NEW YORK — A pastor who has helped rescue North Koreans fleeing the country through an "underground railroad" was honored Tuesday night with the Civil Courage Prize.
The Rev. Phillip Jun Buck, originally from North Korea, accepted the $50,000 award at the Harold Pratt House where The Train Foundation recognized his "steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk."
Buck began his speech by thanking God and went on to describe the plight of North Korean refugees.
"I would like to receive this award on behalf of all North Korean refugees who have been killed or died because they have acted with an instinct to survive," said Buck, whose daughter, Grace Yoon Yi, translated for him.
The 66-year-old pastor said he would use the prize money toward helping underground churches in North Korea, North Korean orphans in China, and North Korean refugee women who are victims to human trafficking.
The relationship between Buck and North Korea runs deep.
The North Korean native was separated from his family during the Korean War and spent his childhood in an orphanage in South Korea. He received an education and even a college degree through the support of an elderly Christian woman.
Buck later immigrated to the United States, where he pastored a Seattle church for 24 years until he was sent by his denomination as a missionary to Russia in the early 90s.
Eventually, the pastor expanded his ministry to China where through the course of ten years, he provided financial support, shelter, and food to over 1,000 North Korean refugees.
Most of the refugees had fled from the communist regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, whose rule has been marked by terror, famine, disease, and political oppression.
Melanie Kirkpatrick, Deputy Editorial Page Editor of The Wall Street Journal, who nominated Buck for the award, said that the deplorable situation continued even once the refugees reached China.
Men were sold into slavery and women were sold as brides or sexual slaves to Chinese men, described Kirkpatrick.
"Still, it was a better life than what they left behind in North Korea," she added.
Furthermore, continued Kirkpatrick, instead of accepting the refugees, China even offered bounties for refugees and repatriated them back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture, and sometimes execution for leaving the country – a state crime.
"North Korean citizens and refugees are human, each having a right to eat, a right to live, and a right to enjoy freedom," proclaimed Buck.
In 1998, the Korean pastor said he made the decision to dedicate his life to helping refugees and "to live and to die with them."
"My life calling is as a missionary," said Buck. "I have always shared the word of God every time I gave money to these North Korean refugees. I did so to inspire and give faith in the future."
In 2001, Buck began to move refugees to South Korea. To this day, he has guided over one hundred North Korean refugees out of China and ultimately to safety in South Korea.
But his efforts did not go unnoticed by Chinese authorities, who discovered his identity after obtaining his passport while raiding his apartment, where refugees were housed.
After escaping the arrest, Buck, then known as John Yoon, returned to the United States where he underwent the legal process to change his name.
"I did not see what I was doing as something wrong," he said. "God has instructed us to help those who are in need, and I take that instruction very seriously."
Buck returned to China in 2002 to continue his work but was arrested and imprisoned in May 2005. He was released August 2006.
"I have huge respect … for his courage and his cause," said the Rt. Hon. Sir Geoffrey Howe, former Foreign Secretary of Britain, in his address speech.
Steve Kim, a furniture importer from Huntington , N.Y., who was recently released after serving time in the same prison as Buck, was also present at the award ceremony.