On July 4, 2003, four young N. Korean refugees gained their independence upon entering a foreign consulate in China. At one point, Chinese police tried dragging the four teenagers out of a building in order to arrest and deport them back to North Korea. The refugees cried, tearfully yelled out that the media were watching, and ultimately struggled free.
Staff members of The Chosun Journal spoke with the shaken but exuberant N. Koreans as soon as they were inside the consulate. They thanked us and testified that it was our prayers that protected them.
The rescue of these four N. Koreans began on May 12, 2003 with a realization. If one million deaths is merely a statistic but one death a tragedy, as Stalin insightfully observed, then the Talmud’s verse should equally hold true. That is, “he who saves one life saves the world entire.”
In the face of the depressing situation that is North Korea – 200,000 family members dying in concentration camps; 2 million dead by government-induced starvation in the last decade alone; thousands of refugee women brutally sex trafficked in China – why not concentrate people’s focus on saving one person rather than just on the paralyzing task of addressing such hopeless statistics?
So we contacted a person in China who providentially knew two young, female refugees desiring escape. Their host families who had been hiding them were increasingly on edge. One of the refugees was nearly arrested a week before in a raid that was part of China’s Strike Hard campaign. Refugees who come into contact with S. Korean missionaries are imprisoned, tortured and often executed in N. Korea as enemies of the state.
In response to one of our first questions, even if these refugees could be provided another safe haven within China, they wanted to leave. “Freedom. That is why we want to get away. Even if we have food and shelter here, every day we are in fear of being found out, of being deported. We want to be free from fear,” one of the refugees said. Another refugee added, “And we want to be free to live our own lives. Every day we must do as we’re told because our life is always on the line. We have no choices. It’s too suffocating.”
So we – a small number of Americans from Orange County whose closest experience to rescue had been reading the Bible and watching Schindler’s List – decided to commence Operation: God’s Sparrows. The name was derived from a combination of two observations. First, orphaned N. Korean refugees hiding in China are often referred to as “swallows”. Second, we took hope in the words of Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father”.
Unexpectedly, when our contact arrived to debrief the young girls on the rescue plan, their host family asked that we rescue two more. Apparently these two boys were in greater peril of being found out and thus could not leave their rooms at all. They were virtually prisoners. (And they weren’t alone. The host family informed us of a waiting list of dozens of others similarly situated.) Though our budget was only enough for two, we agreed to get these boys, to quote a line from Saving Private Ryan, the hell out of there.
On June 28, 2003, we held a North Korean human rights event at Orange Korean Church in Fullerton, California, and raised enough support to effect the rescue attempt. Incidentally I will never forget the emotional impact of seeing about a hundred people fervently lifting up prayers for the rescue of an orphan whom they had never met. They had stormed the gates of hell and they by God have prevailed.
D-Day, of all days the 4th of July, was surreal. Waiting without any contact for so many hours was like mission control waiting for the first words from the astronauts who had just entered the dark side of the moon. Receiving the phone call, “They’re safe”. The courage of the contact who risked imprisonment. Hearing about the struggle with the Chinese police. Receiving the gratitude of the sparrows now free. It’s all been too amazing.
We’ve participated in something very meaningful. It’s true. Saving one life does feel like saving the world entire. But this is only the beginning.
In this endeavor, we especially thank:City on a Hill
Helping Hands Korea
Faith Community CRC
Orange Korean Church
Purchasers of CJ T-shirts
and the June 28 NK prayer rally participants.Without each of you, this rescue would not have been possible.