On a winter's day in late 1998, Kim Myong Suk, 20, lay shivering and weak from hunger on the cold concrete floor of a cell in a prison camp in North Korea, not far from the Chinese border. She was five months pregnant, and about to lose her unborn child. Of all the horrors she recalls from that day, she says now, two stand out. One was that her sister, who lived in a nearby town, had been brought in to watch what was about to happen to her. And the other is the North Korean guard's name, the man who she says killed her unborn child: Hwang Myong Dong. It is not a name, she says, "that I'll ever be able to forget."
Hwang, Kim says, referred repeatedly to the baby as "the Chink," because the father was a peasant from northeastern China, where Kim had fled earlier that year. As she lay on the prison floor, Hwang demanded that she abort the fetus herself. Kim refused, so the guard began kicking her over and over again in the stomach. Then he beat her, and continued beating her as her sister screamed, until Kim Myong Suk blacked out. When she regained consciousness, she says, she "was taken to a clinic in the camp, and in the most blunt manner, they removed [the fetus] from my body."
It is before dawn on Jan. 21, on a street outside Bangkok, and the daily chaos of noise and traffic is still hours away. Kim Myong Suk (an alias she uses to protect relatives still in North Korea) rounds a corner, walking to the church group with which she spends her days, the only sound that of stray dogs barking and tussling with each other. She is about to meet—for the first time—the men responsible for getting her to safety. One is Kim Sang Hun, a lay Christian from Seoul, who dedicates himself to helping North Koreans escape to freedom in the South. The other is Rev. Tim Peters, a soft-spoken evangelical Christian pastor from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who runs the Seoul-based charity Helping Hands Korea. Its aim, he says, is to assist "North Koreans in crisis." When she rounds the corner and sees the two men, she grasps Kim Sang Hun's hand and bows her head slightly, staring at the ground, momentarily speechless.
More than any other Westerner, Peters has become the public face of a network of activists, many motivated by their Christian faith, who try against formidable odds to bring North Koreans to Seoul. Peters and others in the network do not shrink from the comparison to the Underground Railroad of the U.S. Civil War era that brought African-American slaves from the South to freedom in the North. They embrace the comparison, convinced that their cause today is as just as the abolitionists' was then. "When we look back at this era, at what [the North Korean government] has done to its people, I'm convinced the civilized world will be shocked—and also shamed," Peters says softly. Shamed, he means, by its inaction, and by its lack of attention. "In the meantime," he says, "we do what we can."
Doing "what we can" is getting riskier by the day. Two governments—North Korea and China—actively seek to put the Seoul Train, as it has been called, out of business. For the past two years, the Chinese have conducted a concerted "strike hard" operation to round up and repatriate North Koreans who are in China illegally. Beijing is determined to maintain stability in the rustbelt northeast of China. The government seeks to break up the networks that help refugees and shut down the safe houses that shelter them—lest too much success draw more. North Korean security agents inside China assist that effort, seeking to bring refugees back home to certain prison terms. The result, says Peters, "is that the whole paradigm of our operations has been changed." Refugees now avoid cities in the northeast of China, hiding instead in forest caves they have dug out for themselves.
The activists running the railroad are often caught in such sweeps. TIME has learned that late last summer, Chinese authorities arrested an American who aids North Korean refugees inside China. He remains jailed in the northeastern city of Yanji, not far from the North Korean border. (The American in question is awaiting sentence and his family has asked TIME to withhold his name and details of his case.) Another South Korean activist involved in extricating Kim Myong Suk from China—who wishes in this article to be known only by his nom de guerre, "Hite"—spent a year and a half in a Chinese prison for helping North Koreans. Upon his release, says Peters, Hite "headed right back into the fight." His "faith," Hite now says, was only "reinforced while I was in prison. I knew I was on the right side."
