Who Was Yoo Chul Min–And Why Does it Matter?

Who Was Yoo Chul Min?–And Why Does it Matter?

By Tim Peters  /Christian Activist/Founder of Helping Hands Korea

A 10 year-old North Korean refugee boy hiding in China, made a sobering decision that was light years away from what most other elementary 4th graders are preoccupied with–a life-and-death gamble to cross the China-Mongolian border under the cover of darkness.

His name was Yoo Chul Min and his decision resulted in a heart-rending tragedy. Joining five other North Koreans, also desperate for even a fleeting glimpse of freedom, Chul Min and his companions became disoriented for 26 hours in the arid, desert-like conditions of the Mongolian frontier. Years of gradual malnutrition in North Korea had weakened Yoo Chul Min’s body and the normal reserve of endurance and resistance to the elements one would expect of a healthy preteen boy were sadly lacking. Yoo Chul Min died from exhaustion and exposure. His body was carried across the Mongolian border by the remaining refugee team when they finally gained their bearings.

Perhaps I’ve taken a particular interest in this story because it so happened that Chul Min and my paths crossed in the course of my work in Helping Hands Korea. I had met and was just begun getting to know this 10 year-old on two occasions, shortly before his death. At the time, he was under the protection of courageous Korean missionaries in the Yenbian (ethnic Chinese-Korean region) district of northeast China who had taken charge of the boy’s care in his father’s absence and were directing his activities as a refugee.

I remember noticing how withdrawn this boy was. Because he had lived in China for over a year, he did not immediately strike me as malnourished and his clothes were clean. I noticed with some amusement that he would never take off his baseball cap, even inside the house of my friend. My curiosity grew into a little personal challenge to spend some time with him and see if I could find a way to break through that shell of suspicion of foreigners and get a friendship started.

I was told by those caring for him that Chul Min was very studious and doing well in a Chinese elementary school. One day in June of this year, I happened to spot on the missionary’s bookshelf the Korean version of a book that I had read countless times with my own five children, in English, as they were growing up, The Picture Bible. Despite his initial reluctance to sit down next to a dreaded American, Chul Min’s curiosity about the book seemed to get the upper hand, and soon we were leafing through the wonderfully illustrated volume together and he was eagerly reading the Korean text aloud. It became the bridge for what I hoped would be a real friendship. Little did I realize at that time, that death was only a month away for my little newfound friend.

In the days that followed the jarring news of Chul Min’s sudden death, despite our urgent entreaties, the security officials in Mongolia did not agree to wait for Chul Min’s father, himself a recent arrival to the South from China, to arrive in Ulan Bator to identify his son’s body and to be present at his burial. (The following photo shows Chul Min’s father grieving, shortly after seeing his son’s grave on the barren Mongolian desert.)

Our grassroots organization, Helping Hands Korea (HHK) is determined to prevent the recurrence of this tragedy in the lives of other North Korean children. We have, since October of 1996, sought to relieve the suffering of the most needy and vulnerable North Koreans. This initiative has evolved into a two-pronged project:

(1) Assisting North Korean refugees, especially children and teenagers, in China and other ‘third countries’ to which they have fled. For one, HHK concentrates currently on providing foster care to “2nd Wave Orphans” or stateless children, that is, the children of North Korean refugee women who have been “sold” into marriage to Chinese men, then forcibly repatriated to the North when their presence is discovered by Chinese police. These children, who may well number between 25,000 and 100,000 in China, typically do not have citizenship of either mother or father, therefore are effectively without nationality and access to public education or healthcare. The children are not sent back when their mothers are repatriated to North Korea, and the Chinese fathers are often incapable or unwilling to shoulder parental responsibilities.

(2) We continue to help support highly transparent humanitarian aid projects within hard-hit regions of North Korea itself, provided the deliveries of foodstuffs, medicine, etc. can be verified with accuracy.

(3) HHK provides logistical support to refugees who are at the greatest risk of severe punishment if they are forcibly returned to North Korea. They are assisted along the so-called “underground railroad” through China and across borders to adjacent countries, such as Mongolia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand.

As another bitterly cold winter comes upon North Korea, we ask you to join us in our ongoing quest to prevent the loss of other precious lives like Yoo Chul Min.

(Little did we realize 8 years ago that Yoo Chul Min’s story would be the focus of feature-length film, CROSSING, which has helped to raise international awareness of the tragic plight of North Koreans within their country, and those who flee and become refugees in China. (December/2009)