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SUNDAY REPORT

Leading His Flock of Refugees to Asylum

A missionary helps North Koreans flee via China and Mongolia. Risking death, the escapees brave the elements and jail.

October 27, 2002|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

As they climb onto the truck's flatbed, a fierce wind stings their cheeks. A few snowflakes flutter down as a big full burnt-orange moon rises, turning white as it finds its place high in the sky. The stars littering the sky offer a dim halo of light as the truck gets closer to the border and the Mongolian watchtower comes into view, perhaps a mile away.

The driver pulls up close to the fence, kills the headlights, and the defectors quickly jump 5 feet to the ground. They dash for their lives. It takes them no more than a minute to crawl under the fence and disappear into the night.

Ten minutes later, Chun's cell phone rings. In a trembling voice, the leader describes where they are. Chun tells them to keep going, that they've only made it across the Chinese border but are still inside the no-man's-land between countries.

Chun is excited too. Things are going even better than planned.

An additional 25 minutes go by. The phone rings again. Nearly out of breath, the leader exclaims, "We're here!"

Epilogue

Several weeks later, the group would be flown to South Korea.

But on a mission three months later, Chinese authorities arrested Chun and a dozen refugees along the Mongolian border.

Charged with smuggling, he was held for seven months before appeals from South Korea and the United States, and the payment of a $6,000 fine, won his freedom. Though he lived largely on bread and water and his cell was crowded and cold, he says he was spiritually happy in jail. "I guess the words of the Bible kept me going," he says.

The woman who claimed that she worked in the North Korean missile plant really hadn't. Her husband had. She now works in a beat-up cell phone factory in a Seoul industrial park. She thinks constantly about the family she left behind in North Korea, especially her 6-year-old son.

"I'm here, amid this plenty, all alone," she says.

Other refugees who remained in China were caught because they did not have Chinese identification cards.

Among them were the parents and two brothers of the young leader's girlfriend, as well as the 11-year-old girl who hadn't been outdoors for years -- and her mother.

Chun has also heard that some of those who were captured offered to inform on him.

But as soon as he got back to Seoul, he was working the phone. Although he won't be able to return to China because of his arrest, Chun will continue with his mission.

"Now that I have personally experienced a bit of the hardship they've gone through," he says, "I'll help them even more than before."

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