North Korea Refugees


LUCKY SEVERSON (Correspondent): This is Pyongyang, the capitol of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and this is the way the regime wants you to see life in North Korea, as a utopian paradise. It’s not the way Melanie Kirkpatrick, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute sees North Korea. She’s about to publish a book about the people who’ve escaped the North and those who have helped them.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I’d argue, not only is it the most totalitarian regime in existence today, it’s probably the most totalitarian regime in existence in history. It is hard to describe to Americans the extent of the repression there.

SEVERSON: Kwang Jin Kim was a North Korean banker who defected 8 years ago. He now lives in South Korea.

KWANG JIN KIM: The life in North Korea is like hell, you know, and the life outside is like heaven.

SEVERSON: This is the so-called Demilitarized Zone, the heavily militarized buffer zone between the two Koreas, which are still technically at war. South Korea has one of the world’s most prosperous economies. By all accounts, North Korea is one of the most oppressive, closed regimes of modern times. As many as two million North Koreans have died of starvation. Hundreds of thousands have been committed to political prisons. Tens of thousands have risked their lives to escape, with the help of some dedicated Christian pastors and missionaries.

Pastor Tim Peters decided to help North Koreans while he was a pastor and missionary in Seoul fifteen years agoFifteen years ago, when he was a non-denominational pastor and missionary in Seoul, Tim Peters asked himself a question that changed the course of his life.

TIM PETERS: What’s wrong with this picture? 50 miles north of here is possibly the worst human rights situation, including Christian persecution, in the entire world, and here we are in South Korea living a lifestyle that’s probably on par with the United States and Europe, and even the South Korean churches were sending armies of missionaries all over the world and yet, there seemed to be nobody in China to kind of catch, to play catcher to all these refugees that were coming across.

SEVERSON: Peters just returned from China where he operates an underground railroad helping North Korean refugees, most of them not Christian, escape to other countries. They are not welcome in China and forcefully sent home if they’re caught. Pastor Phillip Buck has a long history of helping North Koreans. His daughter Grace interprets.

PASTOR PHILLIP BUCK: So I once asked a Chinese, Chinese person, why do you do this? I mean, these are so desperate people. Even if you can’t feed them, at least don’t arrest them and send them back to North Korea. What is the reason for you doing this? And the person said that because China and North Korea has such a strong tie.

Pastor Phillip Buck with his daughter and interpreter Grace Yoon YiSEVERSON: And if they are sent back, they know they’ll face severe punishment. Leaving North Korea without permission is a serious crime.

TIM PETERS: Some of the North Korean refugees, particularly women for some reason are known to carry either a razor blade or arsenic in their hand bags in the event that they are identified and detained by Chinese police. Some of these ladies will attempt to commit suicide in preference to meet the consequences that they will face on the North Korean side when they get sent back.

KIRKPATRICK: And people who are found with a bible or found practicing Christianity are arrested and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has documented cases of people who have been killed for their religious beliefs.

SEVERSON: And if the refugee sent home is identified as a Christian, Pastor Buck says the crime is considered very serious and sometimes ends with execution.

PASTOR PHILLIP BUCK: They are imprisoned in political concentration camps. And with the reason that they believe in Jesus Christ, they are publicly executed.

SEVERSON: Altogether Pastor Buck has helped 200 North Koreans find refuge in other countries and was awarded the international Civil Courage Prize – 50,000 dollars for his efforts. He uses that money and other contributions to help support 2,000 refugees.

Melanie Kirkpatrick, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, will soon publish a book about the people who’ve escaped North Korea and those who have helped them.KIRKPATRICK: Pastor Buck is a real hero.

SEVERSON: In 2005, Pastor Buck was arrested and spent 15 months in a Chinese prison — an experience, he says, that made him stronger and more determined.

PASTOR BUCK: After I was released from prison, I had no fear at all. I could speak with power and I could speak to North Korea, to China, telling them that you should not do this. You should save North Korean refugees. You should be merciful to these people.

SEVERSON: How is it that the death of the so-called “Dear Leader” of such an oppressive regime can cause such a display of grief and adoration from those who have been oppressed?

KIRKPATRICK: People are brainwashed. It’s true.

SEVERSON: She says they’re taught from an early age to revere their leaders, almost worship them — first Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, then Kim Jong Il, the son, and now it’s already begun with Kim Jong Un, the grandson.

This is a typical propaganda film – the teacher tells the kids to sit up straight and, “Little comrades, when you have heard my story, you will know that our General is the most praiseworthy man on earth.”

PETERS: The doctrine and the propaganda is still very much in place. And it’s still pumped in from kindergarten and preschool all the way up to the grave.

A portrait of the now deceased Kim Jong Il — the former "Dear Leader" of North KoreaSEVERSON: And it’s apparently not just propaganda that motivates North Koreans. It’s also fear that not heeding propaganda will result in punishment.

KIRKPATRICK: I have heard several such examples. Somebody who has folded a newspaper to sit on a wet park bench and that newspaper had a picture of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, and off he went.

PETERS: Keep in mind that the whole structure of North Korean ideology is the exaltation of the leadership really to a deified level, so becoming a Christian is basically being a political traitor because you’ve said I’ve accepted another authority in my life other than Kim Jong Ill.

SEVERSON: Tim Peters says for a missionary, North Korea is untouched territory, but first the people need help.

