He came out of the darkening snow flurries to our rendezvous near a pagoda set in a frozen ornamental pond, a man who was both saviour and fugitive. Nam Hong-chul, as he called himself, had slipped in to the far northeast Chinese city of Yanji to rescue 11 refugees from North Korea.
Now he had to make a plan. Armed with money, documents, warm clothes and maps, he was trying to save others who, like him, had risked everything to escape starvation and violence under the regime of Kim Jong-il.
“Four of them are living with the pigs,” said Nam, as we made our way to a dingy hotel room to talk. “One of them is going insane. And they are not the worst off. There are others surviving in burrows dug in the ground. “They have crawled through the fields, then waded across the river or walked over the ice when it freezes,” Nam added. “They are desperate.”
Nam is a courier on the “underground railroad” that helps a lucky few North Koreans to sanctuary in Thailand or Mongolia, where they can seek asylum in South Korea.
He muffles his face and hides in the back of a car. Every Chinese checkpoint is a challenge. North Korean agents are out to kill him. Chinese-Korean gangsters hate him for rescuing women doomed to sexual slavery.
Nam made his own escape after his wife and younger son perished in a famine in 1998, only to lose his beloved first son, not yet in his teens, who died on the journey.
A simple man, he found that the Christian faith consoled him in his sorrow. It fired him with zeal to help others in memory of his own boy, who tried to reach freedom but never made it. “Helping other people makes it easier to deal with my grief for my son,” he explained. “I try to get the orphans out first. You will understand why.”
His group has established a secret orphanage, where they give food, shelter and a rudimentary education to a group of lost children.
[Excerpt of an article by Michael Sheridan, Sunday Times]