A DAREDEVIL dubbed the “James Bond pastor” for rescuing hundreds of North Korean defectors reckons 2,000 are living secretly in Britain.
Chun Ki-won’s unconventional rescues include helping refugees to escape the brutal regime by jumping out of high rise buildings and leading groups of absconders through Asia by foot, truck and trains.
www.thisischriswhite.com Pastor Chun Ki-won is dubbed the ‘Godfather of North Korean defectors’
www.thisischriswhite.com Above: some of the hundreds of defectors he has helped escape the brutal regime
And like 007, the 61-year-old is dependent upon a plethora of technology – including flying drones on the borders – to save lives.
The pastor admits that his daredevil approach in helping defectors escape Kim Jong-un’s tyrannical rule is like something out of a James Bond film.
In fact Chun is known personally to the North Korean president – and is labelled a “cancer who should be eradicated”.
He’s also been called the “Godfather of North Korean Defectors”, although his nickname in America is “Asia’s Schindler” after helping to save well over 1,100 refugees flee across the globe, including to the UK, over the past two decades.
www.thisischriswhite.com One of his daredevil rescue missions involved a ‘sex slave’ having to climb through a window, many storeys high
According to the last census in 2011, there are close to 400 North Koreans living in England and Wales.
More recent figures, published in The Conversation, show that since 2003, more than 1,300 North Koreans have applied for asylum in the UK, and “544 have been granted asylum”.
Chun, however, estimates there are about 2,000 living in the UK, as some hide their true origins, and go “underground”.
He said: “Now the problem started when people started learning that you can get an easier visa over there so people started flocking in to the UK.
“And the government couldn’t verify North Korea from South Korea because many refugees went to South Korea first.
“So after that, even though official number is very low, it could be up to 2,000 – no one really knows.’
The bulk of those he saves from North Korea are victims of sex trafficking.
Chun, a former hotel owner, was looking for business opportunities along the border of China and North Korea in the mid-nineties.
Upon seeing the plight of starving North Koreans, he joined a seminary and met many who were in hiding.
After becoming a pastor in 1999, at the age of 42, he set up the Durihana Church in Seoul to rescue, rehouse and educate North Koreans.
Some live at the Church, others study and pray there, but no one is ever turned down.
He says defectors can be overwhelmed by South Korea, which is “over a century” in front of the culture they’re used to.
www.thisischriswhite.com Inside the DMZ border between North and South Korea
www.thisischriswhite.com Above: the border between North and South Korea
There’s more than 50,000 North Koreans – 80 per cent of whom are women – trapped in Chinese border towns with North Korea. Chun says he has helped over two per cent of them so far.
Unsuspecting women desperate to escape from North Korea are lured across the border by traffickers.
Hooked by the promise of well-paid jobs working with computers, they’re then sold to China’s sex trade, where they’re forced to work on internet sex webchats and take off their clothes for customers.
The longer a punter stays online, the more money the company gets. Women can be locked up in a room 24 hours a day, for months, or even years, on end.
Chun has to be devious to help save them.
With some, he’ll befriend them on the chatrooms of the “Dark Web” and gain their trust before rescuing them in elaborate schemes.
Or, he’ll negotiate with their bosses – sex traffickers – to “buy” the girls by pretending to be a concerned family member.
“I’ve got no choice but to go onto the Dark Web and in the chatrooms and listen to their story.
“I pick the ones who are really desperate and really need help. I pretend that I’m their uncle or father and tell them I want to buy her,” he explains.
Sometimes he even gets tipped off by a victim’s “sympathetic captors”. He’ll find out about them through trafficking contacts and plan their rescue.
www.thisischriswhite.com The 61-year-old used to be a hotel owner, before he saw the plight of starving North Koreans, and joined a seminary
In the pastor’s words, this is “extreme NGO work,” but he also believes it’s all part of God’s plan.
“Every day I receive faxes, calls and emails to people who want to be freed, I can’t be indifferent.
“Our mission is to reunite North Korea and South Korea using the gospel,” says Chun, speaking from his office at Durihana School, which he set up to “help teenagers from the North to learn and adjust to Korean society”.
He works alongside other missionaries across China and Korea.
Escapees have to travel thousands of miles by foot, train and trucks through China, Laos and Thailand.
The dangers of his work increase every year, as escapees aren’t safe until they reach Thailand, which has no deal with North Korea about returning refugees, and they’re able to seek asylum at the Korean Embassy.
www.thisischriswhite.com One of the guards patrolling the DMZ border between North and South Korea
Chun said that it had become more difficult for people to escape.
For most, the only way to be liberated is with the aid of people smugglers, who then sell them to Chinese sex traffickers.
