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South Korean pastor devotes his life to defectors

Kim Sung-eun has been helping North Koreans find freedom from the repressive state for more than a decade. He also secures sensitive materials that 'reveal the harsh reality' there.

August 07, 2012|By Jung-yoon Choi, Los Angeles Times
  • South Korean Pastor Kim Sung-eun, 48, runs a small church that caters to a mixed congregation of South Koreans and North Korean defectors. “Saving people is my No. 1 priority," he says.
South Korean Pastor Kim Sung-eun, 48, runs a small church that caters to… (For The Times, Matt Douma )

CHEONAN, South Korea — Kim Sung-eun let out a sigh as he checked email from a North Korean defector in China. The teenager had been sending the pastor emails for months, begging for help in escaping China.

"I live in despair every day. I need to get out of here, pastor. Please save me," the email read. Agonized, Kim started to write a reply, his hand resting on his mouth as he selected words to comfort the teen.

Such urgent emails and calls are common for Kim, who has been helping North Koreans find freedom from their repressive Communist nation for more than a decade. Many of the defectors make it as far as China, where they live in fear of being sent back if caught by Chinese police.

As the director of Caleb Mission, a Christian organization, Kim has brought hundreds of people to South Korea who have heard about his works by word of mouth or the Internet.

He concentrates on developing more efficient escape routes, such as by boat. But he not only helps people defect, he also secures exclusive materials from North Korea that he says even South Korean intelligence doesn't have access to.

He has exposed North Korean police documents, military manuals with details on electronic warfare countermeasures, and video of what he calls the "real" North Korea: people in labor camps and street children roaming markets.

"Saving people is my No. 1 priority. But collecting information on North Korea that will reveal the harsh reality is also important," the 48-year-old pastor said. "I've been collecting such materials over several years from my sources inside North Korea."

The process of acquiring such information reads almost like a James Bond movie. For example, to acquire video inside North Korea, Kim sends spy cameras to the North Korea-China border, has them smuggled inside, and there his contacts document life in the nation. The memory card with the video then travels back to South Korea via the same route. Because the work is highly dangerous for the contacts, Kim said, they do the work in return for a large sum of money.

"These days, people from the North approach me first," Kim said. "Because for them it's better to risk their life and make money than just sitting there and starving to death."

Kim works from the Caleb Mission headquarters in Cheonan, a mid-size city about an hour south of Seoul. Here he talks on the phone for hours every day, checking on his sources in China and North Korea and talking to his aides at the mission safe house in the North Korea-China border region.

Located in a run-down commercial building, the small headquarters serves as a church as well as the home for Kim, his wife and their 11-year-old daughter.

When Kim was in his 30s, he was doing well as a businessman. As an ardent churchgoer, he gave his time and money to help North Korean defectors in China.

In 2000, Kim volunteered to visit the North Korea-China border region himself. There, he says, he witnessed a scene that changed his life forever.

"I saw dozens of emaciated bodies of North Koreans streaming down the Tumen River. It was too horrible to watch," Kim said. "Right there and then, I decided to dedicate my life to defectors."

He started to save money and vacation time to travel to North Korea. In 2000, while working with the defectors in China, he met his future wife, Park Esther. A former North Korean soldier and daughter of a scientist, Park had defected after her parents died of starvation, he said.

"She stood out with her passion for helping the defectors like herself," Kim said. "I saw her hands, coarse and torn all over, and I was deeply moved by that. I felt that together, we could carry on this mission."

He has seen those he helped defect get married, have children, go to school and live lives they never imagined they could. At his church, the mixed congregation of a dozen or so defectors and a few South Koreans gathers each Sunday for services. Afterward, they share a homemade meal and pray together and chat about the previous week.

"It breaks my heart to know that I won't be able to help all of the defectors who ask for help," Kim said. "But I've experienced miracles many times over. As long as I don't give up, I will be able to save at least one more precious life."

Choi is a special correspondent.

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