Peters takes it for granted that North Korea and China will be hostile to his efforts. Far more galling to him is the attitude of the U.S. and South Korea. President Roh Moo Hyun's government in Seoul pursues, in Peters' words, a policy of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" in its pursuit of engagement with the North. The Seoul government, Peters says, does not want to do anything to upset North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, lest it reduce the chances for peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. "Any systematic effort to bring North Koreans to freedom might turn what now amounts to a trickle of refugees into a destabilizing flood—and Roh wants no part of it, nor do most South Koreans," says a Western diplomat in Seoul.
Last year, the South Korean government slashed in half the cash portion of the subsidy it used to pay refugees who make it to the South from 6 million won ($6,320) to 3 million ($3,160). The defectors often used the money they were given to help finance efforts to get their relatives out—typically by paying middlemen who are in the people-smuggling business for profit, but sometimes donating to Christian groups such as Helping Hands. The reduction in funds, coupled with the Chinese crackdown, has had an impact. The number of refugees making it out of China to South Korea fell to 1,217 last year, according to the South Korean government, down from a record 1,894 in 2004.
But for the Christian activists who staff the Seoul Train, nothing has been more deflating than the actions—or, more precisely, inaction—of the Bush Administration. The activists viewed Bush as one of their own, a conservative Christian committed to human rights, unafraid to speak the truth about North Korea and its dictator. ("I loathe Kim Jong Il," the President famously said in 2002). Last year, Peters believes, Bush showed his true colors when he spent more time in the Oval Office with Kang Chol Hwan, the author of a shattering memoir of life in the North Korean gulag, than he had with Roh Moo Hyun. In October of 2004 Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, and in the summer of 2005, Bush appointed Jay Lefkowitz, a former domestic-policy advisor in the White House, as a special envoy to deal specifically with North Korean human-rights issues. Though Bush called for $24 million a year to accept refugees from North Korea and broadcast news and information there, Congress has yet to appropriate any funding to carry out the policies. TIME has learned, however, that the Administration, under Lefkowitz's prodding, is studying whether the United States might be able to take in a small number of North Korean refugees each year—something which, if it happened, would no doubt anger North Korea. Bush also raised the plight of North Korean refugees directly with Chinese President Hu Jintao during their meeting in Washington last week, seeking, a White House official said, "a more transparent process" in how Beijing deals with those who come across its border. It is, says Peters, about time. "Who but [Secretary of State] Condi Rice, an African American, could better understand the absolute necessity of helping these refugees? The underground railroad is named after the network that helped the slaves, for heaven's sake."
Tim Peters came to be one of the founding members of the effort to aid North Koreans long after he first arrived in South Korea. He was a senior at Michigan State University when he dropped out in the wake, as he puts it, "of a highly transforming conversion to Christ." Within a few months, in 1975, he was in Seoul as a lay missionary, where he joined what has become Christianity's great success story in Asia. "Think of Korea's history," says Peters. "Conquest and occupation by other nations, poverty, civil war. It's fraught with suffering—suffering now experienced most acutely by North Koreans. This is the fertile soil in which the Gospel always thrives so greatly." Today, about 30% of South Korea's population identify themselves as Christians, and at night the neon crosses that sit atop countless churches in Seoul are visible as far as the eye can see.
When Peters arrived, South Korea was an authoritarian state under the leadership of Chun Doo Hwan. As part of his missionary work, Peters became involved in human-rights issues, and was soon thrown out of the country for handing out leaflets that criticized the Seoul government. He returned to live in Seoul in the late '80s, and then for a third time in 1996. South Korea was by then a democratic, prosperous nation, "and for a time I wondered why the Lord had brought me back to this place," says Peters. But North Korea was in the midst of a horrific famine. "One night it just dawned on me, I wasn't here this time for South Korea, I was here for the North, to try to do the Lord's work and help people there. It couldn't have been any clearer." Peters formed Helping Hands Korea in 1996, and within just two years, as refugees tried to escape the famine, the beginnings of the underground railroad took shape. "We were overwhelmed," he says now. That's when the organization's mission became more focused: helping North Koreans in crisis, people who really needed help getting to freedom." Kim Myong Suk was one of them.
