The South Korean Reverend Seungeum Kim has spent 23 years traveling thousands of kilometers through “impassable jungles and rivers,” to fulfill the task he has dedicated his life to: rescuing those fleeing North Korea. “North Koreans can only find freedom if they manage to complete an arduous route” of thousands of kilometers through China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, the priest explains. Founder of the Christian Caleb Mission church, he coordinates and directs the process of helping “defectors” flee Kim Jong-un’s regime. The total he has managed to save stands at “more than 1,000″ people.
“I have broken bones and have suffered injuries that required surgery,” says Kim, who personally participates in many of the “dangerous journeys,” which in addition to the injuries have left him a string of “criminal records” in several countries. “Once I was even imprisoned in China,” he explains during a meeting at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the convention of activists that the Human Rights Foundation organized last month in the Norwegian capital. He gives few details of how he has managed to plan the route over the years, for which he needs the cooperation of a “network of collaborators” in different countries. But, despite the risks, he is convinced that “North Koreans who want to escape could not do so without the help of the Caleb Mission or other NGOs.”
The difficulties of this odyssey have recently been portrayed in the documentary Beyond Utopia, released this year by American director Madeleine Gavin. The film reconstructs the flight of several North Korean families with the support of Pastor Kim through real images sometimes taken with a mobile phone and has received the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. “He’s the kind of hero that Hollywood could make a movie about and then cast Mark Wahlberg as the lead,” The Hollywood Reporter said of him in its review of the documentary.
A love story
The change in Kim’s life began on January 4, 2000. “I went on my first mission [as a priest] to a place on China’s border with North Korea, and suddenly, walking near the Tumen River [which forms a natural dividing line between the two countries] I saw a group of malnourished North Korean children,” the pastor says. “Please, sir, help your own people,” they pleaded. And at that very moment when he was aware of his own prejudices — “I had always been told that North Koreans were very different from us,” he recalls — he decided that he was going to “give his life for those people.” “What would have led those children, who were so thin from lack of food, to risk their lives to flee,” he asks. And the answer was very clear: the desire to escape misery and repression.
At that time, he still didn’t know how he was going to help them. Something was missing — more was needed to find the routes through which thousands of North Koreans who wanted to escape the clutches of the Pyongyang regime would begin to travel. It soon came. “A North Korean defector came to the church where I served in China, we fell in love and planned a future together,” he says, with a smile. But that woman, who is now his wife and co-founder of the Caleb Mission, was not safe on Chinese soil. “Beijing arrests and repatriates the North Koreans it finds, it does not recognize them as refugees,” he says. And for women it is even worse: “They have become the prey of human traffickers, who force them into prostitution or forced marriages in China.”
“I have broken bones and suffered injuries that have required surgery.”Seungeun Kim, founder of Caleb Mission Christian Church
Pastor Kim began “walking through the deserts of Mongolia and the jungles of Southeast Asia” and even considered the option of getting his wife out by boat on a river. “I had to find a route to bring the love of my life to South Korea from China,” he explains. Finally, he did it “by plane,” although he prefers not to clarify exactly how. That experience helped him put together the escape itineraries that North Koreans fleeing to South Korea have used for the past two decades. From 2001 to June this year, the total stands at 33,304 people, according to Seoul data. Although the actual number of those trying to escape could be much higher. “We don’t know the numbers of how many try to flee, because many are trapped in China or other countries,” he said.
Always very sketchy on the details of how the rescues are prepared, Pastor Kim lets slip that the process begins when the Caleb Mission has evidence of specific people who want to escape, either because they manage to communicate with the organization or because relatives who have already managed to reach South Korea are looking for them. “There are currently more than 200 North Koreans who have contacted us to ask to be rescued, and 30 of them are in an emergency situation,” he warns.
However, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, rescue missions have plummeted. “We had to stop them” as a result of the border closure imposed by Beijing, he laments. According to official South Korean figures, 1,047 North Koreans arrived in the country in 2019, a number that fell to 229 in 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency due to the coronavirus. In the following years, very few people managed to escape North Korea compared to previous years: 63 in 2021 and 67 in 2022. In the second quarter of this year alone, arrivals have begun to increase — between January 1 and June 30, 99 people touched South Korean soil — according to official data, a situation that Seoul attributes to the relaxation of controls imposed by China.
Despite the slight improvement, the situation remains more challenging than before the pandemic. “The cost of the rescue has increased fivefold and costs about $20,000 [€18,100] per person,” says the priest. But he does not give up: “I know that the situation is dismal, but throughout my life I have experienced how the support of some people towards others can change the world.”
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