Escaping North Korea is treacherous, and the flow of refugees has slowed to a trickle in recent years, making North Korean defectors a rare breed. But more than two dozen of them are in the Seattle area this week.
The 28 defectors traveled from South Korea and a handful of U.S. cities to attend a conference organized by the Hometown Mission for North Korean Refugees. The annual trip brings together defectors and the Christian missionaries who have helped many of them.
The contingent attended services over the weekend at New Visions Korean Church in Lynnwood.
Young Soon Joo is one of the organizers and a defector herself. She said the idea is to raise awareness in the U.S. and the trip gives defectors a taste of American religious freedom.
“So when North Korea defectors come here, we can see this world, experience this new world, and also praise and worship God as much as we want, where we couldn't do that in North Korea,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.
The group made the Northwest its destination this year to coincide with the retirement of Seattle-area pastor, John Yoon. Yoon is a lifelong missionary and a conductor on what’s been called the “North Korean Underground Railroad.”
Yoon has worked for decades in northeastern China, helping to hide, feed and transport refugees escaping North Korea. His daughter, Grace Yi, said Yoon has rescued more than 300 people, in addition to aiding many more refugees who did not manage to get to South Korea or the United States.
Yi said her father would continue, if not for his failing health.
“He’s physically unable to go on," Yi said. "He is very heartbroken that he could only have saved 300, but there are so many more left in North Korea who need help."
Pastor Yoon was born in North Korea himself, and was imprisoned in China for more than a year because of his work. Addressing the defectors in Lynnwood over the weekend, he urged them to take up the dangerous work of assisting others fleeing North Korea, and ministering to them in their Christian faith.
The delegation departs on Thursday, most headed back to their homes in South Korea.