ERENHOT, China — It is their last supper together, and the shepherd has gathered his small flock of North Koreans around a table piled with steaming plates of shredded pork, rice and braised tofu. But the seven refugees are too nervous to do more than nibble.
Among them: a woman claiming to be an elite worker in North Korea's nuclear missile program; a muscular former soldier whose heavily scarred arms attest to a previous escape attempt; a woman who had been sold as a bride. Urged to "be strong, be cold," she is leaving her toddler behind.
Their guide and pastor is Chun Ki Won, an affable South Korean who once sold golf clubs to high-flying Japanese businessmen. Despite his good nature and Christian heart, Chun doesn't really trust his charges. Still, he is risking his life to help them.
"We're at the last moment," Chun says now as they grip one another's hands and pray. The women weep softly. "Please God, keep us safe. Please let them be all right."
These "chosen ones" are at one of the final stops on an underground railroad to freedom in South Korea. Each started the journey by slipping across the border to China, where they sought out or stumbled upon a network of safe houses in which Christian missionaries hid them and taught them religion before spiriting them hundreds of miles across northeastern China.
In just one hour, they will attempt to crawl under a 7-foot barbed-wire fence into Mongolia. If things go well, the next time Chun sees them will be in Seoul.
If not, they could die. Deep down, Chun is also nervous, for he knows that danger is all around. The elements could foil them, or if Chinese authorities capture the group and send them back to North Korea, they could be beaten or even executed.
On the tiny screen of his video camera, he shows them footage of the terrain ahead: the dirt-and-sand road that parallels the fence; the foot-high prongs meant to keep out trespassers; and their goal, the Mongolian watchtower in the distance. They can rejoice if they get that far, even though they'll temporarily go to jail. Chun has bribed the Mongolians to hand the group over to South Korean Embassy officials.
"Move quickly. Don't run," Chun instructs them in the most reassuring voice he can muster. "There could be trucks, or guards or dogs."
If they are stopped, he warns, only the two who are fluent in Chinese should speak. They are to identify themselves as shepherds accompanying foreign scientists studying "desertification" of the plain. They are en route to their house down the road. They are to gripe that the researchers aren't paying them enough.
"I've had to lie ever since I met you guys," Chun jokes, acknowledging his mission's moral compromises and small payoff. Experience has taught him that assimilation is difficult and that if they make it to the South, these North Koreans will likely be trading one form of misery for another: Most won't work; won't help others escape; won't go to church or pray. They'll squander their money on gambling and booze.
"They always cry in front of me before they go," Chun says. "They say, 'I'll live the rest of my life for Him.' But they always forget it."
They may do far worse and report him to authorities. One missionary, Kim Dong Shik of Lynchburg, Va., has disappeared and there is speculation that he was kidnapped by North Korean police.
"You never know which one will betray you," Chun says.
Defections on Rise
War split the Korean peninsula half a century ago, dividing millions of families. North and South are technically still at war, and their border is the most heavily militarized in the world. Despite its fitful expressions of interest in reform and rapprochement, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies on Earth.
Until a few years ago, at most a few dozen North Koreans managed to defect to the South each year.
But Chun and others like him have led hundreds to freedom by taking them first in the opposite direction, into the Chinese hinterlands. Their motivation is Christian charity as well as a yearning to reunite the Korean peninsula.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Chun and other activists, 583 defectors showed up in Seoul last year, nearly double the number that arrived in 2000. At least 838 have arrived so far this year, a few at a time.
Chun got involved after visiting China in August 1999, when he saw a North Korean woman being sold as a bride to a Chinese man while her husband stood helpless. He also met a young girl who woke up one morning to find that her mother and sister had been sold, leaving her to beg in the streets.
"I could not erase the sense of helplessness of that man and young girl who saw their families sold right before their eyes," he recalled. "It tormented me."
Since then, he has helped more than 150 refugees get to Seoul.