Tim Peters runs the Seoul-based charity Helping Hands Korea. More than any other Westerner, Peters has become the public face of a network of activists, many motivated by their Christian faith, who have devoted their lives to helping North Koreans, including many living illegally in China, escape to freedom in South Korea.
Peters formed Helping Hands Korea in 1996, and within just two years, as refugees tried to escape the famine, the beginnings of the underground railroad took shape. The organization's mission became more focused: helping North Koreans in crisis, people who really needed help getting out.
He and others in the network compare it to the Underground Railroad which took African-American slaves from the South to freedom in the North. The activists are convinced that their cause is as urgent as the abolitionists' was. "When we look back at this era, at what North Korea has done to its people, I'm convinced the civilized world will be shocked and also shamed," Peters says. "In the meantime, we do what we can."
A successful operation needs money, a meticulous plan and reliable people. The operatives working in China are critical. Peters and [other activists] prefer to depend on fellow Christian activists but will work with trustworthy brokers. There's no magic formula for knowing how many people or how much money is needed. Nor can the route be specified in advance, although right now there are two hot roads out of China--one through Mongolia, another through Laos.
[TIME magazine excerpts]