Chi Ha-yang, an elderly North Korean widow, waited for night to fall before meeting secretly with three friends and sneaking across the North Korean border to China.
At age 76 Chi Ha-yang commands respect for her many years as a Christian in North Korea. Some call her a "mother of the North Korea church." Ill and hoping to tell others of Christ's work in North Korea, Ha-yang believed it was time to escape.
"Go," she prodded her friends as they hurried through the darkness. They were headed toward a secret crossing point along the 350-mile northern border separating North Korea from Manchuria.
At the end of last year, China harbored 50,000 North Korean refugees. Others are in Russia or Mongolia. Severe malnutrition, religious persecution, and extremely poor medical care are driving North Koreans to flee.
Chi Ha-yang was one of about 600 North Koreans during the past year to make the even more hazardous passage from China to South Korea.
Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician whose book Diary of a Mad Place is about his recent work inside North Korea, told Christianity Today that he hopes the surge of refugees will bring about a political crisis within North Korea, triggering major reform.
There is "electric fear," Vollertsen said. "North Korea is afraid of a Romanian-style collapse." Rebellion in Romania toppled its communist regime in 1989, and ruler Nicolae Ceausescu was convicted of genocide and executed.
Several years ago, North Korea gave Vollertsen a medal for his medical service. But Vollertsen knew he had to do more than care for broken bodies. He saw the devastating effects that famine and endless repression had on 22 million North Koreans, whom he has described as depressed.
"I tried my own personal engagement ...1