Interview: Teaming up with operatives in China, Tim Peters has saved over 1,000 North Korean lives
By Park Han-sol
The Korea Times (08.01.2022) – https://bit.ly/3K2SxeW – (…) For more than a decade, DL Gallery, with its humble and modest look, has been the unofficial headquarters for Helping Hands Korea (HHK) ― a Christian NGO founded by American humanitarian worker Tim Peters in 1996 to help North Koreans who fled their country for food and freedom. The group helped well over 1,000 North Koreans safely reach third countries after they risked their lives crossing the China-North Korea border.
Peters calls it a “war room” ― a covert, symbolic place where complex strategies are conceived for escapees’ rescue operations from the Sino-North Korean border to neighboring Southeast Asian nations.
The American activist is part of a massive network of clandestine operatives ― consisting of missionaries, aid workers, ethnic Korean-Chinese and brokers ― that guide the refugees throughout the treacherous journey to life in another country.
Based in Seoul, he remains behind the scenes during these secret missions. As a remote coordinator, he first shortlists the small number of refugees who will be joining the upcoming rescue operations. Based on their degree of vulnerability, the majority of them are women with children, people with disabilities and those, for the most part, don’t have connections or relatives in South Korea.
Once the mission begins and field operatives are on the move, Peters maintains close real-time communications with them to track their progress and provide any urgent logistical and financial support that is needed throughout the journey.
“We’re moving and moving, this is like a military operation,” Peters recently told The Korea Times at the gallery, in between sips of hot tea.
From the Chinese-North Korean border region, the escapees, led by seasoned field operatives, travel clandestinely across mainland China to southern Yunnan province. Then, hours of hiking difficult mountainous terrain to cross the border between China and Laos awaits. It is generally considered safe for the refugees after they manage to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. After getting processed, they can finally be flown to Korea, this time, on its southern side.
While each operation typically takes less than a month to complete, its carefully strategized routes require constant updates and revisions, as unforeseeable situations regarding border security can arise at any time.
When he was younger, the now 71-year-old activist at times went out to the field himself to meet the North Koreans and help them operate safe houses in China. He took part in missions within Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
“But helping them travel, I mean, somebody who looks like I do ― a Westerner, a Caucasian ― is usually not a help,” he said. There were some close calls, such as the time he was questioned by the Chinese police, but he managed to avoid detention.
“I’m very fortunate in that way, compared to a lot of my colleagues,” he recalled. The less fortunate missionaries and aid workers are sometimes detained and arrested by the police, banned from entry into China, and even allegedly killed by suspected North Korean agents. In the case of Kim Chang-hwan, who was killed by poison in 2011, and Han Choong-ryul, who was found with fatal stab wounds in 2016, both were pastors who assisted defectors in China.
Emphasizing that in most operations, there are “several layers of the onion” between himself and the North Korean escapees, he attributed their successes to the hard work of field agents, who are often risking their lives.
“So much credit goes to the individuals that we work with. I’m really grateful for them, their courage, their bravery and their skill. And some of the tactics involved, it’s quite amazing,” he said, stopping short of sharing too many details due to the sensitive nature of the work.
He refers to this complex network of passages and safe houses as an East Asian version of the “Underground Railroad” ― clandestine routes established in the United States during the Civil War era, where Black slaves in the South were assisted to safety in the free northern states and Canada.
He sees a fitting comparison between that historical endeavor and HHK’s own operation, in terms of the covert systematic organization and spirit in search for human freedom.
Peters is a veteran humanitarian worker.
It was 1975 when a young Peters first set foot on South Korean soil. At the age of 25, he had already traveled far outside of his hometown in Michigan to Argentina and Venezuela as a novice evangelical Christian missionary. But little did he know then that a new chapter of his life would begin in Korea.
“There’s absolutely no question that my original interest in coming to Korea was related to my faith and wanting to share it,” he said.
Although his initial stay in the country lasted only months, it was long enough for him to fall in love with Sun-mi, a devout Christian.
Before long, the newlyweds began dedicating their lives as traveling missionaries. The two lived and volunteered across a few island territories, including American Samoa, where they spent over three years helping Korean tuna fishermen who were seen as intruders by the locals and were the target of harsh treatment and stigma.
