National Geographic : 2009 Feb
• And there they sat, days later, fidgeting. The guide had learned that Laos had tightened bor- der patrols in advance of a national holiday, and he decided it was too dicey to proceed. Like their Chinese counterparts, Laotian police and military are ordered to seize escaping North Koreans and deport them. While the group waited, Black caught up with them, jittery from his clandestine train trip across China. "I almost got caught," he told them. "When police came to check documents, I pretended I was drunk, ready to pass out, and they le me alone." News of the delay worried Chun. " ey ve reached the riskiest part of the journey, having to cross the Chinese border on foot and then traveling through Laos," he said as we stood by the Mekong. " ey probably have a 50 percent chance of making it to here." Chun s calling as a Good Samaritan came at age 40, when the former hotel manager sur- prised friends and family by joining a seminary. His activism was kindled in 1995 when, as a missionary in the Yanji region, he met his rst past. e minutes crawled. e exhausted group huddled near a pillar, wide-eyed at the commo- tion around them. Sensing that if the ve North Koreans stood outside much longer, an o cial would come up to question them, I invited them to wait in my hotel room. For the next few hours the North Koreans sat on a long sofa, avidly watching movies on the TV. "He s so handsome," one cooed about Tom Cruise, whom she d never heard of. ey savored Cokes from the minibar and shared the fruit. "I can t even imagine what will hap- pen next," White said, switching the channel. "I just want to get to South Korea; it seems so civilized and wealthy." She would t in, at least on the surface. She had changed into tight jeans (illegal in North Korea), high black boots, and a frilly blouse, topped o with a heart-shaped pendant around her neck. Red switched into flashier clothes too, but she appeared lost, wrapping her arms around herself as if to squeeze out fearful thoughts. She startled when asked about her plans. "Maybe learn English, take computer classes," she said hastily. No one was thinking that far ahead. Finally the guide called. The five grabbed their packs and hurried out. Seconds later there was a knock on the door. It was White. Laugh- ing, she handed back the TV remote. In his loose plaid shirt and khaki pants, Pastor Chun could have been any tourist watching the morning light glaze the brown surface of the Mekong River. Behind him a ai town woke with a buzz of motorcycle tra c and the call of vendors selling coconuts and fish. Across the river, in Laos, a few gures stirred near stilt houses poking up out of the dense weave of for- est. Chun had own into Bangkok from Seoul the night before and had come to the Mekong shore to meet White, Red, and the other defec- tors. But his charges were marooned in China, and all he could do now was look across the broad river and pray. A er picking them up at the Kunming hotel, Chun s guide had driven the group over moun- tain roads to a safe house near the Laos frontier. BANGKOK I Giving thanks, North Korean refugees waiting for papers that will allow them to immigrate to the U.S. gather for a holiday meal at a shelter run by the Durihana Mission. Durihana, a Seoul-based Christian organization, has arranged safe passage for more than 700 defectors in the past ten years, including individuals whose stories are told in this article.