In February 1998, Kim fled from North Korea into China. Her welcome was hardly comfortable. She was immediately "sold off" into marriage by one of the criminal gangs in the northeast of China that prey upon refugees. China's one-child policy, and the intense cultural preference for sons rather than daughters, has left the country with a huge number of single men. Kim's "husband,'' she says, was a Chinese peasant from a small town in Heilongjiang province. At first they didn't have much of a relationship, but over time, Kim's mother says, she grew to have affection for him. "He turned out to be a simple, kind man," says her mother. When Kim got pregnant, her mother explains, "she decided she wanted to have the baby."
In October 1998, however, Chinese police conducted one of their periodic raids in search of refugees from the North. Kim tried to hide, but two policemen discovered her. She was arrested and sent back across the Tumen River to North Korea, where she was sentenced to three years in a labor camp. Food, she says, was scarce: "We were so hungry in the camps that we used to pick up and eat the remains of apples that the guards had thrown away." After a year and a half, Kim says, she was released under a special amnesty decree.
Kim went to live in Onsong, a town near the border with China, and quickly decided that she would try to flee again. Her mother and an older sister had followed her out of North Korea, and they were now living in Heilongjiang. Occasionally Kim's mother sent a Chinese courier back into North Korea with some money and messages. Kim gave one of the couriers a note telling her mother she would try to escape again. "My motivation was hunger, and also there is no freedom in North Korea," she says. "It is a closed society. Even though we were out of the [labor] camp, we felt like we were locked up in that country. I wanted to find a way to get out again."
Refugees say that the most common way to get across the 1,400-km border between North Korea and China is to bribe a guard on the Korean side. One North Korean woman, Park Myong Ja, who got to Seoul in 2004, told TIME it cost her just "100 [Chinese] yuan,'' or $12.50 to cross into China. Kim, however, relied on a friend who lived near the border and watched each night the routes patrolled by the guards. "You knew where they were going to be—and where they weren't going to be, and when," Kim says. "My friend guided me." So on a bitterly cold night in early March 2002, she went for it. "My head and my heart were pounding," Kim remembers. If caught—either in the attempt or in China—Kim would have received, at the least, a long prison sentence, and could quite possibly have been executed. At 2 a.m., with no guards in sight and clutching just one small bag with a change of clothes in it, she hustled across the frozen Tumen River, and into China for the second time.
Kim says she had no thoughts then of going beyond China, no thoughts of making it to Seoul. She hooked up with her mother and older sister again in the city of Mudanjiang, and after a while met an ethnic Korean-Chinese who worked as a translator. The two married in early 2003. Something in Kim's family's environment, however, had changed. When she was sent back to North Korea the first time, her mother had begun attending a church for ethnic Koreans. "I started to pray for her all the time there," she says. But in February 2004, Chinese police raided the church, shutting it down and arresting 12 North Korean refugees. Kim's mother said that she no longer wanted to live in fear, and told her daughters that she planned to leave China. She said a friend from the church had introduced her to a 'people broker' who would help get them out of China. Her older daughter, who spoke Chinese, had married an ethnic Korean Chinese whose brother-in-law was a police officer. He got fake identity cards for the two women. They then paid the broker 2,000 yuan ($250), and one week later, the two crossed into Vietnam, later arriving in Cambodia, from where the South Korean government flew them on to Seoul.
Kim, having just married, did not want to follow. "I was frightened by what had happened to me the first time I was sent back to North Korea," she says. "I didn't want to try to get out and risk getting caught." Her mother reluctantly agreed, fearing that Kim would be killed if she were caught. For the next year, Kim lived a quiet life with her husband. But the fear of arrest gnawed at her. Her Chinese was not fluent, and in 2005 the crackdown on refugees intensified. Because of her forced abortion, she could not have children. Her husband was bitterly disappointed by that, says Kim's mother, who was determined to do what she could to help. In October 2005 she met Kim Sang Hun—a prominent underground-railroad activist in Seoul who brought the case to Peters. The two of them started working on the logistics of Kim's flight to freedom.
