Almost every day, Tim Peters faces the same quandary: Should he highlight the life-and-death struggle of North Korean defectors, or fly under the radar as he bids to help them escape along the precarious “underground railway.”
In the end, the American pastor invariably manages to unite the two apparently opposing strategies.
It is a recurring dilemma that was captured in real-time by a South Korean television camera crew last year while they were working on a documentary. Set up at an airport in Vietnam, the team filmed an unwitting Reverend Peters as he was shepherding a group of North Koreans to the penultimate stop on their journey along the railway – a byword for escape routes through China to countries that permit safe passage out – before arriving at the promised land of South Korea.
“I had no idea they were going to be there,” he recalled last summer, describing the deep reservations he harbored of being included in the finished film so as not to arouse the suspicions of China, North Korea's closest ally and a country that treats undocumented North Koreans as economic migrants, not refugees. “Fortunately, I am not shown in China but in Vietnam. Hopefully, China won’t take too much notice.”
It is perhaps this sort of dedication that appeals to the eclectic group of activists and other interested parties who gather for weekly meetings in the South Korean capital under the umbrella of Peters’ organization, Helping Hands Korea, based in Seoul, the South's capital.
Metaphorically known as the “Seoul catacombs,” the group acts as ““a looking glass onto the North Korean refugee situation,” says Peters, who frames himself as a Christian activist in the struggle to free North Koreans. “We have had all types of people walk through the doors – ambassadors, teachers, foreigners, Koreans. It’s quite cyclical, and every year the faces seem to change as people come and go.”
Peters’ involvement in Korea dates to 1975, when he arrived as a missionary from his hometown of Benton Harbor, Mich. In 1990 he established Helping Hands Korea, with an initial focus on only South Korea. Then came the cataclysmic period of the mid-1990s in North Korea.
“In 1995, early 1996, news began surfacing about the famine,” he says emphatically. “For the first time in my life in Korea, it was clear as can be to help North Korean people in crisis.”
The work of the group has since followed a bumpy road, Peters explains.
"The problem with helping inside North Korea was it was fraught with all kinds of challenges, frustrations, and lack of transparency. Every organization I ever heard of shared the same consternation – the lack of ability to monitor and the misuse and misdirection of humanitarian goods."
Some groups “just up and left," he says. “Probably the most high profile was Doctors Without Borders."
Peters, though, held firm. In the early days, Helping Hands Korea was focused on a "Ton-a-Month" aid package to North Korea, achieved largely through private donations, charity events, and a newsletter-driven fund-raising drive. Today, the organization focuses on helping “stateless children” in China, many of them the undocumented offspring of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers sold by human traffickers and later sent back to the North.
It also sends humanitarian aid to those who need it inside North Korea and enables North Korean refugees in Chinese territory, faced with the prospect of forced repatriation, to escape along the underground railway.
Lately, aiding defectors – particularly in the China-North Korea border region – has become fraught with a greater level of danger: Two activists were targeted in recent months in separate suspected attacks involving poison-tipped needles in Dandong and Yanji, towns on the Chinese side of the border. One died; the other escaped and survived. Many believe the incidents bore the handiwork of agents acting on behalf of the North Korean government.
More alert but undetered, Peters says the threat will do little to alter his work with defectors.
“I think that most of us [activists] try to abide by common-sense parameters of security and exercise caution whenever possible. I can't speak for everyone in the aid community, but I definitely claim in a very practical way the Biblical promises of protection,” he says, quoting a passage from the Bible that illustrates his faith.
Above all, Peters says the clandestine incidents point to progress in the fight to help defectors.
“As the old saying goes,” he says, “ ’It's the hit dog that howls.’ By that I mean that it seems increasingly clear that the sacrificial efforts of missionaries, aid workers, and human rights activists are having considerable impact in North Korea, and these clumsy responses, if nothing else, smack of desperation.”