A New Mexico church has joined forces with a South Korean Christian organization that helps North Koreans flee their country.
Santa Fe Pastor Ryan Ellsworth said his church, City of Faith Christian Fellowship, was looking for a worthy cause and decided it wanted to help North Koreans. He said many live in extreme poverty, often going hungry and living under constant fear of violence from their government. Ellsworth’s church is about five years old and has a congregation of approximately 100 people.
Ellsworth said he did some research and discovered the Durihana Mission, an underground railroad started by Pastor Chun Ki-won. Chun was in New Mexico in May to celebrate the opening of the U.S. branch of his mission in Santa Fe called Durihana USA. He brought with him several women who escaped their life in Korea.
Durihana is a Christian organization that helps North Koreans leave the country and get to safety in either South Korea or the United States, traveling by foot, bus, train and sometimes even rafts. Chun said many of the escapees cross the Tumen River into China.
However, China does not provide a safe haven for them, he said. Many of the women are tricked by the very people helping them cross the border and sold into the sex industry or as brides for Chinese men. They can also be arrested and deported back to North Korea, where they could be sentenced to a labor camp for several years.
Hana (not her Korean name), who is in her 20s, said through an interpreter that she was so close to the Chinese border while growing up in North Korea that she could hear dogs barking there. But escape was not that simple.
The first time she tried to cross over into China with her mother, the two were arrested and sentenced to 13 months in a North Korean prison.
The second time, she thought she was being smarter. She paid a broker to help her cross and evade authorities on both sides.
Once she arrived in China, she was betrayed.
Her broker sold her to a man to be his wife. Word eventually reached Chun and his group who helped her escape, but she had to leave behind a child she had during her marriage. It’s a memory that’s still fresh and she refuses to speak of it directly, instead relying on others in the group to tell that part of the story.
She now lives in the United States but fears her parents will be punished for her escape if it’s ever discovered so she won’t reveal where exactly she lives, her age or her real name.
Naomi, who now lives in Utah, was also tricked by the same scam as Hana. She was sold to three different men in rural China before finally escaping and making it to a larger city.
“I was in hiding so it was not really freedom,” she said. “I couldn’t really start working.”
It would be fate that helped her escape. One day she met an American man on the street and pleaded with him to help her leave China. He wrote a letter to Chun on her behalf and the group helped her come to America.
Both women said it was hunger and poverty that drove them to risk their lives and freedom to leave their home country.
Ellsworth said the immediate task of the Santa Fe branch will be raising awareness about the conditions in North Korea. The branch will also do some fundraising and he said eventually hopes to become a link in the underground railroad, helping North Koreans get settled in New Mexico or surrounding states.
“We want people in the U.S. to see what is going on,” he said. “If more and more people become aware, people will act.”
Chun said through a translator that he began his work 20 years ago, when he visited China and saw the dead body of a North Korean at the border. He also saw North Korean children begging in the street. He soon learned about the black market for North Korean women in the sex industry and was inspired to act.
“We need to raise our voices for them by spreading information,” he said through an interpreter. “They need their rights. It’s not just because we have compassion but because these are basic human rights everyone should have.”