Doug Bock Clark has written an amazing report for GQ that is essential reading for those who care about North Korea refugees and how Christianity has driven one man to help them.
Clark reports on the Underground Railroad that helps people escape from North Korea to China and from there to multiple Southeast Asian countries.
Clark has published two previous longform reports with GQ: an account of Kim Jong-nam’s being murdered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a detail-rich record of how Otto Warmbier so easily slipped from student visitor to a dead victim of North Korean brutality.
Now he begins with the story of a young mother named Faith who makes a slow and costly journey from Pyongyang to Phnom Penh.
The following passage is long, but essential, if GetReligion readers want to understand why this is a must-read feature.
Much of Faith’s journey is arranged by Stephen Kim, the activist at the heart of this amazing story:
For safety, Kim doesn’t want too much known about his past, but there are two facts that he feels are important in order to understand him. First, his father grew up in what became North Korea before he moved to modern-day South Korea to run a wholesale vegetable business. Sometime after that, the Korean Peninsula was split into two nations and the Korean War broke out. Thus, while Kim grew up in the South, he thought of North Koreans as long-lost family. Second, Kim’s father was Christian, and though he and his family eventually stopped attending church, Kim never forgot Jesus.
But in the mid-1990s, it was profit and not religion that was on Kim’s mind as he sourced cheap textiles from the Chinese provinces lining the North Korean border. Striding the streets, the besuited high roller would pass skeletal North Korean children pleading for food, and if he had time, he would buy them bowls of dog soup, renowned for its dense calories. Listening to their horror stories of the famine just across the river, Kim was deeply moved — but he had an international business to run. That is, until around 1997, when he went bankrupt.
His family was forced to move into a tiny apartment with a shared bathroom in the Chinese port city of Dalian. He contemplated committing suicide. But then, in what felt like divine inspiration, he remembered that the impoverished North Korean street kids still had the will to live. He swore to re-dedicate his life to them and to Jesus. Using the last of his savings, and eventually money he earned exporting beans and North Korean antiques, Kim rented several cheap apartments and began inviting dozens of North Korean refugees—“wandering swallows,” as the homeless youth were called—to live in them.
Kim remembered that one refugee in his mid-teens, Kang Won-cheol, was so malnourished when Kim met him that his hair had yellowed. Kim's offer could have seemed strange at first, for after a lifetime in a society where citizens are encouraged to inform on one another, many North Koreans are suspicious of unconditional help. But Kim and his wife kept the rice cooker going constantly and spent their days teaching the wandering swallows basic scholastic lessons and the Bible, which Kang distinguished himself in learning. Kang soon realized that Kim's generosity was genuine: “He opened my heart,” Kang said, “and changed my life.” Soon, Kang became so dear that Kim called him “son.”
Kim was not alone in his work. South Korea is the bastion of Christianity in East Asia, and by the late 1990s many South Korean missionaries were sneaking into China to assist North Koreans. Most missionaries, however, had more zeal than discretion—one recalled with horror his colleagues openly discussing their work in hotel lobbies—and soon their work began to attract the attention of the Chinese Communist government, which strictly controls religious expression. Before long, Chinese police were arresting missionaries and parishioners alike. Kim was more cautious than most—ordering that the doors to his safe houses be opened only to a special knock and keeping ropes by the back windows, just in case inhabitants needed to rappel out. After a few years, however, his luck ran out.
It would be unfair to say much more here about Kim, but the story’s subtitle offers a good hint by calling a “complicated man.”
Clark’s reporting is so detailed and elegant that to go into greater detail is the equivalent of a spoiler in a movie review. Clark does justice to the harrowing journeys of those North Koreans who choose to escape and to those who help them escape for reasons ranging from selflessness to greed.
Photo: Reunification Arch, Pyongyang, by David Stanley/Flickr