An Activist for North Koreans Wins Release

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For the last 15 months, Phillip Buck, 69, an evangelical pastor from Seattle, Washington sat in a jail cell in northeastern China his health deteriorating, not knowing when—or even if—he would get out and see his family in the U.S. again. The only thing he knew, he wrote in a letter from the jailhouse earlier this year, is that his cause was just.

Now he is free. Buck had been a key member of the so-called underground railroad that moves refugees from North Korea through China to safety in South Korea. On Monday, Aug. 21, the Chinese government released him, having convicted him of transiting people illegally out of the country. His sentence — following more than a year of jail time in the city of Yanjie— was deportation and a fine. "I was jailed with killers, robbers and other hardened criminals," Buck told TIME, "but I did nothing wrong. All I was doing was helping the [North Korean] refugees." Buck had devoted his ministry since 1997 to the cause of aiding North Koreans. Then, with North Korea in the midst of a famine that killed thousands, he set up and operated a small noodle factory there. But he soon decided "he wanted to help in a more direct way," his daughter Grace says, and by the late 90s became involved in the loose network of people—some affiliated with Christian churches in South Korea, Europe and the U.S.—who try to bring North Koreans out via China.

They are not always successful. In 2002, Buck had a narrow escape. He had helped moved "a lot of people" of people out of China and into South Korea by then, his daughter says, and his organization had been infiltrated by an informant. Chinese authorities raided one of Buck' s safe houses and arrested a group of refugees en route to South Korea. Buck' s apartment in Yanji, in northeastern China, was searched, but he was out of the country at the time and escaped capture. His family pleaded with him not to return -- to no avail-- and in May of 2005 he was arrested in Yanji. "They [the Chinese authorities] had been after me ever since 2002," Buck says. His sentence includes a ban from ever going back to China, but Buck says he still has a network of people in the country helping run the underground railroad, and he will now figure out ways to help them from afar, in part by raising money to house and feed North Korean refugees in China. "Every day in prison--457 days—I thought about the refugees and prayed to God to help them. My work is nowhere near finished."