September 26, 2003. Steve Kim was arrested on this day for helping illegal migrants - North Korean refugees - in China. With bound hands and heavy chains on his feet, he was escorted into a detention center in north-eastern China. Kim, a Korean American businessman from Long Island, New York was living in China for several years as a businessman and exporter of furniture to the U.S.
It was years before his arrest that he was instantly drawn into the underground railroad of supporters of North Korean refugees in China after meeting some of them and hearing their desperate stories firsthand in his house church in Shenzhen. He said he couldn't turn away after seeing their pained eyes.
Kim drew in his breath and for the first time since the police interrogation felt a wave of relief when he learned that several South Korean and Korean American pastors were in the same cell block as him. All were charged and imprisoned by the Chinese police for helping North Korean refugees, considered illegal migrants, in China, but were not sentenced yet. For years, Kim says there's been a steady succession of pastors and missionaries from South Korea and North America cycling through this very detention center for helping North Koreans who had escaped to China by crossing the Tumen river that divides North Korea and China in search of food and respite from the totalitarian regime.
Kim recalls, "Every cell, from cell 1 to 6, had a veteran Korean pastor. They were helping North Korean refugees and arrested like me. I was pastor of cell number 1. There was a pastor in the women's prison in cell 3. She was a pastor's wife and leader of the women's congregation. Another pastor was in cell number 4; and pastor Park in cell number 6.
Unless the pastors were in the same cell as Kim, they didn't get a chance to talk face to face, but could only speak with one another through the walls. The sound of worship singing wafting through the walls also lifted one another's spirits. "All of a sudden, I heard coming from another cell prisoners singing hymns. I ran to the window and tried to hear the songs. They started worship at 7:30am. They heard our singing and decided to do the same thing," he recalls, "We worshipped every morning. If we sang with Chinese people others watched us. We folded our bed, then read the bible and prayed and worshipped." Most of these pastors were re-arrested and despite the risks, says Kim, continued on in their work with North Korean refugees.
Planting churches in Prison
After 7 months at the detention center, Kim was sentenced to five years in prison under Article 318 of the Chinese penal code for helping illegal North Korean migrants and harbouring them in his home. "No one expected a long sentence for the first offense. That was the longest sentence ever given. I was so upset. I lost all my strength in my legs and almost collapsed in court. After two hours I recovered," said Kim of the moment in court when the sentence was issued by the Chinese judge. "I realized wow I'll be in prison for five years. I have to make another plan. I thought I was going home (to America) and it could be very easy. But God had a different plan."
Eventually, a peace overrode the panic and settled over Kim as he rode the train for 36 hours on a crude wooden bench, shackled with other prisoners, to a jail with 3,800 felons in another city in north-eastern China. "God's peace and thankfulness came upon me. The living God revealed himself to me during the whole period in prison. He became the power for me to win over all the troubles I had experienced," he said, with a half crescent smile on his round freckled face that revealed crooked teeth.
From nearly the start, Kim's four year stint in jail had a 'Heavenly Man' kind of imprint with several unusual and timely interventions that profoundly marked him. He could barely lead a Bible study or recite a full hymn when he first entered prison. He still had a self-sufficient air of an efficient business administrator. In that first week, a young fellow North Korean prisoner handed him a Bible, instructing him to read it cover-to-cover. Kim recounts, "This boy said, If you want to go home, you must read the Bible 10 times." Kim managed to do that in the first year and read the entire Bible for the first time in 19 days. "It wasn't easy. Prison prohibits religious acts. We're not allowed to have a Bible. The leader of the room tried to stop me from reading the Bible. He tried to force me to close the book, he cursed and threatened me," Kim said. "My other enemy was the wooden floor when I tried to read. I sat down all day and my ankle was swollen and in great pain."
Then a few months later, Kim's wife begins to send him money every month allowing him to buy extra food in addition to the prison meals, and mails him several books including Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. "This book touched my heart and my life throughout the prison term. I read it numerous times; led a group of inmates to study this book, and used it as an evangelism tool," said Kim who read 50 books by the time he left prison and copied the Bible by hand several times.
Through his business skills in efficient planning and can-do spirit, Kim organized an underground church in the prison, meeting mostly in the toilet and shower areas to sing quietly and study the Bible with at least two other North Korean inmates at each gathering. The North Koreans began to confide in Kim and saw him as their father figure. "Another person who was part of our morning prayer confessed that he was so hungry on the field while working at a tobacco field. He received half of the wages of the average worker and was so angry he killed the owner's cow and ate some of the meat," Kim said. Another pair of young North Korean men was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing ginseng roots. "They saw their family living in poverty and wanted to make some money. They brought a bag of rice that lasted a week. When they finished the rice, there was nothing. They saw other boys and men in their village who lived well and learned they stole ginseng roots in China. They wanted to do it too. During their first trip into China they were arrested," Kim said. The Chinese ginseng farmers were angry because their fields were looted continuously. Another person stole a motorcycle. Another came to prison because he stole a mobile phone. "They were so desperate and no one helped them and they didn't know what to do and wanted to eat. Another reason, they crossed the river and asked the Chinese for help. The Chinese took advantage and hired them as slave labor," Kim explains. "They do not receive full wages and wait and wait and after they are not paid, they attack the boss. Their state of mind is desperation and the Chinese government tries to arrest and repatriate them back to North Korea. They do not want to be sent back so they try to protect themselves and become violent."
