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Underwater railroad

A network of activists is trying to help North Koreans flee the starvation, oppression, and despair of Kim Jong Il's brutal regime-and not be sent back

In a North Korean prison camp, inmates went about their work in a furnace-backbreaking labor their jailers forced them to perform 18 hours every day. As they worked, many of them appeared to be mumbling under their breath. They were not complaining; they were singing hymns. The prisoners were Christians-locked up for the crime of believing in God. Eventually, a guard noticed a female prisoner singing-and trampled on her face.

This woman got off relatively easily, compared to those caught trying to escape North Korea into China.

North Korea's leaders especially hate Christians. By some accounts, 90 percent of those who help people trying to escape the North's brutal regime are followers of Christ. Many live along the border between China and North Korea, descendants of Koreans who moved into China fleeing the famine of the 19th century and persecution from the Japanese occupation force during the first half of the 20th century.

South Korean Christians offer a helping hand, as well, often risking their lives to provide aid and comfort to the enemies of Kim Jong Il-that is, his own people-who steal into China, Laos, Vietnam, Russia, Cambodia, and Mongolia along a modern Underground Railroad.

Their help is desperately needed. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans have sneaked into China alone in recent years and live fearfully in hiding. If they're caught, Beijing ships them straight back to North Korea, ignoring the United Nations' 1951 convention, which China signed, commanding protection of refugees. (The Chinese skirt the mandate by insisting that escaping North Koreans are "economic migrants," not refugees.)

Some are smuggled through China into Mongolia. Once there, they head for the South Korean embassy in Ulan Bator. According to Douglas Shin, an American pastor living in Seoul, the embassy staff keeps "a lot of blank passports on hand, and just slap the refugees' photos on them." The South Korean government pays for their flight to Seoul to begin new lives of freedom.

The whole process takes only a few days, which means there are no refugee camps in Mongolia. Camps won't form unless the stream of refugees who manage to escape turns into a flood, Mr. Shin says.

If this happens, as some human-rights observers predict, people like Mr. Shin will have helped make it possible. A few years ago he formed an organization called Exodus 21, devoted to helping Koreans escape the starvation, oppression, and despair in the North. Mr. Shin has personally helped some 40 North Koreans escape through Mongolia. After twice being arrested by Mongolian authorities, he now devotes himself to publicizing the plight of North Koreans and prodding other nations, especially the United States, for policy changes.

Last year, nearly 600 North Korean escapees received official asylum in South Korea, including dozens who rushed into foreign embassies in China; this year, at least 1,000 are expected. Last month, the largest refugee group ever to arrive by boat-11 adults and 10 children-chugged into the port of Incheon, escorted by the South Korean maritime police.

Once in Seoul, refugees can expect help from both the South Korean government and Christian churches. The adjustment is far from easy. Although the South Korean government considers North Koreans to be citizens, they must go through a month of interrogation "because they might be spies," Mr. Shin explains. Next, they spend two months undergoing training to adjust to a society far more sophisticated than the one they left. They're taught how to use pay phones, automatic teller machines, computers-even television remotes.

The government gives each new citizen resettlement money ($28,000 per person-more for families) and access to a tiny, state-subsidized apartment. While the amount of money may seem large, "It's nothing, because the cost of living here is exorbitant," Mr. Shin says. "They have a tough time adjusting. Both the government and churches are doing their best to provide job training, but it's a long way to go." Refugees who are reunited with family members in the South "are much better off," Mr. Shin notes.

These are the ones who survive the desperate and dangerous journey through China, a passage that has become far more perilous in recent months. Under pressure from Pyongyang, China has begun cracking down on the refugees hiding among them. If the smuggling of North Koreans into China evokes memories of America's own Underground Railroad, China's hunting down of Korean escapees chillingly echoes the era when Nazis hunted down Jews. Chinese police frequently stop buses to search for refugees; anyone lacking an identity card or who cannot speak Chinese is immediately arrested. Surprise house-to-house searches are common. Villagers are threatened with punishment if they offer refuge to North Korean defectors. And like their Nazi predecessors, Chinese authorities offer money to those willing to betray neighbors who hide Koreans. Some refugees are tortured to reveal the identities of those who helped them, according to American human-rights activist Timothy Peters.

