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A Man With A Purpose

Chun Ki Won has smuggled more than 500 North Korean refugees to freedom and safety imperiling his own life in the process

KoreAm Journal, NCM Winner, 2006, Grace E. Jang Posted: Mar 26, 2009

January, 2005

It was a frigid December evening in 2001 when Chinese officials arrested Chun Ki Won as he climbed into a taxi near the Mongolian border. His crime: helping a group of North Koreans flee persecution and starvation by way of China.
The dozen refugees he helped usher to the border of China and Mongolia were also captured - just a few miles short of safety and freedom. The taxi driver likely turned them in, activists say, for bounty offered by the Chinese government, which views North Koreans and those who help them as sociopolitical miscreants.
Chun is one among a community of activists dedicated to helping North Korean refugees, despite great personal risk. Some have simply disappeared.
Beijing mandates that North Koreans found within Chinas borders are economic migrants in search of work and food - not political refugees worthy of asylum. Chinese officials, in recent years, have cracked down on North Koreans hiding within its borders and promptly repatriated them to Pyongyang. Back in North Korea, where Kim Jong Il has deemed it illegal to leave the country, the defectors are punished and, in most cases, executed for treason.
Lauded as the Asian Oskar Schindler, the 52-year-old Presbyterian pastor has, in the past five years, smuggled more than 500 North Koreans across China and into countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Mongolia and South Korea. The story of his work is partially chronicled in the award-winning documentary Seoul Train, which premiered at the 2004 American Film Institute Film Festival in Los Angeles last November.
Life in the Chinese prison was really, really difficult, Chun tells KoreAm after the Seoul Train screening. For almost eight months, Chun was kept in solitary confinement, released from his cell only to be interrogated, or to clean the prison toilets. He was often deprived of sleep, and subsisted on water and coarse wheat bread - one piece in the morning, one at night.
They wouldnt let you wash your face, brush your teeth, bathe, Chun says in Korean. They wouldnt let family visit. That was the most difficult to endure not being able to see my family for seven, eight months.
After appeals from South Korea and the United States, Chun was freed in August on one condition: He must never return to China.The dozen refugees who were also arrested - among them, a pregnant woman remained in prison. Several were repatriated. We have received confirmation that they are now dead, Chun says.
Chun also learned that some had offered to inform on him. Still, he says his time in the Chinese prison only renewed his dedication to serving the North Koreans. Now that I have personally experienced a bit of the hardship theyve gone through, Ill help them even more than before, he told the Los Angeles Times in 2002.
Ive already been to prison, he replies to KoreAm, when asked whether he fears that his continued activities will put him in harms way. The act alone of helping the North Korean refugees is illegal, so those who do this work have always got to be prepared to face jail time. You dont know when youre going to be arrested.

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