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Since it’s Sunday, I thought it would be appropriate to write my first guest post about the courageous Christians in China who help North Koreans there. As I quickly learned when researching Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, the first survival tip many North Koreans hear when they flee to China is: Find a Christian. Or, as more than one North Korean refugee described to me, he is told: “Look for a building with a cross on it.”
Escape from North Korea chronicles the only good-news story out of North Korea: People are getting out. Almost all of them flee first to China, where they trade one circle of hell for another. China’s immoral policy is to track them down, arrest them and repatriate them. Since it’s a crime to leave North Korea without permission, the returnees are treated very harshly – thrown in to prison and sometimes even executed for such “crimes” as meeting an American missionary in China or plotting to go to South Korea.
In China, the North Korean who finds his way to a church is likely to be safer than one who doesn’t. It’s illegal to help a North Korean in China, but church people routinely dare defy the law and do so anyway. The sooner a refugee hooks up with the Christian network, the greater his chances of avoiding arrest and repatriation and of finding a way to disappear safely into Chinese society. If he wants to go to South Korea, church people can help him navigate his way to the underground railroad and obtain passage out of China. This is risky business. I know of a Chinese Christian—a pastor’s wife—who went to jail for two years because she bought train tickets for North Koreans. (Foreigners are at risk too. Steven Kim, a businessman from Long Island, spent four years in prison in China because he helped North Korean refugees.)
There are at least 70 million Christians in China today, or 5% of the population. That is nearly the same number of people who belong to the Communist Party. A top Party official felt it necessary to warn last year that Party members are required to be atheists: “Our party’s principled stand regarding forbidding members from believing in religions has not changed one iota,” he said.
It’s interesting to ponder whether the growth of Christianity in China has the potential to change that country in any essential way. Christianity is about the power of the individual. Surely that’s incompatible with Chinese Communism—or is it?