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Helping N.K. refugees risking lives

Mike Kim also working on movie project on defectors

The sight of North Korean refugees near the North Korea-China border changed Mike Kim’s life.

Kim, then a financial planner, became an activist who risked his life to help North Koreans escape to freedom from 2003 to 2006.

A 34-year-old second-generation Korean-American, Kim led hundreds of North Koreans out of the repressive regime through the 10,000 kilometer “underground railroad” that runs from Pyongyang to Bangkok.

He is the author of “Escaping North Korea,” written based on his four-year experience of helping feed, shelter and free the North Korean refugees at the Chinese-North Korean border.

“I knew about the oppression in North Korea, and the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to China in search of food and freedom, but never in my life time had I heard of the term before,” Kim told The Korea Herald via e-mail.

That year, Kim was on his two-week trip given as a reward for generating the most revenue in his financial planning business in Chicago. But a year after returning, he abandoned his career and took a one-way flight to the border.

He did not know exactly what he would do, but was determined to do something that would not have had him “in regrets for the rest of life.”

On the North Korea-China border, even feeding or sheltering North Koreans may lead to imprisonment or a fine.

The hardest thing was approaching the world’s most sequestered people, who thought of Kim Jung-il as infallible, and who were taught to hate Americans. However, Kim was determined to do something, even if it was small, that could change their stubborn beliefs.

One of the most harrowing experiences was when he was detained and interrogated at gunpoint by the North Korean agents and the Chinese security officers in Laos, and another when he was put under house arrest for a couple of days. At that time, what worried him the most was the documented cases of North Korean assassins killing or abducting foreign workers at the border.

“I would try not to think about it too much because I didn’t think it was healthy to live in constant fear,” he said.

His name is on North Korea’s wanted list
Mike Kim talks about his experience of helping North Korean refugees to freedom at a book store in the U.S. (Mike Kim)
Mike Kim talks about his experience of helping North Korean refugees to freedom at a book store in the U.S. (Mike Kim)

At times danger felt remote, but Kim recalls these moments as more painful due to friendships he made under false pretences. In order to give a credible reason for his sojourn near the China-North Korea border, he attended a North Korean taekwondo gym run by two famous masters from Pyongyang, and even fought in competitions.

Kim did not take the trip completely alone. He could not have helped free the refugees out the underground escape route, without the help of his colleagues. When Kim was on his way to China in 2003, he had founded an NGO called Crossing Borders. They provided meals and medical assistance to many North Korean refugees.

While living at the China-North Korea border, he said that one of the most rewarding things was seeing transformation take place in the lives of North Koreans after they came into his shelters.

Crossing Borders has grown over the years, accomplishing great things, but they stopped the work of leading North Koreans to a third country through the underground railroad, and changed its policy toward helping North Koreans either stay in China or return to North Korea safely.

“It’s been fascinating to watch the growth of the organization as we set up more shelters, orphanages, and employ refugees through the social entrepreneurship program,” Kim said.

Though there are a wide variety of opinions, strategies, and policies on the subject of the North Korean crisis itself, there is absolutely no single strategy or policy to resolve it. Throughout the book, Kim deals with the magnitude of the task, which he thinks will require efforts at multiple levels, but mostly by sending North Koreans information in any way possible.

Kim and his colleagues of the organization not only focused on having refugees back in nutrition and providing sleeps, but also mostly on reading them books, letting them watch TV.

Though North Koreans’ opposition to the outer world looks adamant, it is increasingly clear that there are cracks in the North Korean system and that is only a matter of time before the wall will come tumbling down, he asserted.

The response to his book in the U.S. was phenomenal. The book was immediately picked up by many of the major media groups such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio.

Soon came an offer from a movie agent. Hollywood showed interest in turning his book into a movie. Eventually William Morris Endeavor picked up the project.

“There have been documentaries done on North Korea, but there has not yet been a mainstream Hollywood movie. And given the current interest in North Korea in the international community, we see the opportunity to do that with this film,” he said.

These days, a number of factors have made it increasingly difficult for North Koreans to defect. The Pyongyang regime is tightening its grip on residents, taking particularly harsh measures against defection. Refugees are now being punished with longer and more severe sentences.

A tough challenge for aspiring defectors is that Chinese villagers are more hesitant to help North Korean refugees due to the Chinese government edict that it would fine and potentially arrest anyone guilty of feeding or housing a refugee. This order leads to an increasing number of thefts and assaults by North Korean defectors against Chinese people.

To date, an estimated 400,000 North Koreans have entered China illegally. This number is unlikely to decrease as China shows zero tolerance toward illegal entrants from North Korea. According to Kim, North Korean escapees are lucky to make it down to South Korea, where much hospitality is given to them.

“More than me changing the lives of the North Koreans, they have changed me, I have true admiration for North Korean refugees for all they’ve been through and the survivors that they are,” Kim writes at the end of the book.

“They’ve taught me to be thankful for what I have and have showed me that when life gets tough you can keep on going. I’ve often thought, if the North Koreans can overcome the mountains in their lives, I can make it over this next hill of mine.”

Currently, Kim does a mix of things and is unofficially involved in Crossing Borders. He’s a management consultant and spends most of his time working on the escaping North Korea movie project.

Due to his name being on North Korea’s list, he said he is looking for his next “North Korea,” for example Africa or the Middle East, with the same goal of tackling refugee and poverty issues, or possibly helping sex-trafficking victims in Southeast Asia.

By Hwang Jurie (