SEOUL (MCT) — It's well after dark and Tim Peters leans forward to tell a story about poverty and North Korea. He's surrounded by a dozen people at a gathering with the cozy atmosphere of a community college night class, the students engrossed by a mentor's tales.
But the soft-spoken Peters is no average teacher. At age 61, he's an evangelical Christian missionary and human rights activist from America who has spent 16 years helping North Koreans who have just escaped from their repressive homeland.
Peters is part of a network of religious activists who journey to the Chinese-North Korean border with food, clothing and medicine for those who have fled. He says he had also legally entered North Korea to witness conditions there and helped operate safe houses in China for defectors who might otherwise be sent back across the border. The escapees are covertly moved to a neighboring Asian nation, and then to South Korea.
Operating largely with private donations, Peters says, he has helped hundreds of refugees reach the South.
The weekly meetings, held in a tiny storefront art gallery, are a means to challenge others to become active, he says. He calls the round-table discussions Catacombs, named after the secret underground meetings held by Christians in ancient Rome.
Though not everyone at the meetings has a religious bent, all share an interest in the goings-on inside secretive North Korea. On this night, the dozen gathered include an American schoolteacher, a New Zealand engineer and a former South Korean trade minister. The cramped room is dominated by folding chairs, space heaters and tapestries of Jesus and the "Last Supper."
Gatherings have featured defectors, including a blind man who fled with the help of an aunt, Peters says. There have been professors and foreign ambassadors. One meeting coincidentally brought together three missionaries who had been imprisoned in China for assisting North Korean refugees.
For two hours, the insights about the autocratic neighbor to the north emerge rapid-fire, some coming from eyewitness accounts, others from news reports or second- and third-hand accounts. Peters is equal parts moderator, devil's advocate and, at the beginning and end of each session, prayer leader.
Dressed in brown corduroy pants and suit jacket, he starts off the night reading from a newspaper interview with Kim Jong Nam, the exiled eldest son of the late dictator Kim Jong Il. There's also talk about increased security at the China-North Korea border ordered by Kim Jong Un, the son and successor of Kim Jong Il.
Along with more armed checkpoints, the North has increased its use of heat and motion sensors along the Tumen River, Peters says. From his briefcase he pulls out a photograph he took of one of the security mechanisms.
"How do people get past it?" asked one American teacher.
Keep in mind that the border is 400 miles long, Peters answered. "It takes time for guards to respond. It's not a flawless system."
Others share secondhand stories. One teacher told of a refugee who said she had spent more time in school studying the life of Kim Jong Il than either science or mathematics.
Peters often throws in a bit of personal analysis. He believes that Kim Jong Un's rule may prove even more severe than his father's, cruelty that may one day bring down the government.
For example, Peters says, recent defectors say the new ruler has declared that three generations of a family will be imprisoned or killed when a family member tries to defect.
"He's one nasty piece of work," Peters says. "With all these crackdowns, there's got to be a rupture. People will say, 'Well, we're going to die anyway; we'll do what we have to do.' It's a scary boiling point."
When the pace of the meeting lags, Peters offers observations from his travels and long-term relationships developed with defectors: Not only does North Korea counterfeit U.S. $100 bills but also Camel cigarettes; Christians are so abhorred by the government that they are rounded up and often given the hardest, most unsavory jobs in the gulags; in a sign of the people's desperation, an 8-year-old boy and his friends recently traversed the entire country to sneak across the Tumen River into China.
Peters, a Michigan native who formed the aid group Helping Hands Korea, launched the Catacombs sessions in 1996. What started as a focus on Bible studies soon morphed into a fascination with all things North Korean, as well as a recruitment pitch.