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."