Aiding North Korea defectors: A high-stakes spy mission


As he cased the security at the foreign embassies in Hanoi, the 78-year-old retiree was seized with sudden self-doubt. He was certainly no John le Carre. Who was he to play spy?

But this wasn’t a game. Waiting in nearby safe houses were nine North Korean defectors whom Kim Sang-hun had helped spirit into Vietnam from China -- among them a young doctor and his wife, a mother and daughter, and a woman who’d been sold as a sex slave in Beijing.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I’m not a spy. Espionage takes resources and support,’ ” recalled the activist, who has devoted his retirement to helping refugees escape the repressive Stalinist regime. “ ‘I have no training. Is the mere will to succeed enough?’ ”

Days earlier, Kim had received devastating news. Five other defectors, including a woman and her 6-year-old son, had been captured at the Chinese border en route to joining the other nine in Hanoi.

“They were almost there, and now they were gone, being sent back to North Korea to prison and perhaps death,” he said. “I remember saying to someone, ‘I wish I was dead.’ ”

He thought about the defectors under his care: For months, they had lived under the constant threat of being caught by Chinese officials and returned to North Korea. Now in Hanoi, the activists’ goal was to find the right embassy -- one away from a busy street and out of the steely gaze of Vietnamese secret police -- and then shepherd the defectors inside.

Once within the embassy compound, the refugees could request sanctuary, taking another step toward freedom in South Korea.

The plan was all set. Then Kim and other activists learned about the capture of the five. The three activists -- Kim, another South Korean and an American missionary -- gathered to discuss their options. Should they press forward with the nine remaining defectors, or was the embassy gambit now too risky?

“We were all so tormented,” Kim recalled. “At the same time we had to be reasonable. We had nine lives under our custody, people for whom we had assumed total responsibility.”

The activists finally posed their dilemma to the defectors themselves. “We told them, ‘This is our plan,’ ” Kim said. “ ‘Do you want to go forward? It’s all up to you.’ ”

Operation’s details

The gripping details of the September operation offer a rare peek inside the covert workings of the “underground railroad,” a network of safe houses and secret border crossings that assists in the escape of North Korean refugees.

The activists spoke out to bring attention to the plight of the detained defectors. They have received conflicting reports as to whether the five were still being held in China or had been sent back to North Korea, where they could face severe punishment as an example to other would-be runaways.

At a news conference Nov. 18 near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, they read an open letter to President Obama, who was visiting on a diplomatic swing through Asia. Protesters wanted Obama to challenge the Chinese policy of “forced repatriation” of North Korean refugees, which they say violates China’s obligations under the 1951 United Nations convention on the protection of refugees.

Most defectors from North Korea steal into China across the porous border between the two nations. But their journey to freedom is far from over. In China, the women risk being sold into sex rings. Chinese secret police are always set to pounce, prepared to usher the unlucky back to North Korea. So many lie low and wait. They live in safe houses, often working illegally.

They scrape by, waiting for a chance to leave China, knowing the tap on the shoulder from Chinese authorities could come at any time.

“They’re afraid of being stopped by some official, asked a question in Chinese they cannot answer,” said Tim Peters, the American missionary who took part in the September operation.

“The collar could come on trains, on the street, en route between safe houses. Many North Koreans are physically shorter than Chinese. And the police can smell fear,” said Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea.

No one knows for sure how many people try to escape from North Korea each year, or how many are caught in the attempt. But they do know this: The number of escape attempts is tied to a roulette wheel of economic and political factors, including widespread famine and brutal government crackdowns.

Officials in South Korea estimate that nearly 20,000 North Koreans have relocated here since the 1950s, most within the last decade.

Documents obtained from Chinese border police three years ago suggest that officials in one province alone deported 100 people per month back to North Korea, activists say.

“But nobody knows if that is still the case,” said Joanna Hosaniak, a senior program officer with the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

North Korea recently launched a crackdown, expanding the notorious Chongori concentration camp -- known for its brutal conditions and high death rates -- to handle defectors, the Seoul-based newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported.

Meanwhile, activists try to expand escape routes for refugees.

“It’s strategically important to find new pathways,” Peters said. “Not just new routes across borders, but safe houses and countries where they can be moved along the way.”

Vietnam, activists charge, has recently turned a deaf ear to the plight of defectors. After South Korea’s 2004 airlift of 468 refugees from its embassy in Hanoi, embarrassed Vietnamese officials have tried to mend relations with North Korea, activists allege.

The South Korean Embassy in Hanoi has also quietly refused to accept defectors since the incident, Kim says. South Korean officials declined to comment. A Vietnamese Embassy spokesman in Seoul denied that his country rejected defectors.

Activists sought a well-publicized defector case to highlight what they termed the political recalcitrance of both nations.

For months, they scoured China for the right defectors. Finally, they identified 14 refugees willing to take the risk.

A poor beginning

In Hanoi, things went wrong at the start.

The activists had chosen the Danish Embassy, a building without high fences or gates and a security guard who often became distracted while assisting visitors.

They ruled out simply storming the door, a tactic Kim has used before, deciding to sneak the defectors inside disguised as tourists.

Moments after Peters entered the lobby as a lookout, activist Peter Chung, director of the group Justice for North Korea, posed as a guide and quickly ushered the group inside.

According to the plan, Chung would then leave the embassy. To linger would risk being detained by Vietnamese officials on possible charges of human trafficking and assisting illegal immigrants.

The physician in the group was chosen to approach embassy employees behind a glass security window and present a letter expressing the group’s plea for asylum.

“We are now at the point of such desperation and live in such fear of persecution within North Korea that we have come to the decision to risk our lives for freedom rather than passively await our doom,” the note read in English. “The only power we have left is to appeal to you on our knees and with tears.”

But suddenly, the doctor lost his nerve. Chung had to act.

“I was stressed,” recalled the 42-year-old, who had been detained in China for more than a year in 2003-04 for assisting North Korean defectors.

He called South Korean Embassy officials, who promised to assist, as long as the activists did not make the incident public. Then he approached Danish officials, who he said at first refused to aid the group. Chung persisted. “These are refugees,” he said. “They have a right to be protected.”

Hours later, with the South Koreans a no-show, the Danish relented, demanding that Chung hand over his passport information as part of the negotiations. The Danish ambassador in Hanoi was not available to comment on the episode.

Chung then left for the airport, where he was detained by Vietnamese police and held for two weeks. No charges were filed.

After nearly a month of living in tents on the Danish Embassy grounds, the nine defectors are in South Korea. But activists still worry about the fate of the captured five.

For Kim, the episode demonstrates the roller-coaster highs and lows of his work: “You lose so much the very moment you thought you were going to achieve something great.”

Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.