BY JASON STROTHER – North Koreans continue to flee their impoverished homeland in search of food and to escape political oppression. Christian missionaries have been at the forefront of the effort to bring these defectors to South Korea. But the work is difficult because of China’s crackdown on those who enter the country illegally. Now, some activists have taken their rescue effort online.
Man with a mission
Pastor Chun Ki-won goes online as soon as he arrives at his office at the Durihana Church in Seoul.
He is trying to get in contact with a young woman named Sung-hee.
Chun opens up a web-cam chat program and clicks on Sung-hee’s name on his list of contacts. On his screen appears a young woman, with long dark hair, wearing a black and white tank top.
Chun explains that Sung-hee is a North Korean refugee who is being held inside a house somewhere in northeast China. He is trying to help her escape and come to South Korea.
He says Sung-hee became the victim of human traffickers after she left North Korea a year ago.
Forced to strip
Chun says when she was on the border with China, some men bribed the border guard to sneak her across. They told her they would help her earn money and that she would work for a computer company. But she ended up locked in this house and is forced to strip for an online pornography site.
Chun says Sung-hee’s story is typical of many North Korean women who cross into China.
Human rights groups say many are picked up by human traffickers. Some are sold for just a few hundred dollars to Chinese men as brides. Others are put to work in the sex trade.
Because China repatriates North Koreans who enter the country illegally, activists like Pastor Chun say it is becoming harder for missionaries and other aid workers to reach those in need.
He says that is why he has taken his rescue effort online.
Chun says, years ago in China it was easy to meet North Korean women anywhere on the streets. But these days it is too dangerous for them to go out, so they just stay inside and go on the Internet. Also, much of the sex work they are forced into is online.
The defectors hear about Chun’s church in newspapers or by word of mouth. The Durihana church supports a team of undercover missionaries in China. They run a network of safe houses all the way to Southeast Asia, where it is easier for North Korean to seek asylum.
Chun says his church has brought 900 North Koreans to South Korea over the past 11 years.
One defector Chun helped escape from China is a 30-year-old woman who asked to be called Hannah.
Like many North Korean defectors, she crossed the border many times. But one time, the police caught her and she was sent to a North Korean prison camp.
Hannah describes what happened to her there.
She says she was kept in a small room at the prison with some North Korean officers, who kicked and beat her with a belt. Hannah says they called her a prostitute. Whenever she spoke, they hit her more.
Hannah eventually escaped North Korea again and got in touch with Chun’s missionaries in China.
Chun says Hannah was lucky to get out alive. Defection can be punishable by death in North Korea. He also says women who are repatriated often face more punishment than men.
Chun says, if a woman is pregnant when she is returned, she could go to jail for the rest of her life and be tortured. A pregnant woman will be forced to have an abortion. Prison officials will hit her and give her drugs to cause her to abort.
Chun says, for these reasons, he tries to help as many North Korean women as possible come to South Korea, so their lives are no longer at risk in China.
Chun continues his chat with Sung-hee.
Chun types to her that he can bring her to South Korea in the next 10 days.
Not ready for rescue
But Sung-hee replies she is not ready to go yet.
Chun says she is reluctant to go because she still thinks she will get money for her work. Chun says she does not understand that people in her situation never actually get paid by human traffickers.
Chun says he will dispatch missionaries to her home soon. But he says, it is up to her to decide whether to come to South Korea.