Asian Schindler saves thousands from sex trade

His nicknames hint at his choice of vocation – ‘the Asian Schindler’, the ‘James Bond pastor’, the ‘Godfather of North Korean defectors’.

Chun Ki-Won
Pastor Chun Ki-Won of the underground railroad speaks on a panel discussion of human rights abuses in China against North Korean refuges. (Photo Brad Washburn/FilmMagic)

His real name is Chun Ki-Won. A little less Hollywood perhaps, but the man is no less heroic.

Mr Chun is a 61-year-old South Korean pastor who risks life and limb to save North Korean defectors and girls trafficked to work in China's multi-million dollar sex trade. He finds safe haven for them in countries such as the UK, the US and South Korea.

To date, he has saved more than a thousand women by means worthy of any James Bond movie – he uses drones, knotted bedsheets to climb down hotel walls, jumps out of high-rise buildings and even surfs the dark web posing as a customer or smuggler.

"I've got no choice but to go onto the dark web and in the chatrooms and listen to their stories," he says.

"I pick the ones who are really desperate and need help. I negotiate with their bosses and pretend that I'm the girls' uncle or father and offer to buy her.

"Every day I receive faxes, calls and emails from people who want to be freed. I can't be indifferent to their plight."

Mr Chun's journey into the world of trafficking began in the nineties, when he went to North Korea on a business trip. His itinerary brought him close to the border between North Korea and China, where he stumbled across the body of a woman who had frozen to death trying to escape the brutal regime, something he was told was not uncommon.

In a nearby city, he saw some North Korean children being beaten by Chinese police for begging. Later that night, he saw a North Korean woman screaming as she was dragged down a street by a group of men. His Chinese guide explained that "whoever catches her first, can own her".

These experiences were a turning point for Mr Chun. "I prayed a lot to God to help me forget those memories," he says. "After I came back to South Korea I turned to Christianity, due to another personal motivation.

"I wondered what I could do to help North Koreans in China, and decided to publicise this issue. I created a website and uploaded what I saw, and the tragic stories. That was October 1999. Then I started receiving calls and emails from defectors. My first rescue operation was in 2000."

Mr Chun soon left his career as a hotelier and enrolled in a seminary. He became a pastor in 1992 and established the Durihana Church in Seoul to rescue, rehouse and educate North Koreans.

Part church, part Christian aid organisation, part reunification outreach and school, Mr Chun says it is the goal of Durihana, which means "two become one" to use the Gospel to reunite North and South Korea.

Nicknamed_the "Asian Schindler" after Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved the lives of more than 1200 Jews during the Holocaust, Mr Chun accepts the inherent danger of his work, which has attracted the unwelcome attention of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, who has labelled him "a cancer who should be eradicated".

In 2001, Mr Chun was arrested in China at the China-Mongolia border while helping a group of 12 North Korean defectors escape. He remained in prison for nine months and was finally released in 2002.

But the unassuming and well-groomed Mr Chun is undaunted, and says this is all part of God's plan.

He tells of a particularly harrowing rescue when he navigated his way from North Korea through China and then to Vietnam.

"I just headed for Beijing, and bought a map, to find a route to Vietnam and Cambodia. After we finished our journey, a South Korean government official didn't believe my story. He thought that I was lying, as we had just come through an impossible route. The border district between China and Vietnam was full of police officers and cobras. The route between Vietnam and Cambodia was a minefield.

"For common people it is luck, but for me, it was the grace of God. We used to try to preach the Gospel by dispatching American Christians, but not anymore. It is not impossible but difficult. I believe our number one ministry is rescue, which is saving human lives.

"Jesus came down to this earth *to heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, and restore man's relationship with our Heavenly Father. The only hope for our generation is the blood that Christ has shed for us on the cross."

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