This story originally aired on October 19, 2019.
Grace Jo was 6 years old when her mom scooped up her and her older sister, and set out to cross the Tumen River into China.
“We walked three nights and four days,” Jo said, recalling the trek along rocky mountain trails. “A lot of tree branches were hurting our skin. A lot of wild animal sounds we could hear at night, and we had to hide from people.”
At the river’s edge, the water level went up to her mother’s hips.
“My mom managed, and all three of us able to cross river and come to China.”
But escaping North Korea and finding freedom are two different things. Five years later, Jo and her family were captured, and deported back to North Korea.
The fact that she’s alive, not imprisoned or executed, is kind of miraculous. She — and hundreds of other North Korean refugees — owe their lives to a Seattle-area man named John Yoon.
Pastor John Yoon is short and balding. At 81 he’s ruggedly handsome, and a little stern, though his face still lights up with a smile sometimes.
Yoon grew up in what is now North Korea. He was 12 years old in 1951 when war broke out.
“Bombs exploding everywhere, and it was just war everywhere. There was a crowd of people just moving and moving,” he recalled, speaking with the help of his daughter Grace Yoon Yi, who’s a professional interpreter.
Those crowds were moving south. Yoon’s parents were supposed to follow, but the fighting made that impossible. He would never see his mother and father again.
In South Korea after the war, Yoon set about making a life. He worked and joined the military. And then he had a transformative experience at a place called Mount Yongmun, at a prayer house built inside the mountain. Yoon went, he says, to see if God was real.
“As I was praying one night, from heaven this big fire fell upon my back," he said. "The spirit of fire was upon me, it was burning me. At that moment I really knew that God was alive."
Yoon decided to throw himself into ministry. He did missionary work in Russia and China, where he learned about the famine and desperation inside North Korea.
Yoon organized food aid. But he was discouraged by how much was skimmed off by corrupt officials. Then he became aware of another group of people just as desperate as the ones still in North Korea: the refugees who had escaped into China, scraping by on almost nothing.
That’s when Yoon became a conductor on the North Korean underground railroad. He would help ferry groups of refugees from the border region deep into China, and then on to a neutral country, such as Thailand or Mongolia.
It was a high-stakes world of informants and shady traffickers and allies who turn out to be enemies. And for the defectors, there was the constant danger of arrest and deportation.
Yoon remembers a group of 32 North Korean refugees he shepherded through China to Thailand, in clusters of twos and threes. They took the train, a boat, a bus, a motorcycle. And every step was a chance to get caught.
“I was so worried about these 32 people," Yoon said. "If we are caught, they could easily die."
It was a tense journey, and Yoon remembers the feeling of relief once they had made it to the South Korean consulate in Bangkok: “Meeting the South Korean consul, I felt like I was seeing my grandfather!”
Yoon has helped orchestrate dozens of these escapes, but that group of 32 sticks in his mind — partly because it was an especially big caper to pull off, and partly because of what came after.
Those refugees were due to be followed almost immediately by another group of 19 North Koreans. At the time they were laying low in Yoon’s apartment, waiting for the green light. But unbeknownst to the pastor, someone had snitched.
The day before they were due to leave, Chinese police came to the apartment and arrested all 19 defectors. They were sent back to North Korea, likely to face prison or death.
Yoon himself wasn’t home, and as soon as he learned what had happened, he fled back to the United States, where he is a citizen. Almost immediately, he began planning his return to China.
“I couldn't go back to China with my original name and original passport," he said. "So I legally changed my name and passport, and went back to China under my new name — Philip Jun Buck."
As Philip Buck, Yoon returned to China and quickly got back to ferrying refugees toward safety.
Then in 2005, he was organizing the transport of a group of North Koreans into Mongolia. He’d hired a Chinese-Korean guide to lead them on a specific route.
“The guide didn’t listen to me!” he said. “The guide just went round and round, eventually coming back to the starting point where the Chinese police and officers were. They all got arrested.”
Yoon had hired another defector for help. When she too was detained, along with her mother and sister, Yoon says she gave him up to the police.
Yoon was arrested, and locked up in a Chinese prison where he would spend the next 15 months.
“While I was in prison, I felt like I was living in hell,” he said, “and I don't want to talk more details about it.”
American diplomats helped secure Yoon’s release, and he returned to the United States.
He hoped to change his name yet again and return to China once more. But his daughter Grace Yoon Yi says, his family forbade him. Yoon’s career as an underground railroad conductor was effectively over.
But the story was not. Also imprisoned at the same time as Yoon was a family he’d been trying to help, including a then-11 year old girl named Grace Jo.
This was the same Grace whose mother carried her across the river into China, when she was 6. She and her family spent the next five years there, mostly in hiding.
But the authorities caught up with them.
“After I was sent back to North Korea, I went to prison first, then I was sent back to an orphanage shelter,” she said. “I saw many children struggling, starving, got beaten by the older kids. All those injured kids were hiding in the corner and covered with blankets. And when I saw that I felt so sad. How can this country be my country?”
Jo’s prospects were not good. Her family had illegally crossed the border, they were Christian, they had accepted help from foreigners — all categories of major crime in North Korea.
Jo assumed they would be executed.
“But I think God’s miracle happened there, because Pastor Yoon bribed six officials from North Korea … We were able to cross the river again, and yeah, now we are here!”
Fresh off his own captivity, Yoon had tracked down the family and paid $10,000 for their release. Thanks to that bribe, Jo and her family now live in Washington, D.C.
'I WANT TO HELP THEM MORE'
As she told her story, Grace Jo was visiting New Vision Church in Lynnwood. on the occasion of Pastor John Yoon’s retirement.
The church sanctuary was filled with congregants, and a contingent of 28 North Korean defectors, including Jo, her mother and others whose lives were saved by Yoon.
Fellow missionaries and clergy offered heartfelt testimonials to his achievements — especially the 300-plus refugees he rescued and the countless souls they believe he saved through spreading the gospel. There was a massive meal and even music from an all-North Korean refugee choir.
Pastor Yoon was visibly moved. A progression of people loaded him down with bouquets and plaques until the little man was all but hidden beneath the blossoms. But even here, he couldn’t bring himself to celebrate.
“I want to help them more,” he said. “Because I’m physically unable to do so, I feel terribly sorry. Even to the present day, I’m always thinking about ways to save those who are dying. I’m always thinking about ways to save them.”
John Yoon’s mission may be over, but there are now hundreds of people in South Korea and the United States who owe their lives to him. He hopes some of them will keep the underground railroad running for another generation.