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Defecting From Despair

A perilous odyssey aided by the Internet gives N. Korean refugees a chance to settle in the U.S.

October 16, 2006|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

"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.

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