(by Melanie Kirkpatrick, OpinionJournal.com) – This being The Wall Street Journal, we went straight to the bottom line. How much, we asked our visitor at a recent editorial board meeting, does it cost to free one North Korean refugee hiding in China?

The Rev. Phillip Buck pauses a moment before replying, apparently making the yuan-to-dollar conversions on the abacus in his mind. “If I do it myself,” he says, “the cost is $800 per person. If I hire a broker to do it, it’s $1,500.”

Pastor Buck is a rescuer. It’s a job title that applies to a courageous few–mostly Americans and South Koreans and predominantly Christians–who operate the underground railroad that ferries North Korean refugees out of China to South Korea, and now, thanks to 2004 legislation, to the U.S. Mr. Buck, an American from Seattle, says he has rescued more than 100 refugees and helped support another 1,000 who are still on the run. For this “crime”–China’s policy is to hunt down and repatriate North Koreans–he spent 15 months in a Chinese prison. He was released in August.

The plight of the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China is a humanitarian crisis that has received scant world attention. It won’t be on the agenda of the six-party talks, which are scheduled to restart today in Beijing. But the experience of Pastor Buck and other rescuers is worth noting as negotiators sit down with Kim Jong Il’s emissaries. North Korea won’t change, they believe, so long as Kim remains in power. Follow that logic, and regime change is the proper goal.

The refugees, Pastor Buck argues, are the key to regime change in North Korea and, by inference, the key to halting the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Help one man or woman escape, he says, and that person will get word to his family back home about the freedom that awaits them on the outside. Others will follow, and the regime will implode. This is what happened in 1989, when Hungary refused to turn back East Germans fleeing to the West, thereby hastening the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Pastor Buck was born in North Korea in 1941 and fled with his brothers to the South during the Korean War. He emigrated to the U.S. in the ’80s, becoming a citizen in 1992. When famine hit North Korea in the late ’90s, and millions died, he raised relief funds in Korean churches in the U.S. “I helped send 150 tons of flour and rice to the North,” he says, “and 70 tons of fertilizer . . . This was a time when government rations had stopped and people were living off grass.”

But on visits to the North, he soon realized that the government was stealing the food intended for starving citizens. “I changed my mind” about the efficacy of aid, he says, and in 1998 he joined the effort to help people escape. “If you see someone who is drowning in the river, wouldn’t you reach out and help that person?” he asks. “That’s what was in my heart.”

Pastor Buck is nothing if not determined. In 2002, while in a Southeast Asian country with a group of refugees he had guided there, his apartment in Yanji city, in northeast China, was raided. Nineteen refugees were captured and a copy of his passport was confiscated. With his identity now compromised, Mr. Buck returned to the U.S. and underwent legal proceedings to change his name. John Yoon, the name he was born with, was dead; Phillip Buck was born.

The new Pastor Buck returned to China, where, on May 25, 2005, he was arrested and eventually convicted of the crime of helping illegal immigrants. Thanks to the intervention of the U.S. government, he was deported before he could be sentenced.

Another American, Steve Kim, was not so lucky. Mr. Kim, a furniture importer from Huntington, N.Y., has been in prison in China since September 2003, sentenced to five years for smuggling aliens. Mr. Kim, who, like Mr. Buck, is of Korean ancestry and is a Christian, became aware of the plight of the refugees during business trips to China. He funded two safe houses and paid for refugees’ passage on the underground railroad. Beijing refuses to grant him parole, saying foreigners are not eligible. His wife and three children will pass their fourth Christmas without him.

Mr. Buck, meanwhile, will celebrate Christmas at home in Seattle, along with four refugees, now settled in South Korea, whom he has invited to spend the holiday with him and his family. These refugees–two men and two women–have harrowing personal tales of starvation, death and repression in the North and desperate lives on the run in China.

One young man, who asks that his name not be used for fear of retribution on family members still at home, spent time in the North Korean gulag, after being captured in China and repatriated. He was tortured, he says–rolling up his trousers at a recent press conference in Washington, D.C. to display the scars on his legs.

One morning at roll call, he recounts, one of his cellmates, a man who had been badly beaten during the night, was too sick to get out of bed. The guards ordered the prisoners to carry the injured man into the woods and bury him. “I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the escapee says. The name of the dead man was Kim Young Jin. The name of the prison is Chong Jin. Says the man who escaped: “I am very glad to be here, and tell the people in America how life in North Korea really is.”

Pastor Buck spent last Christmas in jail. “My cellmates were criminals,” he says, “12 in all, murderers and rapists.” His diary entry for Dec. 24, 2005, notes that he distributed the chocolates his children had sent him as Christmas gifts to his cellmates. And this year? “I am so excited that I can celebrate this Christmas with lots of joy,” his diary entry for last Thursday reads.

His final words are for the refugees. “I pray, let the Christmas spirit be with those North Korean refugees still in China. Let them be safe too.”

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.

Copyright ©2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Posted at OpinionJournal.com on Dec. 18, 2006.   Reprinted here December 21st with permission from OpinionJournal.com.  Visit the website at OpinionJournal.com.


1.  List the facts you have learned about North Korea from Melanie Kirkpatrick’s commentary.

2.  Who is Pastor Buck?  Why did he alter the type of aid he was giving to North Koreans?  What do you think of his decision to change his name?

3.  Why do you think that “the plight of the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China…has received scant world attention?”

4.  What prayer does Pastor Buck make for the North Korean refugees still in China?

5.  How can this commentary be described as inspiring?