ON SEPT. 23, 2003, Steven Kim was arrested and later escorted into a detention center in northeastern China with bound hands and heavy chains on his feet. His crime? Helping undocumented migrants—North Korean refugees—in China.
After decades of famine, mismanagement of resources, and a severe state-controlled system, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—more commonly known as North Korea—has evolved into one of the most secretive and isolated countries in the world. About 2 million people have died since the 1990s, and still the country cannot feed its people without foreign aid. This shortage of food has driven thousands of North Koreans to migrate illegally to China by crossing the Tumen River in search of food and respite from the totalitarian regime.
Before his imprisonment, Kim—a Korean-American businessman from Long Island, N.Y.—lived in China and operated a furniture business. As a non-denominational Christian, Kim became a member of an unregistered house church in Shenzhen, which operated outside the Chinese government's control. After meeting Tae Nam, a North Korean man, and hearing his desperate story firsthand at his house church, Kim was instantly drawn into the underground railroad of supporters of North Korean refugees.
AFTER SEVEN MONTHS at a detention center, Kim was sentenced to five years in prison, under Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code, for helping undocumented North Korean migrants and harboring 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," Kim told Sojourners, describing the moment in court when the sentence was issued by the Chinese judge. "I realized 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 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 other felons in another city in northeastern China. "God's peace and thankfulness came upon me. The living God 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, revealing crooked teeth.
From nearly the start, Kim's stint in jail had 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 started out with the self-sufficient air of a business administrator, but that all changed.
In the first week, a young 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; he 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 explained. "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."
Kim's wife began to send him money every month, allowing him to buy extra food, in addition to the prison meals, and mailed him several books. Kim read 50 books by the time he left prison, and he copied the Bible by hand several times.
Using his business skills as an efficient planner, 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 inmates at each gathering. The North Koreans began to see Kim as a father figure, and they confided in him about their experiences before imprisonment.
A pair of young North Korean men was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing ginseng roots. Another person stole a motorcycle. One was imprisoned because he stole a mobile phone. "They were so desperate and no one helped them. They didn't know what to do and wanted to eat. Some crossed the [Tumen] river and asked the Chinese for help. The Chinese took advantage and hired them as slave labor," Kim explained. "They do not receive full wages. They 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." Refugees repatriated by the Chinese authorities are sent back to North Korea, into one of its many labor camps where reportedly at least 200,000 prisoners are doing time. Kim noted, "They do not want to be sent back, so they try to protect themselves and become violent."
As he cleaned the floors, took on the tasks that no other prisoner wanted to do, and offered his meals to others while fasting, Kim prayed others would see Christ in him. His acts of kindness opened up opportunities for him to pray for others. "Later I found 100 North Korean prisoners. They looked for me and came to my group for help. Sometimes I gave them a Bible or books and food. My prayer team became evangelists," he said. However, the work was not without its challenges. "I was forced into isolation and [the guards] forbade me from mingling with North Koreans."
Carl Herzig, author of the biography The Fearless Passage of Steven Kim, said, "Steven's experiences and the descriptions of conditions and practices in Chinese prisons will shock people and open their eyes. The practice of scheduling executions in order to supply human organs to rich businessmen and government officials is such a barbaric practice. Most people have no idea this is going on and they, too, will feel compassion for the victims, as they will feel compassion for North Koreans—both those who have escaped to China and those who are still there."
AFTER FOUR YEARS, 600 pages of journal writing and memos, and reading the Bible from cover to cover more than a dozen times, Kim was released from prison at last. He reunited with his wife, two sons, and daughter and crisscrossed the United States giving talks about his experience imprisoned in China. He also shared his story with the media and testified before the U.S. government about the plight of North Korean refugees in China.
"Steven is so passionate to the point that he's risked a lot personally. He's been helping North Korean refugees out of great difficulty, at a personal cost. It's rare because a lot of South Koreans are not that keen on helping North Koreans and discriminate against them," said Armanda da Roza, the director of Feed the Hungry, an organization in Hong Kong that brings food aid to North Korea.
In May 2008, Kim started 318 Partners, a U.S.-based nonprofit humanitarian organization, to start a "Schindler's mission" to rescue trafficked North Korean women refugees in China. He named the organization 318 Partners for two reasons: He was arrested for helping North Korean refugees under Article 318 of the Chinese penal code and, in Genesis 14:14, Abraham sent 318 warriors to rescue Lot, his nephew.
Kim, now 64, has helped rescue dozens of North Korean women, many of whom were sold as brides to poor and disabled Chinese farmers or 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 (U.S. $96) and slept with her for three or four months. Then he sold her to another man for a profit of 1,000 RMB (U.S. $161)," Kim said, adding that she was sold again several months later. "She became a commodity," he said.
While 318 Partners will continue to support rescue work of trafficked women from North Korea, Kim is transitioning to a new ministry. He now focuses on providing shelter and daily food to North Korean orphans. Kim says that this mission opportunity is something that God has led him to do.
"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 North Korean guards hit them on the head. One boy was bleeding," described Kim. A large number of North Korean orphans forage in the streets of China's cities in search of food. Kim mobilizes support for these orphans inside North Korea through his speaking engagements at South Korean churches.
Kim's vision—to see a prosperous North Korea built on a strong church foundation—propels him. An advocate of reunification of North and South Korea, Kim is committed to dedicating the rest of his life to the holistic transformation of North Korea.
He says he knows of at least 37 churches inside the regime, though some estimates indicate there are thousands of underground churches in North Korea.
"Churches are small, with at least four or 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 Christians."
Despite all that he's witnessed and endured, Kim remains optimistic about his mission and faith. "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 declares. "We can't wait."
Sylvia Yu (@Light1Candle) is a TV journalist, author, and philanthropy adviser based in Hong Kong.