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An ‘underground railway’ rolling to freedom or death

Josh Chin

ICC Note: This mans journey in to China to talk about North Korean refuges led him to some interesting discoveries. It is only repeated to us again that Christians in North Korea will be killed if they proselytize.

3/25/07 North Korea For full story……(The San Francisco Chronicle) In January 2006, I shared several meals with a dozen North Korean orphans in a safe house in China , half a day’s train ride from the North Korean border. Run by a missionary couple, the house was part of a loose network — made up almost entirely of Christian aid workers — that shelters some of the 100,000 or so North Koreans who’ve fled their criminally mismanaged country in search of food and economic opportunity. Many of these migrants, living in China illegally, are victims of abuse and exploitation. The missionaries are virtually their only protectors.

At the time of my visit, the two-story apartment held 14 North Koreans, ranging in age from 5 to 20. Hidden on the outskirts of a major city, it was owned and run by the Lees, Chinese citizens of Korean descent who had led regular lives in Beijing until a divine revelation provided them with a new purpose: the Christian salvation of their fellow Koreans.

Of the half-dozen refugees I interviewed, two stood out: Esther, a quiet 16 year-old whom the Lees had purchased for $800 from a broker ready to sell her as a wife to a Chinese farmer, and 17-year-old Grace, who had already been caught in a Lee safe house two years earlier, sent back to North Korea and beaten for converting to Christianity.

The striking thing about them was not their sadly typical pasts. It was what they planned to do with their futures. Both said they would return to North Korea — “to spread the Gospel.”

North Koreans caught illegally crossing the border are no longer put to death, with one notable exception: those who return to proselytize. Far from setting these girls free, the missionary network had put them on a path disturbingly close to suicide. I was dumbstruck. And enraged.

From the moment they emerge from the womb, North Koreans are taught unquestioning reverence for three forces: Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s late leader; his heir and current dictator, Kim Jong Il; and juche, the national philosophy of Korean self-reliance. To convert a North Korean to Christianity is thus, in a sense, a simple process of substitution: Kim Sr., Kim Jr. and juche become Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Missionaries don’t like to talk about this connection in public, but some will admit that Kim Jong Il’s subjects make easy targets. “North Koreans are pure of heart,” a prominent South Korean member of the Underground Railroad told me. “They are very innocent. We just show them a little love, a little attention, and they are so moved.”

Esther seemed beatific about returning home to spread this love. Grace, on the other hand, was hesitant. So hesitant, in fact, that she glanced sideways at Ms. Lee before revealing her plans, hands shaking as she whispered the words, ” North Korea ” and “missionary.”

What motivates people to sacrifice themselves like this? What keeps them from running back to the safety of the day job, the leisurely weekend, the phone line that doesn’t click suspiciously?

Weeks later, back in my California apartment, faced with a blank computer screen, my mind would ricochet madly between two openings: The knock on the door or Grace’s shaking hands? The dictator-defying power of religious conviction or an innocent girl shackled to a possible death sentence by Christian zealots? With each passing day, I slid further into despair, facing the choice Grace didn’t have and I had but couldn’t seem to make.