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Aiding North Korea defectors: A high-stakes spy mission

A recent operation offers a peek inside the 'underground railroad,' a network of safe houses and secret border crossings that assists in the escape of North Korean refugees.

November 25, 2009|By John M. Glionna

Reporting from Seoul — 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.

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