239. He Helped North Koreans Reach Freedom. Now He Wants South Korea’s Protection.
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  Name : Wall Street Journal Date : 2018-12-21 오후 6:38:57

I’ve done what my conscience has told me to do,” said Mr. Tu.

He Helped North Koreans Reach Freedom.
Now He Wants South Korea’s Protection.

After two stints in Chinese prisons for helping North Koreans flee, Tu Airong is awaiting a final decision from Seoul on his asylum application

By Jonathan Cheng December 19, 2018

JEJU, South Korea-Tu Airong was smuggling goods over the China-Laos border when he agreed to do a favor for some ethnic Korean businessmen he had befriended over drinks and karaoke. Sure, he told them, he could sneak their relatives into Laos without papers.

“It was an accidental encounter,” the Chinese native said. “I didn’t know what the purpose was.”

That journey in 2004 was the first time Mr. Tu helped North Koreans escape China. Over the next decade, he helped roughly 500 more, according to Mr. Tu and a South Korean pastor who became his partner in the enterprise.

Now Mr. Tu, who is 55, is in diplomatic limbo. After two stints in Chinese prisons for helping North Koreans flee, Mr. Tu sought asylum from South Korea in 2016.

Officials rejected his claim, but after legal challenges he is awaiting a final decision expected Friday. If he is successful, human-rights workers say it would be the first time Seoul has granted asylum to a person who helped North Koreans reach the South. He fears his fate if he returns to China.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled their country, most resettling in the South-including more than 1,000 this year. Escape usually means a harrowing journey across China and into Southeast Asia, where they are received by South Korean officials. China routinely detains North Koreans on the run and sends them back to face imprisonment.

If Beijing didn’t do so, “there would be North Korean citizens who don’t flow to South Korea but just stay in China and work,” said Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps North Koreans escape.

While South Koreans-some motivated by faith, others driven by profit-typically orchestrate and finance the escapes, they rely on Chinese middlemen like Mr. Tu.

This account is based on interviews with Mr. Tu, his public-interest lawyer, the South Korean pastor and human-rights workers, as well as court documents.

As a young man, Mr. Tu drifted from China’s impoverished Jiangxi province to Laos, where he did construction jobs and smuggled herbal medicine and wild animals. He found a niche importing teakwood into China.

Life changed when Mr. Tu was approached by the men who wanted their “relatives” smuggled into Laos. “I was lugging a lot of heavy stuff over the border but these are people who can walk on their two legs. How hard could it be?” he said.

A second request raised Mr. Tu’s suspicions. When he learned the “relatives” were North Koreans, hungry and fearing arrest, he was shocked. They spoke of others hiding in Yunnan province, awaiting a chance to flee China.

Mr. Tu said he confronted the businessmen, but eventually struck a deal with their boss in South Korea to ferry more North Koreans into Laos for $500 a head. “I had the power to bring these people from hell to heaven,” he said.

Of the 100 North Koreans that Mr. Tu estimates he smuggled to safety over the next year, several later became among the first to acquire U.S. citizenship under the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

Nicole Choi, who was among the second group of North Koreans to become U.S. citizens, called Mr. Tu “da ge,” or “big brother.”

“Of course he received money but he still had to risk his life for many people,” said Ms. Choi, 38, who lives in California. “He always kept us safe.”

In 2006, having fallen out with the South Korean boss, Mr. Tu got a call from Chun Ki-won, a South Korean pastor who was also helping North Koreans escape. Escapees who remembered Mr. Tu’s honesty and humanity had passed along his details, Mr. Chun said.

Mr. Tu agreed to work with the pastor, accepting $1,000 to bring each North Korean to Thailand, across two borders. Soon, Mr. Tu was making three round trips a month.

He took circuitous paths to elude authorities. But in April 2007, Chinese authorities detained him for a month. The fate of six North Koreans caught with Mr. Tu is unknown.

Mr. Tu was caught again a year later by Chinese authorities and spent six months in custody. After he got out, he fled China in March 2009. Chinese officials didn’t comment.

Mr. Tu sought asylum in 2010 via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok, but was denied. Dejected, Mr. Tu returned to Laos to settle into a life of exile. There, he married a Lao woman.

Then, in early 2016, Mr. Tu said the Chinese embassy in Laos told him to return home for favorable treatment. Suspecting the Chinese might arrest him in Laos, Mr. Tu instead flew to South Korea’s Jeju island and sought asylum there.

Seoul rejected his first application on the grounds that he wasn’t in danger in Laos and that any punishment he might face in China wouldn’t be for political reasons. Mr. Tu challenged the decision.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tu struggles to find stable work. He shares a rundown dwelling with his wife and children and feels that his new home has turned its back on him despite the help he has given North Koreans, to whom South Korea grants automatic citizenship.

Mr. Tu lives with his wife and children in Jeju. Photo: Tim Franco for The Wall Street Journal

“Some of the Koreans may say, ‘If you don’t like Korea, then leave.’ But I have nowhere else to go,” he said.

A spokesman for Jeju’s immigration office said Mr. Tu’s case was being considered not because of Mr. Tu’s help for North Koreans but on the grounds of potential political persecution in China.

Mr. Tu says his old friends in the lumber trade earn $2,000 a day. “Many of my friends have become very, very rich,” he says. “But I’ve done what my conscience has told me to do, and hopefully things will be better in the future.”

-Dasl Yoon in Seoul and Xiao Xiao in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com