He added: “The process is much harder because there are higher bars and wire fence along the border and North Korea is using CCTV cameras. If you are caught, you’ll be executed.
“However, North Korean guards need money and they will sell girls to Chinese men, it’s basically a human trafficking scheme.
“Most are women, who will then try to escape the traffickers and get their family out of North Korea afterwards. It’s nearly impossible odds.”Life on the line
Chun’s work has faced more obstacles since 2002 when he was caught and imprisoned for nine months for leading a group of 12 refugees across the China-Mongolian border.
Ten were later executed, while US relatives intervened to save the remaining two Koreans.
Chinese authorities threatened Chun with the death penalty unless he revealed the real mastermind behind the operation.
He said: “The Chinese demanded to know who put me up to it; they kept asking the same questions over and over, and I said: ‘I did this as God wanted me to do it’.”
Chun was released from prison after pleading from international human rights NGOs and petitions from US negotiators.
But, the pastor is now banned from the country, which makes his rescue operations even more daunting as he has to rely on contacts while he waits for groups of refugees at the Laos or Thai borders.
www.thisischriswhite.com More than 50,000 North Koreans are trapped in Chinese border towns
Chun admits that only half of his operations succeed and in one case a woman plummeted to her death from the seventh floor of a high rise building during a botched escape plot.
It doesn’t deter him from continuing his work, however.
In another case, he found a girl online and got her to take a photo of the door and windows of the place she was being held captive, so that he could work out her location.
The woman didn’t know where in China she was after being sold to sex traffickers, who’d imprisoned her in the same room 24/7 for 10 months where she was forced to talk to customers on sex webcams.
Chun then drew pictures detailing how his plan to save her.
www.thisischriswhite.com The pastor shows one of his daredevil attempts, when a captured sex slave had to climb through a window and walk along a balcony to safety
This involved the woman climbing out of her window onto the balcony where one rescuer would lower a rope to her, which she was to wrap around her wrist, before edging across to the next-door balcony, where someone would be waiting to take her away.
But with such high stakes, it’s inevitable that things can go wrong.
In 2009, Chun helped two American journalists – Euna Lee and and Laura Ling from a cable TV station in San Francisco – organise their trip to China where he introduced them to a contact who would act as a guide.
But they were arrested for illegally crossing the North Korean border – which they denied – and said they were beaten and dragged over the border by NK guards.
The pair were sentenced to 12 years hard labour.
It was only through the diplomatic efforts of Bill Clinton, who paid a visit to then President Kim Jong-il, asking for them to be pardoned, which was granted.
He often guides groups using drone video to monitor border guard patrols, so that he can make sure they pass without detection.
So does Chun think he’s a Christian James Bond?
According to the pastor, he is “fearless. Most people are struck by what I do, but I believe that God has prepared me for this job and I’m courageous.
“Even if I got arrested, I’d be really calm about it.
“I enjoy the adventure and technology involved, such as flying the drones on the borders, but the amount of girls we’re saving is getting less, as it’s getting harder.
“It used to be 20 to 30 a month, now it’s only four or five.”
His methods aren’t liked by the South Korean Government – they see it as “ruining the bonding relationship,” he says – but they can’t arrest him for it and usually leave him alone.
www.thisischriswhite.com Pictures taken by the pastor show how dangerous the journey to safety is
Apart from the risk of capture or imprisonment, Chun’s main problem is finance.
He said it costs at least £1,500 (US$2,000) to move a person across just one border, plus flight costs and another £1,500 to brokers.
By the time they reach Korea, it costs over £3,800 ($5,000) per refugee.
As it’s not financially viable to transport just one person at a time, those rescued move in groups.
Churchgoers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, heard about his actions and the congregation voted to devote all their energies and monies into helping Chun.
Santa Fe Pastor Ryan Ellsworth said the City of Faith Christian Fellowship was looking for a worthy cause and decided it wanted to help North Koreans.
So, in May 2016, a new branch of “Durihana International” opened up in the US with Chun at the opening ceremony, along with some people who’d fled from North Korea.
In posters for the visit, the Church branded Chun as “Asia’s Schindler”.
Chun said he was the “first to officially take defectors to the States”.
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He estimates that he’s saved well over 1,100 refugees in 18 years and delivered them safely all around the world from Europe to North Asia and to America, which has traditionally had a tough stance on North Korean immigrants.
Chun said that while the official number of North Koreans who have defected to the US is said to be 200, “it’s nearer 2000. They are illegal immigrants; the government has no idea who they are or where they are.”
www.thisischriswhite.com An American church is helping to fund the pastor’s attempts to save North Korean defectors