Friday, April 13, 2007

The Escape of Heo, a North Korean teen refugee

In September, a North Korean boy named Heo joined a group of seven other refugees in China -- most of whom had left their homeland by crossing the Tumen River -- and boarded a southbound train from Jilin Province to Beijing. The North Koreans carried no luggage. Once at the station in Beijing, they summoned a taxi and piled in.

The South Korean Consulate was well protected by Chinese military guards. There were two gates to pass through to reach the consulate's inner sanctum -- to reach South Korea itself -- and at each a number of armed soldiers were milling around. The consulate itself had been scouted by people working for a South Korean pastor in the business of trying to lead just such refugees out of the dungeon of their lives.

Heo has a brillo of black hair, a few unconvincing whiskers on his chin and a light spray of acne on his cheeks. He's a dreamy kid, who in 2000 escaped from North Korea along its heavily patrolled northern border. Once he crossed, Heo spent two years moving from place to place, trying to avoid the Chinese authorities and North Korean agents who stalk defectors. He also had to watch out for Chinese citizens, who are paid a reward for turning in North Korean refugees and fined for harboring them. Heo was caught once and returned to North Korea, where he spent four months in a labor camp, gathering wood in the forest, fed nothing but watery soup. When he escaped from North Korea again, he vowed he would never go back.

At the consulate's first gate, the refugees calmly presented fake citizenship papers, which were accepted by the more lackadaisical guards. But once they were through, without hesitation or thoughts of trying to dupe the younger guards, they began surging for the second gate, where three guards blocked their way. The eight refugees kept punching and flailing, pushing the guards backward. The standoff seemed to go on for an eternity, with the guards making a stand and punching back.

And then the South Korean consul suddenly appeared like the deus ex machina in some Greek drama. He said, "These people belong to South Korea now."

[Excerpt of an article by Michael Paterniti]

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