The Seoul Train is little different from any other operation where a person—a spy, say—needs to be moved out of hostile territory. A successful operation needs money, a meticulous plan and reliable people. The operatives working inside China are critical; Peters and Kim Sang Hun prefer to depend on fellow Christian activists, but will work with trustworthy brokers. There's no magic formula for knowing how many people or how much money is needed. "It varies every time," Peters says. Nor can the route be specified in advance, though right now there are two "hot" roads out of China, one through Mongolia, another through Laos.
On Nov. 15, 2005, Kim told her mother she was ready to go. Peters had raised $1,500 for the operation, and he and Kim Sang Hun had recruited four people to help. The Mongolian route was too risky in winter. One of the network's most effective activists in China is a former North Korean refugee whose son died in the snow trying to make it to a Mongolian border. So Hite, who can no longer get into China legally, would coordinate the operation from Laos.
Kim told her husband she was planning to leave China. Their relationship had deteriorated since he learned she could not conceive, but he agreed to accompany Kim to the Laotian border. That was critical; it meant there was no need for safe houses, since the authorities would see just an ordinary couple traveling through the country. "My husband accompanying me gave [the trip] stability," Kim says. "I am very grateful to him for that." On Dec. 9, they boarded a train in Mudanjiang, bound for Harbin and eventually Kunming, in Yunnan province. When they arrived in the south, they were greeted by a man named Jiang, a broker with whom Hite had worked before. The organizers had paid him 500 yuan ($62.50) upfront; Jiang promptly asked for 500 yuan more, then took Kim and her husband to a hotel where they stayed for three days. Then Jiang put them on a bus for a 20-hour trip to a town close by the Laotian border. (Because the town is still used as a staging post, activists will not reveal its name.) Once they got there, an ethnic Korean-Chinese Christian activist named Moon met them.
Kim was now just four hours from Laos. She thanked her husband, said goodbye, and climbed into a taxi that headed for the heavily guarded border, deep in the mountainous terrain where Laos, China and Burma meet. Kim and her guide got out at a remote spot—again, the activists won't say exactly where—and walked into Laos undetected. For two hours they trekked through the mountains until they met a car, which took them to Vientiane, where Hite was waiting. On Dec. 24, Kim called her mother in Seoul, and Hite called Kim Sang Hun and Peters. Then it was on to Bangkok. On March 26, Kim flew to Seoul, for a tearful reunion with her mother, before being sent to a debriefing center, where she will answer questions from South Korean intelligence agents and learn what to expect in her new life.
For Peters, the call from Hite was "the best Christmas present we could have gotten." But his work is not done. A few weeks ago, Peters stood in the pulpit of the Youngnak Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest, largest and most graceful churches in Seoul. His congregation was more than 2,000 strong, joined together in a two-day prayer vigil for North Koreans. Though buoyed by Kim's tale, Peter was weighed down by the arrest and detention of the American underground-railroad activist. His sermon, on a text from the Old Testament, was stark: "Joshua had fallen to the ground in long and desperate prayer," Peters said. "But after a period of time the Lord said, 'Get up Joshua, why are you still lying on your face? Now is the time to do what I have shown you to do.'"
As Peters sees it, there is still much work to be done. The underground-railroad activist held in Yanji is 68 years old. Jeffrey Bahk, an American evangelical preacher who drowned in 2004 leading a group of North Korean refugees across the Mekong River from Burma to Laos, was 62 when he died. "Where," Peters demanded at the Youngnak Church, "are the young men—the young soldiers—to step into the place that older missionaries now fill?" He stepped from the pulpit, and the organist led the congregation into a loud, emotional version of the tune associated more than any other with escape from bondage. In Korean, 2,000 voices swelled to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.