They returned to Seoul 13 years later in 1988, then again in 1996. But by then, a drastic transformation had begun to take place in the focus and the modus operandi of the couple’s religious mission. They were now bracing themselves to tackle a very different animal from before ― North Korea.
“Much up until this point, my time in Korea was more related to traditional mission work and emphasizing Bible studies and things like that,” the activist said. But the news reports that started coming out into the open in the mid-’90s about the North’s unprecedented food shortages were what turned his eyes across the border.
Also bitterly referred to as the “Arduous March,” the great famine of North Korea was the complex result of the visible decline in agricultural production, economic mismanagement under the new rule of Kim Jong-il and the demise of the regime’s patron state, the Soviet Union. From 1994 to 1998, as many as 3 million people are believed to have perished.
Mass starvation would have been “the absolute opposite of the growing prosperity of South Korea,” where Peters was based. If he were going to continue his Christian aid work, it was time to turn toward the most vulnerable. “I thought maybe a new door was opening for us.”
In 1996, Tim and Sun-mi Peters co-founded HHK to explore the uncharted paths of helping North Koreans in crisis, even if that meant traversing legal gray areas and running the risk of detention or arrest.
What they called the “Ton-a-Month Club” was the very start of its operation. They organized regular fundraisers to purchase dire necessities, such as flour and corn for the famine victims, and set up their own delivery system to insert aid directly into North Korea.
Over the years, HHK explored new iterations of the food aid project by widening the range of items delivered to include medicine, multivitamins, makeshift “nurungji” (scorched rice) that can easily be turned into rice porridge when boiled with minimum heating, and most recently, hundreds of repackaged bags of vegetable seeds as one can see in DL Gallery today.
In fact, every Tuesday evening, the gallery turns into a meeting place of volunteers from all walks of life who gather to package seeds for their discreet transport into the North for the malnourished.
But regardless of the types of items, the goal was to bypass North Korean authorities and deliver the seeds directly to the North’s most impoverished. “I knew that food distribution in North Korea would be along the lines of loyalty” to the state, Peters said, referring to the “songbun” caste system, according to which North Korea’s society is structured.
Among the three main classifications, the “hostile class” that received the least amount of state support tended to reside in the northern outskirts: North Hamgyong, Ryanggang and Jagang provinces.
“North Hamgyong, for example, is called the ‘Siberia of North Korea,’ not only because it’s so bitterly cold, but because, like the former Soviet Union, that’s where political miscreants, people who voice their criticism of the government and Christians would be banished.”
The uneven food distribution meant that Peters had to search actively for “unofficial, alternative” delivery routes to smuggle goods in. He and Sun-mi had to travel to the Sino-North Korean border region.
During their trips to Yanbian prefecture in Jilin and Liaoning province, they began to forge partnerships with members of the ethnic Korean-Chinese community, many of whom have relatives in North Korea and subsequently would be able to establish contacts with them, to serve as smugglers across the porous border.
But as their trips continued, it soon became evident that smuggling food alone wasn’t enough to fully address the needs of the famine victims.
“In the process of finding new and innovative ways to send the food in, we began to realize there’s a whole other layer to this ― and that’s people coming out,” he said. The late 1990s was when the aid workers and missionaries began witnessing more and more people crossing the Tumen and Yalu rivers along the border out of desperation.
One group was “kkotjebi,” or vagrant street children, often orphans. The nickname, which translates to “flower swallows,” was given to these stunted children who would go from garbage can to garbage can to scavenge for food behind restaurants, the way swallows travel between flowers.
Another tragic case involved women, the majority of whom fell victim to human or sex trafficking. As undocumented foreigners without recourse, they were unable to report their situations to the police. This made them an easy target for traffickers to sell off as prostitutes or mail-order brides to older Chinese (or ethnic Korean-Chinese) peasants, typically in the border regions that suffer from severe gender imbalance and inequality.
Their lives were often far from being happily-ever-after tales. Cases of physical abuse were frequent. Their husbands can “just be completely unreliable or a gambler, that’s a common thing,” he said. “Some would have maybe promised that they would give the woman money to send back to her family, but then often, that wouldn’t happen.”
