On a winter's day in late 1998, Kim Myong Suk, 20, lay shivering and weak from hunger on the cold concrete floor of a cell in a prison camp in North Korea, not far from the Chinese border. She was five months pregnant and was about to lose her unborn child. Of all the horrors she recalls from that day, she says, two stand out. One is that her sister, who lived in a nearby town, had been brought in to watch what was about to happen to her. The other is the name of North Korean guard, the man who she says killed her unborn child: Hwang Myong Dong. It is not a name, she says, "that I'll ever be able to forget.''
Hwang, Kim says, referred repeatedly to the baby as "the Chink," because the father was a peasant from northeastern China, where Kim had fled earlier that year. As she lay on the prison floor, Hwang demanded that she abort the fetus herself. She refused, so the guard began kicking her in the stomach. Then he beat her and, as her sister screamed, continued beating Kim until she blacked out. When she regained consciousness, she says, she "was taken to a clinic in the camp, and in the most blunt manner, they removed [the fetus] from my body."
Eight years later, the memory of those traumas aren't far from her mind as Kim moves briskly through the streets of a town not far from Bangkok. It's just before dawn, the daily chaos of noise and traffic still hours away. Kim (a pseudonym she used to protect her family in North Korea) is about to meet, for the first time, the men responsible for saving her life. One is Kim Sang Hun, a lay Christian from Seoul. The other is the Rev. Tim Peters, a soft-spoken evangelical Christian pastor from Benton Harbor, Mich., who runs the Seoul-based charity Helping Hands Korea. More than any other Westerner, Peters has become the public face of a network of activists, many motivated by their Christian faith, who have devoted their lives to helping North Koreans, including many living illegally in China, escape to freedom in South Korea. He and others in the network compare it to the Underground Railroad, which took African-American slaves from the South to freedom in the North. The activists are convinced that their cause is as urgent as the abolitionists' was. "When we look back at this era, at what North Korea has done to its people, I'm convinced the civilized world will be shocked and also shamed," Peters says. "In the meantime, we do what we can."