According to The Chosun Journal, a website devoted to North Korean human-rights concerns, more than 10,000 North Korean refugees hiding in China were rounded up last year and deported to North Korea. Tragically, even those who avoid arrest may suffer a dreadful fate. More than half of the North Korean women who cross the Tumen River into China are greeted, not by Christians, but by human traffickers who sell them into marriage or to brothels, according to Suzanne Scholte of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Other refugees sell their bodies simply to survive.

To contend with these problems, Exodus 21 is raising funds to purchase a ship. The plan is for Koreans hiding in China to board small fishing boats, hiding under the deck, where they will be invisible to Chinese patrols until they are a safe distance from ports. They can then board the rescue ship and sail to freedom. "The Chinese coast guard doesn't board each and every ship to check. As long as we don't get busted before the boarding due to a leak of information, it's relatively safe to sail out of China and on to international waters," Mr. Shin explains.

The need for safer methods of escape was evident this summer when a survivor of a North Korean prison camp, Soon Ok Lee, described the horrors of camp life to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee-horrors that make it clear that when President Bush described North Korea as part of the "Axis of Evil," he wasn't exaggerating.

"While I was there, three women delivered babies on the cement floor without blankets. It was horrible to watch the prison doctor kicking the pregnant women with his boots," Ms. Lee recalled. "When a baby was born, the doctor shouted 'Kill it quickly. How can a criminal expect to have a baby? Kill it.' The prisoner-nurses, with trembling hands, squeezed the babies' necks to kill them," Ms. Lee testified.

Treatment of Christians was especially barbaric. "During the seven years I served in the prison, there must have been thousands of Christians who died as a result of punishment," Ms. Lee related. "They were treated less than beasts, sub-human beings, being kicked by the boots of prison guards and lashed by leather lashes. The prison guard was telling these people to say, 'We will not believe in God but we will believe in our leader, Kim Jong Il.' So many people died because they did not say, 'We do not believe in God.'"

In an effort to help Korean refugees, Sen. Sam Brownback has urged the State Department to review its policy of not admitting North Korean refugees into America. In response, Arthur E. Dewey, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, began a policy review-one that frustrated Brownback staffers say has been going on for eight months with no end in sight.

They're also frustrated that a Senate foreign operations appropriations bill, which would provide $80 million for a North Korean resettlement camp and to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work with North Korean refugees, has stalled. If the Senate does not get the bill passed in the next few weeks, the funds may not be available for years.

North Korean refugees simply cannot wait that long. Many die in the attempt to cross through China into Mongolia. Evoking memories of World War II, Edward Kim, editor of The Chosun Journal, calls China "a real-life Casablanca," a place refugees escape to-and then wait, sometimes for years, to leave. While the State Department twiddles its bureaucratic thumbs, American citizens are taking action on their own. Many donate money to NGOs on the ground in China, which provide basic necessities for refugees as well as transportation enabling them to escape to South Korea and other countries. Knowing such help exists will inspire many more Koreans to escape the North, and the "flood of refugees from North Korea to China [will] cause unbearable pressure on both the Pyongyang and Beijing regimes, irreparably disrupting the status quo," Chosun Journal editor Kim says.

Sympathizers also donate to the Ton-A-Month Club, a Christian nonprofit famine-relief program based in Seoul, which mobilizes food aid for the most needy casualties of the North Korean famine. Volunteers send food shipments directly to needy North Koreans, bypassing government authorities. The group recently expanded its services to include assistance and shelter to North Koreans who have escaped into other countries.

Their efforts are not without risk. During the past nine months, China has arrested at least six missionaries-five South Koreans and one American-and charged them with assisting North Korean defectors. The missionaries were placed in long-term detention-the first time Chinese authorities have indicted those who assist North Korean defectors.

More ominous was the warning that came this month to Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician who spent 18 months living in North Korea with the German aid agency Cap Anamur. Mr. Vollertsen now travels throughout Europe and the United States, testifying to the horrors of life under Kim Jong Il. On Sept. 13, the German embassy in Seoul warned him that North Korean or Chinese gangsters were attempting to "eliminate me, and make it look like an accident," Mr. Vollertsen says.

He says he has no intention of letting such threats slow him down. He and others like him intend to deprive the world of the chance to say, "We didn't know." As Edward Kim writes in The Chosun Journal: "When reunification happens, and it will happen sooner than people think, and the atrocities become more openly apparent, and the war crime trials ensue, I must confess a certain hope. I hope that the do-nothings of today will experience unspeakable shame."

Anne Morse

Anne Morse