N.Koreans travel underground railroad to freedom

SEOUL - Facing forced repatriation to North Korea and public execution, Joo Sang-min and his wife sat in a Chinese jail last year and talked about slashing their wrists with razor blades hidden in their clothes.

But a bribe to a jailer secured the release of the 57-year-old doctor, his wife and their four children and the family spent several harrowing months travelling an Asian "underground railroad" to freedom in South Korea.

They were among the record 312 North Korean defectors who arrived in South Korea last year from third countries, many of them aided by a clandestine network of Christian missionaries, Buddhist charities, civic groups and profit-seeking middlemen.

Some 135 defectors have already arrived in the first four months of this year, as increasing numbers of mostly privileged members of North Korea's communist totalitarian state flee hardship and repression.

A total of 1,444 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, half over the last five years as North Korea plunged into famine and economic collapse.

"We knew for certain we would be publicly executed if we were brought back to North Korea," said Kim Soon-hee, the doctor's wife. "We knew because we had witnessed these executions."


Like thousands of other North Koreans, the Joos (their newly adopted surname) had often crossed the shallow Tumen River bordering China to get food and do a little business on the side.

Aid groups estimate there are between 150,000 and 300,000 North Korean refugees scattered around the hills and plains of Northeast China and Mongolia ekeing out a living.

"The estimates differ because aid groups can't share information due to risk of arrest from Chinese security," said Rev Im Hyang-ja of the Korean Institute for Mission Strategy.

This time, the Joos had with them their teenaged son, who had taken unauthorised leave from the army. Chinese authorities were alerted and the family soon landed in jail.

The Chinese warden, his palms greased by one of the refugee aid groups, freed the family at the border -- warning them not to seek refuge in local homes for they would surely be turned into the authorities for a reward.


The family hid out in the hills nearby "eating nothing but snow for two days," before stealing some money and taking a taxi to the nearest town, Soon-hee said.

Ethnic Koreans provided money and directions to Christian missionaries, who gave the Joos forged travel documents and helped them travel by bus and train through southern China and into "a Southeast Asian country."

"We had no knowledge of Christianity before this," said the doctor, newly resettled with his family in an apartment complex in a leafy Seoul neighbourhood. "We didn't even know who God was. In North Korea, they teach us that religion is like opium."

The family crawled under a border fence into the Southeast Asian country and had another adventurous trip to a South Korean embassy in a neighbouring country, again aided by missionaries.

They darkened their skin with charcoal and wore native clothing to avoid detection. At one point, they were reported to local authorities and the missionary who was escorting them changed cars three times to shake off pursuers in the ensuing chase, Joo said.

Most defectors find their way to Kunming and Nanning in southern China, cross into Vietnam, Laos or Myanmar and then seek temporary asylum in other Southeast Asian countries.


The church groups were reluctant to give details about their "underground railroad," fearing it would endanger operations.

"One of our missionaries was in jail for six months in Vietnam for helping North Korean refugees," said the Rev Lee Suh, a Presbyterian pastor in Seoul.

North Korea began waging a campaign of repression in 1999 against groups working with refugees in China, said Im.

"There is a leader of the underground church in North Korea, but it's a very sensitive issue," she added.

A U.S. State Department report on human rights in North Korea said "members of underground churches have been killed because of their religious beliefs and suspected contacts with overseas evangelical groups operating across the Chinese border."

Missionary groups say North Korea does allow some "authorised" churches and Buddhist groups to operate, but they are believed to be mostly fronts to receive food aid.

The North's chronic food crisis -- aid agencies say up to two million may have died of malnutrition and related diseases since 1995 -- has turned a trickle of refugees into a flood, raising alarms in Pyongyang about anti-regime activity across the border.


Those that make it to South Korea are almost always privileged members of the North Korea's "workers' paradise."

"Ordinary North Koreans don't come over," said Suh, noting it takes considerable cash to fork out the bribes and others costs of making the arduous journey.

"These are people who have been criticised by the state or feel betrayed by the state," he said.

Kim Myong-hwan (his new identity) arrived in Seoul in 1999 and shares a small two-room apartment with his 18-year-old son, who now attends prestigious Yonsei University in Seoul.

Dressed in a black suit and clutching a handphone, Kim has the short, wiry build common among North Korean men, testifying to the low-calorie diet and hard-labour lifestyle of the North.

Kim said he was a foreign exchange dealer and trader for a business owned by North Korea's People's Army, which often took him across the border to China. But one time, he tried to do some business with relatives and was arrested by Chinese police.

Kim said he escaped by jumping out a window of a jail and began wandering. "In China, there are lots of beggars. I was one of them for several months."


He sneaked into Vietnam, but was deported back to China, where he "hid out for a year" in a church, which reunited him with his son, who had also left their homeland.

Newly arrived defectors spend a year at the Hanawon (Unity) re-education camp in Seoul where they are taught English, computer skills, how to order fast food, wear cosmetics -- basically how to function in a capitalist society.

After "graduation," they are given $30,000, a subsidised apartment and two years of police protection, apparently to ensure they are not spies.

Increasingly, the defectors are being resettled outside Seoul to relieve the burden on the Seoul government and police.

Religious and civic groups are also taking a bigger role in resettling the defectors, as the escalating number of arrivals strains government resources.


For the new arrivals, it is a far cry from life in the North.

Kim, who now sells healthcare books, says North Koreans are numbed and exhausted by the lives they lead in the totalitarian state of 22 million people.

He is still trying to adjust to life in the South -- the bewildering number of English words in the language, the profusion of choices and commercialisation, even watching how you joke with women.

"This leads to severe isolation among the defectors," said Im. "It's like they've formed their own sect... They don't know how to manage their freedom."

Lee, the defecting doctor, made the same point.

"Things are so free here," he said, wearing a polo shirt and nylon athletic pants and seated on the linoleum floor of his sparse apartment. "You can do anything as long as it's legal. That's awkward for me."

21:31 05-12-01

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