San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 15, 2003
Jasper Becker, Chronicle Foreign Service
Beijing — In the dead of winter, North Korean refugees sprint across the frozen Tumen River bordering China and quickly disappear into a thick forest to await the Christian underground railroad.
In recent years, Christian advocacy groups — sponsored mainly by Koreans living in the United States, Japan and South Korea — have set up a chain of safe houses and orphanages to smuggle North Koreans into China.
The underground railroad has enabled tens of thousands of refugees, many of whom are fleeing food shortages and the problems of the failing government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to reach South Korea via nations bordering China, such as Russia, Mongolia, Burma and Laos.
In recent months, however, refugee activists have encountered stiff resistance from Chinese authorities, who are offering rewards of $362 to those who turn refugees in. They are also jailing those who help refugees and fining them as much as $3,600.
No one knows how many refugees have been helped by Christian and other aid groups, but Human Rights Watch in New York estimates the number at 300,000.
They have even reportedly allowed North Korean agents to infiltrate the underground railroad inside China.
“It is like something out of the Cultural Revolution,” said a Western activist who asked not to be named. “Police put up posters saying it is the duty of all Chinese people to arrest and denounce the refugees.”
Beijing is worried that throwing the doors open to thousands of refugees will create chaos on both sides of the border and precipitate North Korea’s collapse.
Last year, Chinese police tracked down South Korean Rev. Chun Ki Won as he led 12 North Koreans near the Mongolian border. He was jailed for seven months,
tried and expelled after paying a $6,000 fine.
Police nabbed the Revs. Choi Bong Il and Joseph Choi, the latter a U.S. citizen, last year; both are still in jail. They belong to a Seoul-based group called Durihana, or “two become one,” which was founded in 1999 to prepare “public opinion for a unified Korea under the reign of God, based on the Christian spirit.”
Other missionaries have disappeared in North Korea and China, with their fate depending on secret negotiations and large ransoms, church sources say.
“They (Christian groups) follow the philosophy of the German Lutheran pastor Doctors Without Borders.
Human rights workers say most would-be defectors are released after a few months of jail and beatings unless they are Communist Party officials or military officers, who are considered guilty of treason and are sometimes executed. Sohn In Kuk, a 41-year-old army major, was beaten to death in a prison courtyard last year by North Korean agents, according to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
While the Kim government says there are only 12,000 Christians out of 22 million inhabitants of North Korea, international missionary groups such as Open Doors say there are as many as 400,000 in the North who meet regularly in clandestine churches.
Christians were at the forefront of resistance during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 until the end of World War II, and they played a leading role in fighting the 1961-1979 dictatorship of Park Chung Hee.
Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, had so many churches that it was known as the “Jerusalem of Korea.” Today, there are only three churches in Pyongyang, although those unable to attend are theoretically allowed to worship at home.
Although the secretive North Korean government says it does not repress Christians, church officials claim there are an estimated 100,000 Christians in North Korean jails or labor camps — some of them facing execution — suspected by the regime of Kim Jong Il of being at the heart of a growing resistance movement.
“Kim Jong Il is now using the army to operate house-to-house searches for Christians,” said a Korean missionary who requested anonymity. “There is much more surveillance. They are putting more people in jail to stop defections.”
In the latest refugee incident last month, 21 aid groups from South Korea, France, Japan and the United States sponsored the unsuccessful journey of more than 60 “boat people” who tried to leave China on two boats for the South Korean island of Cheju.
The arrests prompted protests from Seoul and the United Nations and renewed activists’ determination to carry on with the exodus.
“This was only the first step,” said Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician who spent 18 months working in North Korea. “You can be sure that we will try another one.”