separately, the little sister who survived the North Korean gulag started her journey with the help of her brother, who had first fled the porous border into China in 1998. Joseph, now 32, told Chun that the first time his sister Chan Mi left North Korea, she was a starving teenager who swam, waded and stumbled across the Tumen River into China, evading border guards and staying with a distant relative. Chan Mi, now 20, returned home with rice for her mother, and after a few such food runs, decided to remain in China.
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.
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.
In March, Chun went to see fellow activist Michael Horowitz, a lawyer and former Reagan administration appointee who directs the conservative Hudson Institute’s Project for International Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.