The story of Pastor Son, who became a Christian while working in China and returned to North Korea to spread his faith, gives us a glimpse into a rarely reported story: the large number of North Koreans who live and work in China, the porous border that allows the smuggling of Kareoke machines and South Korean DVD’s into North Korea, and the smuggling of the thousands of North Korean refugees into China, and the presence of an “underground railroad” composed of Christian believers that is helping to smuggle out some of these refugees.
Many, some estimate 200 to 300 thousand,  North Koreans are living in China illegally, knowing that if they are caught they will be deported back to North Korea and placed into prisons where conditions are terrible.

Many of them have family members to help them, and others quietly work in factories passing as Koreans ethnics who traditionally live in that area of China or who migrated to northern China to find work during the Japanese occupation or later when both countries were communist allies.
But not every Korean can find work, and some, especially if they are teachers or have university training, are in real danger of being prosecuted as traitors to the state if they are deported, so these may seek a way to find refuge elsewhere. And many of them receive help by a shadowy underground railroad that helps them to find asylum.
Some of these manage to enter foreign embassies where their presence is so embarassing that they are allowed to go to a third country, as when 14 North Korean refugees sought asylum in the Spanish embassy in Beijing and ended up in Manila.
Today the BBC reports on an “asylum bid” by several North Korean refugees at the Danish embassy…in Viet Nam, and includes these details:

Many refugees fleeing North Korea are often sheltered during their journey across China by underground Korean networks, as Beijing has an agreement with Pyongyang to send back any it catches.

These underground groups help them get to countries such as Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia, where they can then seek asylum…..
Pyongyang was incensed in 2004 when South Korea airlifted more than 400 North Koreans out of Vietnam.

Earlier this year Thailand discovered over a hundred “migrants” from North Korea, arresting them and those who helped them.

A 2002 story in the Christian Science Monitor reports:

The flight from North Korea to Southeast Asia has been compared to the “Underground Railroad” that transported black slaves in the South to the free North. That makes Thailand a crucial halfway station after a long and often perilous journey across China’s vast hinterland and southern borders.

While Lee, a young factory worker, covered the distance quickly, and without getting caught, other refugees struggle to reach Thailand. Many spend years living illegally in China before linking up with activists from South Korea. Human traffickers profit from the trade, taking an upfront payment with the promise of a money transfer if refugees reach South Korea, which gives $10,500 as a one-time payment to new citizens.

This underground railroad is largely staffed by Christian Koreans, mainly from the south. Another 2002 report in the CS  Monitor reports:

The refugees are caught literally and figuratively in the middle. They live in a netherworld between those hunting them and a frail underground railroad of intrepid volunteers who are aiding them. When they cross the border, they enter a patchwork of shifting zones of safety and danger. They hide during the day. They try not to speak their broken Chinese. To leave China, some burrow in trucks of potatoes, claw through Laotian jungles, and float down the Mekong River. Others are shepherded to Mongolia. One young man walked across the frozen Yalu River in February, obtained a fake passport, and flew to freedom in less than a month – for $10,000. For most, the journey is longer.

China also has been cracking down on the underground railroad – run mostly by Christians from South Korea. The groups operate under names like “Good Friends,” and “Exodus 21.”

“About 95 percent of the people over there helping are Christians,” says one such worker. “We don’t talk about it much. We act in cells. We don’t want to compromise each other. Right now, we are being shut down.”

The story of the modern underground railroad across China doesn’t often make the news partly because it is a secret and partly because it’s presence embarasses a China who under a treaty has agreed to seek out and deport back all resident North Koreans.

But like all human rights sagas, it is a story that needs to be told.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket 

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