PETERS: I consider the North Korean people, to use Christian parlance, as an unreached people now. And of course, our aid to them cannot be hinged to their response. Our giving is unconditional, but we can’t, we have to be unapologetic about the fact that we are telling them in whose name are we giving this help. We’re giving it to them in the name of the one who rescued us and that’s of course Jesus Christ.

SEVERSON: Tim Peters founded Helping Hands Korea, and is now waiting for a visa to go back into China. Kwang Jin Kim is now a scholar at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul and a Christian convert.

KWANG JIN KIM: I’m happy to believe in God because I’m able to believe in another thing other than, you know “Kim-ism.”

SEVERSON: And Pastor Buck’s daughter says he has no intention of slowing down.

GRACE: We, my brothers and sisters, kind of asked him and suggested that he retire, what about he retiring now. It would be a good time for him to retire. He was almost 70, but then he said no. He said somebody have to do it and he’s that somebody. And he says he’s not going to quit until the day that God calls for him.

SEVERSON: Now people in and outside of North Korea wait to see if the new Kim will be any less repressive, and anymore open to change, than the two Kims before him.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Seoul, South Korea.

  • MD. Kais Haider Chowdhury

    in one sense north korean are right because they keep away their people from american disease it is good, but in another sense as a human, being a god is not good. something should be propaganda by america to influence korean people as they have done in arab. america should be praised for their devilish intelligence.

  • Jon Bearscove

    MD. Kais Haider Chowdhury is misunderstanding the issue as this has nothing to do with the “American disease” but has everything to do with basic human rights. I would highly recommend that readers interested in this issue read “Lives For Sale, Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China” from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, found online at:

    The true accounts of human suffering in this report have nothing to do with America, and everything to do with the desperation many North Korean women face as victims of forced marriage and trafficking once escaping North Korea and making to “safety” in China.

  • James Fahey

    I met Tim Peters many years ago in Seoul. I was immensely impressed by his dedication to his Mission.
    I have a Passion to serve N.Korea with a Christian zeal. If I wish to do Volunteer work in N.Korea.
    If you can use my services please e-mail me Thank you in Jesus’ Name

    Yours in Christ,

    James Fahey

  • Alexander

    As a russian we have been following the events in the North korea situation and as a person it is very disturbing and alarming and i discussed with a border immigration where we have a common border with North korea and we are ready to help get out some willing to leave north koreans, but our trouble is will the south korea embassy in Moscow, issue documents for them to be able to travel to Seoul? because we dont want to get into trouble by keeping them.
    if you have any sugestion we can help save souls write me

  • Ann

    sorry, if my post is kind of annoying, anyway you can delete this post. :)
    I am watching south korea’s series about the N Korea spy then i suddenly interest in these topic and search for it.
    At first, i think in the present(2012) N Korea isn’t too cruel because after his former leader pass away, people look very sad in the news. After i watched this video clip, my tear falls.
    I sincerely hope north korean people having a better better quality life in every day and finally open their country. :))

  • MD. Kais Haider Chowdhury

    To Jon Bearscove
    I am not diverting any points. You are talking about human rights then can you tell me that what is the situation of human rights in USA? This human rights activist are controlled by United Nation and the United Nation always listen to the USA if I go for instance then I can show you about Iraq War, Restriction on Iran, trying to influence on China Mainland politics (tibet), and recently they have used Dr. Mohammad Yunus to influence Bangladesh politics, these are open secret but nobody protest these matter.

  • mina

    South korea is not doing enough to help hundred of millions North Korean hiding in China. South Korea need to step up and pay for all the expenses of the 400,000 plus refugees residing in China now and transport all of them to South korea. Each year China people spend billions to shelter and to let these refugees use China resources. China gov’t kept quiet and look the other way not to put harsh policy to capture all of the north refugees, but at the same time, China don’t want to irritate NOrth korea their allied. While the south korea gov’t do nothing about helping them. They only have religious private group south koreans to help them and their effort and money is nowhere enough at all. China need to take this problem and expenses to UN and have south korea pay for the bill each year.
    South korea government, wait up and do something.

  • trutherator

    @mina: Typical of today, people demand that somebody do something but nobody wants to pay for it. The world is full of gimmes. Why demand from South Korea anything? Remember the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan? A Pharisee asks “Who is my neighbor?” so he can find out who he can leave beaten and bloody on the road. The Good Samaritan does not say “I’m not part of his group, so I don’t have to help him”.

    China is responsible also for the situation in North Korea because they enable the “Great Divine Leader” and his enforcers to live in luxury at the expense of brutal treatment of its people. So knock it off. Typical of America’s so-called “liberals” who are generous with somebody else’s money.

  • Maggie

    I am horrified by the brutal treatment of North Koreans and applaud any who do what they can to help. I hope they eyes of the world turn to this atrocity and do whatever it takes to put an end to this outragious abuse of power. I hope the people of N.Korea rise up themselves and put an end to this tyrannical family, but fear the chances of this happening are probably slim. It is a sad situation and my heart goes out to the people affected.

  • Nancy

    MD. Kais Haider Chowdhury – My God, Man – how sanctimonious and dogmatic does one have to be to become blinded to the shameless brutality and the daily horror these people live with? Are you so damn dogmatic that you would defy human decency to defend the perpetuation of this atrocity? Pray (doubt you do, but just in case) you never find yourself dependent upon the compassion of your fellow human being. Oh, and ponder this piece of American propaganda: 당신은 또라이 야.