After a month of regular meetings, the pair of North Korean men, imprisoned for stealing ginseng, received salvation after Kim shared the gospel message. They were soon transferred to another prison but Kim learned of their evangelism work there when they sent other North Korean Christians to him who were new to Kim's prison. Through cleaning the floors and taking on the tasks that no other prisoner wanted to do, and offering his meals to others while fasting, Kim prayed others would see Christ in him. "In jail, food was so precious. In some ways the other inmates were happy because they can have more food. But they asked, Why is this guy not eating? They asked, if you don't eat does God answer you more quickly?"
His acts of kindness opened up opportunities for him to pray for others and brought the believers together. "Later I found 100 North Korean prisoners. They looked for me and came to my group for help. Sometimes I gave them a Bible, some handwritten Bibles, or books (I had 50 books) and food. Some of my students evangelized others in prison. They would ask me to send more Bibles. Word is spreading to every unit. My prayer team became evangelists," Kim said. "I was forced into isolation and forbid me from mingling with North Koreans. I lent the North Koreans books but once they left my room, they were taken into isolation."
Kim communicated with the other believers by inserting notes in the books. He distributed vitamins and food to the others in his church. "I asked them to deliver the food to cell #2, 6 etc. Sometimes they bought food for me and that's how we had fellowship without seeing each other," said Kim. "During the spring time, summer time, we were allowed to go out once a month for exercise. When we were lucky, we could do exercises at the same court and see their face."
Many prisoners spied on him and his expanding Christian activities. The most harrowing times in the prison for Kim were not instigated by the other inmates, but by a fellow Korean pastor. "Pastor Park became my enemy because of a conflict between him and two North Korean men. I approached him to reconcile. "We're Koreans, you're a pastor and we're brothers. Let's get together. He hugged me and blessed me. A few days later, he changed again and he got worse and worse. I supported him and helped him buy medicine. Whatever he needed like telephone cards and food, I supported him. But he still spied on me," said Kim. One day this pastor was found preparing a weapon to kill Kim. "We were in the same room. We were allowed can goods. He sharpened the top of the can in the same room to kill me. He cursed me and said he wants to kill me. He became a different person full of evil," said Kim, adding that he was fearful because his inmate friend lost his eye after a cell mate poked him with a pencil.
Kim reported this pastor's actions to the warden and he was sent to isolation. Then Kim was isolated for two months. "I learned how to pray while jogging. Even by myself I was full of joy and prayed to the Lord. I met another prisoner who was isolated like me. He looked Chinese. We could meet at that time and I learned he was Korean Chinese and could speak Korean. I shared about Jesus with him. He received Christ," said Kim. "I was transferred to another prison because of my Christian activities. They couldn't stop me."
Post-Prison: Rescuing trafficked women
After more than 4 years in prison, 600 pages of journal writing and memos, and reading 50 books and the Bible from cover to cover more than a dozen times, Kim was released from prison at last. He reunited with his wife and two sons and daughter and criss-crossed the United States giving talks on his experience in a Chinese prison and the plight of North Koreans. He started his U.S.-based non-profit organization 318 Partners to rescue North Korean refugees, support North Korean orphans and the underground church inside North Korea. "The orphans are sometimes raised by their grandma. During the famine period (in the last decade), they lost parents, they belonged no where and were wandering in the markets. These street kids or orphans crossed the Tumen river and became street children in other Chinese cities looking for food," said Kim. He says there are at least 37 churches that he knows of inside the regime. "Churches are small at least four or no more than five people. They have their own worship. We want them to have a job. The North Korean government is no longer giving food rations. They have to support themselves," said Kim. "We try to help them to live in their society as a Christian."
Since 2008, Kim, now 64, has helped rescue dozens of trafficked North Korean women, many were sold to work for Internet pornography websites targeted at men in South Korea. One woman he helped was sold six times. "One man bought her for 600 Rmb and slept with her for 3 or 4 months. Then he sold her to another man for profit for 1000 Rmb. Several months later, she was sold again. She was crying, weeping as she told us," he said with a pained look on his face. "She became a commodity. It's terrible." He helped a 17-year-old refugee escape from her Chinese farmer husband who had purchased her from a North Korean broker. This teenager's parents had died and her uncle didn't have enough food to feed her and his own children; she was forced to cross over into China with an agent. By the time Kim met her, she had a 4-year-old daughter but had to leave her behind in order to flee to South Korea.
Kim's focus is shifting from helping trafficked North Korean women and human rights campaigning to supporting missions work inside the secretive country and providing orphans in North Korea shelter and daily food through mobilizing support from South Korean churches. "Some of these orphans under 10 years old have no strength to cross the (Tumen) river. One boy said he was 13 years old but looked 6 or 7 years old. He had so many scars on his head. The guards and North Korean guards hit them on the head. One boy was bleeding," said Kim. "We strongly believe in unification of North and South Koreans. The church is not a building but the people in the body of Christ. We have to build the body of Christ in North Korea," Kim said. "We can't wait now. Now I'm recruiting and mobilizing."
Information on Steve's 318 Partners Mission Foundation. He is distributing Christmas gifts to Christians in North Korea.