A number of North Korean women trafficked to work in China's multimillion-dollar sex trade have found freedom and healing thanks to the efforts of a South Korean pastor known as the “Asian Schindler.”
In an interview with CNN, a North Korea defector named “Lee” shared how, for five years, she was imprisoned with a handful of other girls in a tiny apartment in northeast China, after the broker she trusted to plan her escape sold her to a cybersex operator for 30,000 yuan (about $4,500).
"When I found out, I felt so humiliated," she told CNN. "I started crying and asked to leave, but the boss said he had paid a lot of money for me and I now had a debt toward him."
For years, Lee was forced to perform various sex acts in a chatroom and was only permitted to leave the tiny apartment once every six months. Her captor, a South Korean man, kept all the girls' money and physically abused them if they dared to ask for compensation.
In 2015, Lee tried to escape by climbing out of a window and down a metal drain, but she fell and hurt her back and leg, leaving her with a permanent limp.
“I felt like dying 1,000 times, but I couldn't even kill myself as the boss was always watching us,” she said. “During those outings, he would always stay right next to us, so we never got to talk to anyone.”
But in 2018, everything changed.
"One of my customers realized I was North Korean and was being held captive," said Lee. "He bought a laptop and let me take control of the screen remotely so I could send messages without my boss noticing," Lee said.
The man also gave her the phone number of Chun Ki-Won, a South Korean businessman-turned-pastor who has rescued hundreds of trafficked victims from North Korea over the last few decades.
Chun has been nicknamed the “Asian Schindler” in Korean media for his efforts, after Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews.
In September 2018, Lee contacted Chun on KakaoTalk, a Korean messaging service and wrote, "Hi, I want to go to South Korea. Can you help me?"
Over the following weeks, Lee explained to the pastor how she had ended up in a cybersex chatroom and revealed her apartment's layout and her boss' comings and goings.
During their webchat, he reportedly told Lee: “Don't worry, we are going to rescue you.” Lee typed back as she began to cry: “Thank you. I'm afraid.”
In October last year, Chun dispatched a team to Yanji to extract Lee and another girl named Kwang. The two women were lowered from the fourth-floor apartment window using bedsheets tied together. Within minutes, they found themselves traveling to South Korea in a car.
After traveling for five days to south China, the women were smuggled into a neighboring country, eventually seeking asylum at the South Korean Embassy.
Upon arrival in South Korea, the pair spent several months at a processing center where they learned how to navigate common practices like taking the subway, getting cash from an ATM and buying groceries in a supermarket. Then, they were provided with a South Korean passport, a subsidized apartment, and the right to enroll at a university for free.
Today, Lee hopes to become a teacher, while Kwang, who left school at 12, wants to graduate.
"I never really had the luxury of wondering what to do with my life," she said.
While the exact number of North Korean defectors who are forced into human trafficking in China and other Asian nations is unclear, experts say an increasing number of women are leaving the North to defect to South Korea.
Previously, Chun told NBC News that about 99% of defectors to China enter the country via human trafficking.
"Because there's high demand for women in China, people in China will pay border patrol to bring women over," he said. "The North Koreans know that they're being sold when they escape, so they naturally fall into human trafficking."
Chun’s Christian aid organization, Durihana — Korean for “two become one”— has helped over 1,000 defectors reach Seoul since 1999. The group's mission is to unite North and South Korea using the Gospel.
The organization’s website notes that Chun launched Durihana after stumbling upon the body of a North Korean woman who froze to death while trying to escape her country by crossing the river comprising the border between North Korea and China.
Upon seeing this, Chun left a lucrative business career, went to seminary and became a pastor, dedicating his life to proclaiming the grace of God to the North Korean people.
In 2001, Chun was arrested in China at the China-Mongolia border while helping a group of North Korean defectors escape. He was held in a Chinese prison for nine months and finally released in August 2002.
Today, the rescues are more dangerous than ever, the pastor said, especially with the advancement of technology. Additionally, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has labeled Chun a "cancer who should be eradicated."
"North Korea announces that they'll kill me once or twice a year," he told NBC News. "China is emphatic about wanting to capture me."
But despite the risks, Chun said he will continue to help rescue North Koreans from the “physical and spiritual kingdom of darkness under which they live; to proclaim to the North Korean people the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and to compassionately serve and strengthen them as they rebuild their lives … no matter what the cost.”