On Christmas day 2009, a young Korean American missionary by the name of Robert Park walked across the frozen Tumen river from China into North Korea carrying a letter to Kim Jong-il. Seems he wanted to draw attention to North Korea’s tens of thousands of political prisoners.
He has done that. But what a way to raise awareness.
Reading about Robert Park brought Si-un to my mind. Michele Rickett and I heard her story while we were interviewing people for our newly released book Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage. Except that Si-un was already in North Korea and she desperately wanted out.
Si-un could see China across the river. Whispered rumors said that people didn’t freeze over there, or starve. Over there, children not only survived but actually grew fat! But how could Si-un sneak across the river? She couldn’t swim!
After a more bitter winter than anyone could remember, after her mother died, Si-un decided she had nothing left to lose. Why not risk an escape? When she dared whisper this to her father, he did not object.
With spring’s thaw, Si-un could look across the river and see people on the other side. So tantalizingly close! At sunset, people on the North Korean side began to mill around behind bushes and small trees. Guards on the bank aimed their rifles at the river and waited. Every hour or so a shot rang out. Si-un could never get across! Unless… if she waited for the river to freeze again, perhaps she could slide across.
As winter returned, Si-un visited the river again and again, assessing every detail. One bitterly cold day the village buzzed with the news that a young man had skated across. That evening, Si-un sat with her father while he drank tea. She thanked him for providing her with an honorable family and said she would try always to be an honorable daughter. She kissed him goodnight, then she slipped away to the river.
Si-un watched for her chance. Then she made a running start, dove onto her stomach, and skittered across the frozen river like a spider, sliding and pushing herself. Not one shot was fired. Only a few voices, asking, “Did you see something out there?”
On the Chinese side, Si-un walked for two days before she saw the first little houses. But she remembered the whispered warning: Don’t stop unless you see a cross. She saw no cross, so she kept walking. On the third day, barely able to stumble on, Si-un came upon a small village. And right before her eyes, a man was raising a cross to its top.
When she called out, the man cautioned in broken Korean, “Quiet, quiet!” But he gave her shelter. And a kindly woman brought her food. Si-un was secreted away to a remote village where her Korean voice wasn’t so likely to be heard and she could be safe from the Chinese authorities. A village of men and a few old women, it was. No children, Si-un thought. What a sad place…
It took Si-un months to learn enough Chinese to converse. But she settled into a new life, found a husband, and had a baby girl. Then one day Chinese officials came to the village, demanding to see papers. Si-un had none. What she did have was a Korean accent. One last hug for her family, then Si-un’s hands were tied behind her back and she was led away.
Robert Park was held in North Korea for 43 days, then he was returned to the U.S.–thin, pale, and looking anything but triumphant.
Si-un simply disappeared. No trace.
The South Korean government estimates North Korea holds 154,000 political prisoners in six camps across the country. North Korea is considered the country with the world’s worst human rights records. It’s officials deny the existence of prison camps.
Tell that to Robert Park.
Or to Si-un.
“Pray for peace with a just resolution.”
Glenn Myers, Operation World