Against this backdrop of the destruction of family units and human rights violations, HHK’s participation in “Underground Railroad” operations began to take shape.
Through these missions, the NGO continues to help hundreds of refugees journey to freedom to this day.
Pandemic-led discovery in NGO’s operations
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hitting the two-year mark, HHK has certainly been no exception in terms of the need to adapt its operations to the new reality ― perhaps even more so than other human rights agencies, as its underground network of safe houses and agents naturally hinges on even the slightest changes in border security in North Korea and China.
Smuggling vegetable seeds into the North is one project that has been inevitably hit hard by the spread of the virus. The reclusive regime was one of the first countries to seal its borders at the start of the pandemic, and it remains on high alert over the recent wave of the Omicron variant.
“We are getting some through when we can, but because North Korea has kept its border closed for virtually two years, it’s been a real challenge,” he said.
But at the same time, much to Peters’ surprise, the pandemic was precisely what brought certain key discoveries to light which the organization had not come across before.
One was the rising number of people with disabilities who previously managed to escape their home country on their own ― where medical and social protection mechanisms are still lacking and strong stigma remains in place, according to Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ― and amidst the COVID-19 crisis, were now crying out for help in China’s border region.
When Chinese public health officials began to randomly check restaurants, factories and farms nationwide, the activist stated, they began to expose the illegal status of these disabled North Koreans who had gone into hiding in such places to survive.
Even if the officials were making visits to simply check their temperatures, refugees, many of whose Chinese language proficiency is limited, “were dreading any questions… terrified that they would be reported and detained.”
In addition to these random governmental field inspections, North Korean escapees were further left vulnerable as a number of aid workers and humanitarian organizations in the region providing protection or resources began to withdraw en masse for safety reasons.
“That meant that distress calls started coming faster, at least to us,” Peters said. “It was really desperate. And so long as our partners in China were willing to keep going, we decided to respond to this accelerated number of calls.”
As a result, HHK became aware of a series of previously undetected profiles of North Korean escapees in the border regions: polio victims, people who became physically disabled after industrial or mining accidents, children with autism or Down’s syndrome and grandparents accompanied by their young grandchildren.
The case of grandmother Lee, whose full name cannot be disclosed, and her grandson, was one of them.
Following her daughter-in-law’s death in 2014 and her son’s subsequent disappearance after his defection to China, the task of raising the young boy suddenly fell on Lee’s shoulders ― a financial burden that inevitably proved to be too much for an impoverished senior citizen in North Korea like her. The two decided to cross the border to China in 2019, and Lee soon found a job at a charcoal factory.
However, when the pandemic struck China, the factory management required all employees to bring proof of a negative test result.
“I couldn’t get the test as a North Korean defector for the simple reason that I have no official identification papers and I would be revealed as an illegal foreigner,” she wrote in her plea for help, which reached the hands of the operatives through the help of a Korean missionary there. “My grandson and I are hiding. I want to take my grandson to Korea.”
Fortunately, just weeks after their call for help, the two became one of the latest escapees whom Peters’ organization was able to safely assist out of China.
“I’ll say that what happened [in 2020] was nothing short of miraculous. We had more evacuations of refugees [that] year than any other single year,” Peters said.
But of course, this recent upsurge in the number of particularly vulnerable individuals who would rather undertake the perilous journey to freedom than to eke out a living in their home country is also a stark indicator of how serious things are getting in the apparently already-starving nation.
“It’s surprising to see that even people in their 60s and sometimes 70s have felt such desperation that they figured that they’re going to take the risk to go to China,” the activist stated. It could be a sign of yet another simmering socioeconomic shift in North Korean society that is beginning to materialize in the country’s long-neglected northeastern provinces.
Against this backdrop, in Peters’ eyes, there still remains so much to be done ― both a statement and a plea he has made time and time again.
“I’ve found plenty to keep me busy for 25 years. This is something that more people need to be doing,” he said.
“One function I’m playing just as a small NGO is that I’m bringing the escapees here and putting them on the doorsteps of the local church or local civil society… so that they can see, here’s a flesh-and-blood individual and oh my gosh, look at what they’ve been through.”
Photo credits: Courtesy of Tim Peters