The New Underground Railroad

Wall Street Opinion Journal Melanie Kirkpatrick May 12, 2006

“A North Korean like you is easier to kill than a chicken.”

Old habits die hard–especially those whose disregard could mean death. So it is understandable that the North Korean refugees with whom I met this week set strict ground rules for our interview: no names, no photographs, no indication of their location in the U.S., and no identifying details of the Southeast Asian nation whose government risked the ire of China to permit them to depart for asylum in this country after they sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy there.

“Hannah” and “Naomi” are the noms de libert√© of the women who were willing to savor a taste of their new freedom by meeting an American journalist. Even so, they remain fearful for the safety of the families they have left behind in North Korea. The relatives of defectors can simply disappear–sent to the gulag or worse. “North Korea has many spies,” says Naomi, through an interpreter. Even, it went unstated, in this country.

The women’s new names were bestowed on them by Chun Ki-won, the South Korean pastor whose underground railroad led them, and four others, thousands of miles across China to sanctuary in Southeast Asia this spring. No one knows how many North Korean refugees are hiding in northeast China. Tens of thousands for sure, and estimates range as high as several hundred thousand. Beijing, in violation of its treaty obligations, refuses to allow the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to help–or even to interview them.

Pastor Chun is a man of “miracles,” the women say. Their own particular miracle is to have stepped off a plane in this country late last Friday, the first refugees to enter the U.S. under asylum rules set up under the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act. Naomi, Hannah and the four compatriots who traveled with them had spent years in virtual servitude in northeast China, along the North Korean border.

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