North Korean Refugees Risk Life for Freedom

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SEOUL, South Korea - In the 1990s, a severe famine struck North Korea claiming the lives of some 2 million people. Many starving North Koreans fled to nearby China in search for food.

Ji Hyun was one of them.

"My second child died of hunger," she recalled. "I was afraid that my two other children might also die of hunger. There was no food. We had to eat grass this small."

While in China, Hyun worked as a maid to earn some money to buy food for her family. But back home in North Korea, soldiers started looking for her. Hyun's mother told them that she was dead -- she knew that was the only way her daughter could flee to freedom.

Hyun said it was during her journey to China that for the first time in her life she believed there was a God.

It was only later that Ji Hyun discovered that certain members of her family were actually Christians. They kept their beliefs a secret because, if revealed, it could lead to execution by the North Korean government.

"My grandfather learned about Christ from an American missionary," Hyun said.

Chul Kim is another defector who escaped during the North Korean famine.

"It took a year to plan my escape. I knew that if I got caught, I [would] be tortured before they kill me," Kim said. "Thinking of that is scary, but thinking about dying because of hunger scared me more. My two sisters died of hunger."

There is actual video of Kim's escape from China in 2001 through a secret network of courageous volunteers in a modern-day "Underground Railroad."

Pastor Chun Ki Won leads one of the groups helping the North Koreans flee to freedom. He's aided more than 600 North Korean defectors in escaping to South Korea and other countries, including the U.S.

"We always call Chun Ki Won something like the Robin Hood of the North Korean refugees because of his braveness... his outspoken attitude (and) because of his secret meetings with Chinese officials and with North Korean officials," said Underground Railroad activist Norbert Vollertsen. "Sometimes he was nowhere. Sometimes he was everywhere."

Pastor Won said in 1995 he saw many North Koreans die while crossing into China.

"I also saw many orphans and widows wandering, North Korean girls sold to prostitution for $50," he added. "This gave me the burden to help the people."

Not all of those who tried to escape made it out safely. Some were caught. Others have disappeared and some have even been executed.

Won was arrested by Chinese authorities in 2002 for his activities and imprisoned for seven months. But he said it was worth it because he was able to share God's love with the North Koreans he tried to help.

"While we are traveling, I teach them the Bible. We experience God's miracles," Won said. "There was a time we had to cross the river by day and so we prayed that the soldiers will not see us. Suddenly it rained so hard, the soldiers did not see us cross the river."

Because of this pastor's help, North Korean defectors like Ji Hyun and Chul Kim are now able to rebuild their lives in South Korea. Hyun received a degree in nursing and now works at a home for the elderly. Kim is in Bible school.

"God's purpose for me is to share the gospel especially to my fellow North Koreans," Kim said.

With prospects of new talks between North and South Korea, both Kim and Hyun have renewed hope that some day soon their nations and their families will be reunited.

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