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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

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.

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