30 June 2007

Korea's Oskar Schindler

"There is no food here. We've had terrible floods. A kilo of rice costs 50 cents, and I only earn 70 cents a month. We are trying to change things, but it is very hard."The heavily armed area by the border of North and South Korea, where any refugees caught trying to escape into the South will be shot on sightIf you only read one thing in the papers this weekend, make it the Daily Mail's Korea's Oskar Schindler.

Each month, hundreds of North Koreans flee their homeland. More than 7,000 are captured each year by the Chinese, Mr Lee tells me, and returned to face labour camps or the public executions I have just read about. And the risks are growing higher and higher, as the Chinese, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the offing, are becoming ever tougher in an attempt to clean up their country.

For the few who manage to evade capture, the road to freedom can often simply lead to another harrowing underground existence. A grotesque industry has grown up to exploit the escapees. Mr Lee explains that more than 95 per cent of the women who come out of North Korea are sold into prostitution or as "wives" to lonely Chinese farmers. Mr Lee is one of the few brokers who is trying to help the escaping refugees.

A number of people have confirmed that Mr Lee has helped more than 1,000 North Koreans. Each refugee costs him between £1,250 and £1,500.

I had been told that he was a wealthy entrepreneur who used his very successful fishing business to finance his altruism. So I was shocked when I was invited into this tiny, sparsely furnished flat. The sitting room, with its cheap TV and cooker hidden in a cupboard, was probably only 12ft by 8ft, and half of Mr Lee's belongings were piled on the balcony. This is the price the well-dressed, soft-faced South Korean has had to pay for his goodness.

Mr Lee is a hunted man, wanted by both the Chinese and North Korean authorities. He has already spent time in a Chinese prison, been beaten on another occasion and has had to bribe his way out of capture. And now he has to live in this small safe house.