‘Time’ covers North Korean emigration

Time Magazine covers the touching story of several North Korean emigrants and the network of activists that assist in their transportation to South Korea.

The ringleader: Rev. Tim Peters, a soft-spoken evangelical Christian pastor from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who runs the Seoul-based charity Helping Hands Korea. More than any other Westerner, Peters has become the public face of a network of activists, many motivated by their Christian faith, who try against formidable odds to bring North Koreans to Seoul.

Peters and others in the network do not shrink from the comparison to the Underground Railroad of the U.S. Civil War era that brought African-American slaves from the South to freedom in the North. They embrace the comparison.

North Korea and China—actively seek to put the Seoul Train, as it has been called, out of business. For the past two years, the Chinese have conducted a concerted “strike hard” operation to round up and repatriate North Koreans who are in China illegally. Beijing is determined to maintain stability in the rustbelt northeast of China. The government seeks to break up the networks that help refugees and shut down the safe houses that shelter them—lest too much success draw more. North Korean security agents inside China assist that effort. The result, says Peters, “is that the whole paradigm of our operations has been changed.” Refugees now avoid cities in the northeast of China, hiding instead in forest caves they have dug out for themselves.

TIME has learned that late last summer, Chinese authorities arrested an American who aids North Korean refugees inside China. He remains jailed in the northeastern city of Yanji, not far from the North Korean border. (The American in question is awaiting sentence and his family has asked TIME to withhold his name and details of his case.)

Last year, the South Korean government slashed in half the cash portion of the subsidy it used to pay refugees who make it to the South from 6 million won ($6,320) to 3 million ($3,160). The defectors often used the money they were given to help finance efforts to get their relatives out—typically by paying middlemen who are in the people-smuggling business for profit, but sometimes donating to Christian groups such as Helping Hands. The reduction in funds, coupled with the Chinese crackdown, has had an impact. The number of refugees making it out of China to South Korea fell to 1,217 last year, according to the South Korean government, down from a record 1,894 in 2004.

Though Bush called for $24 million a year to accept refugees from North Korea and broadcast news and information there, Congress has yet to appropriate any funding to carry out the policies.

Peters formed Helping Hands Korea in 1996, and within just two years, as refugees tried to escape the famine, the beginnings of the underground railroad took shape. “We were overwhelmed,” he says now. That’s when the organization’s mission became more focused: helping North Koreans in crisis, people who really needed help getting to freedom.”

Many women are “sold off” into marriage by one of the criminal gangs in the northeast of China that prey upon refugees. China’s one-child policy, and the intense cultural preference for sons rather than daughters, has left the country with a huge number of single men.

Refugees say that the most common way to get across the 1,400-km border between North Korea and China is to bribe a border guard on the Korean side. One North Korean woman, Park Myong Ja, who got to Seoul in 2004, told TIME it cost her just “100 [Chinese] yuan,” or $12.50 to cross into China. Kim, however, relied on a friend who lived near the border and watched each night the routes patrolled by the guards. “You knew where they were going to be—and where they weren’t going to be, and when,” Kim says. “My friend guided me.”

Some Korenas get fake Chinese identity cards. They can pay brokers 2,000 yuan ($250).

Peters raised $1,500 and hired four people for the operation to bring one North Korean through Laos to Cambodia, where she flew to Seoul.


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