How a young Army captain from Chico changed his mind about fighting North Koreans and began working to save them
For more than two years, from December 2000 to March 2003, Army Capt. Mark G. (last name omitted for sensitivity and security reasons) stood guard over a desolate, windswept, often frozen stretch of no-man’s land, staring into the eyes of his and his country’s heavily armed enemies, prepared to kill them should they attack. He was a long way from his Chico home.
The place was the infamous Demilitarized Zone on the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea. For more than a half-century, since the end of the Korean War, American soldiers have been stationed there, protecting South Korea from the kind of invasion from the north that sparked the war in 1950, when tens of thousands of North Korean troops poured across the border, nearly capturing the entirety of South Korea.
How Mark, minister’s son, co-valedictorian of his 1992 class at Pleasant Valley High School and all-around good guy, got to the DMZ is one story. What happened to him there, thousands of miles from home, staring past miles and miles of rusty barbed wire and facing down a formidable enemy in a constant “30-minute go-to-war posture,” is another.
Mark, who had the 146 men of Armored Troop “Comanche” (one of three cavalry troops assigned to the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment), under his command, was a consummate soldier, an ideal candidate for his job. Four years of college and Army ROTC, Airborne School, Ranger School, Officers Training Advanced Course and a short deployment to Kuwait in 1999 all had brought him to this place.
Certainly he had time to think. For more than 50 years the DMZ has done its job effectively, preventing another war between North and South Korea. Success is measured by lack of action. For the 37,000 U.S. soldiers in the region, when they’re not maintaining a constant regimen of strenuous training, there is nothing to do but sit, tightly coiled, and watch. As Mark puts it, “Life is hard in the Army on the DMZ.”
As time passed, Mark’s heart became deeply stirred, and he began to have doubts. Looking into North Korea, he could see that it was dark, literally. Corruption and neglect have decimated the country’s infrastructure to such a degree that there is only enough power to routinely light up the capital city of Pyongyang. Satellite photos taken at night (see page 18) are stunning: They show South Korea aglow with lights, but north of the 38th parallel is only darkness.
Human conditions in the rest of the country mirror that darkness.
Under the Stalinist dictatorship of the late Kim Il Sung and now that of his son Kim Jong Il, North Korea has systematically destroyed itself from the inside. Infrastructure development has been neglected, while more than one-third of the country’s gross domestic product has been spent on maintaining the fifth-largest active military force in the world, some 1.1 million soldiers. Arable land is in short supply due to poor planning, rampant flooding and likely diversion to farming poppy fields for government-sponsored drug trade. Foreign aid has dwindled to almost nothing due to political tensions caused by continued nuclear-missile research and the country’s gross human-rights abuses.
Not only has the country not grown since the war, it’s actually gone back into the dark ages.
The regime’s seams have begun to burst. Epidemic levels of famine, disease, violence and repression of beliefs and civil rights have created a nation of refugees. Braving the cold waters of the Tumen River and a dangerous underground railroad, on which they are helped by various safe-house providers and relief workers, the refugees seek shelter in China, Mongolia, Russia and Southeast Asia with the ultimate goal of reaching freedom in South Korea.
None of this was lost on Mark. And, as he began to understand the true nature of his “enemy” as a nation of enslaved people, he began to think there might be a better way to fight it.
As much as he was a military man, Mark was also a deeply devoted Christian. Gradually, he began to adopt a new approach to what he was doing.
“After a while it became so amazing of a dynamic of suffering and of tragedy,” he now explains. “I felt the Lord calling to me to end my job in the Army and yet stay in South Korea, with all the training and awareness and background that I had, to now serve in a full-time focus to try to help the people of North Korea.”
With the hundreds of thousands of refugees stranded all over Northeast Asia in his sights, Mark decided to drop everything, flip his life upside down, and embark on a new and challenging journey.
Mark and his family came to Chico from Seattle in 1988, when Mark’s father Paul accepted the senior-pastor position at the Evangelical Free Church. Originally from Grass Valley, they were returning to familiar territory.
While at Pleasant Valley High School, Mark put in serious work. He carried a 4.0 grade point average throughout, and his motivation and discipline got him noticed by such prestigious institutions as the Air Force Academy, West Point and Stanford, all of which offered him full scholarships. Shooting for a less-technical, better-rounded experience, Mark picked Stanford.
As the accolades and awards poured in, his father and his mother Vivian, who’s been operations manager at the Chico Chamber of Commerce for the past 16 years, were naturally proud of their son’s accomplishments. Even though a major last-minute scholarship reduction by Stanford caused a significant hiccup in the program (it was too late at that point to take advantage of the other scholarship offers), Mark’s accomplishments continued.
He went on to four years of Army ROTC at Seattle University, graduating with honors while double-majoring in history and philosophy and double-minoring in literature and medieval studies. His undergrad career culminated when, as a senior, he served as cadet battalion commander and was a Rhodes scholar finalist.
After that, it was all tanks, nights spent in cold swamps and learning how to do the work of a soldier in the Army. As he accelerated up the ranks, Mark began to see his future laid out neatly on the horizon.
“I think we were like kids in a candy shop,” his father Paul explained. “Watching him mature and develop and go from each phase. … [I’d think], ‘Wow! That’s my son.'”
Paul, a 6-foot-tall bear of a man who smiles quickly and is genuinely “delighted” when friends drop by to see him at one of his coffee shop “offices,” has been working as a “freelance” minister for the past 10 years with the loosely organized Western States Fellowship. He admits to sensing that even though a career for his son in the military “seemed like it was a hand-in-glove fit,” maybe Mark might have ended up going in another direction.
“One of the persons he most looked up to from when he was a little boy was his uncle, who was an Army Cavalry officer—a career military guy. So I could see him going that same direction, yet I [also] knew he had a heart for ministry.”
"'You are not a human being anymore. If you want to survive here, you’d better give up the idea that you are human.’ He assigned me the number 832. That was how my 13-year sentence began. The painful months of my interrogation were only a prelude to my misery. I was now considered less than human—a tailless animal.”
—Soon Ok Lee, from Eyes of the Tailless Animals
Soon Ok Lee was a North Korean woman who experienced the decline of her country firsthand, from its brutal beginnings to its current state of neglect. Her book, Eyes of the Tailless Animals, now serves as an entry point into understanding the plight of North Koreans, a population that rarely has its voice heard outside the region.
The book was an important influence on Mark while he was still in the Army, he tells me. We’re sitting together, along with his new girlfriend Maria, at Peet’s Coffee in downtown Chico. It’s the middle of March, and spring is saving its warmth for April. Mark is back in the States briefly to visit family, his girlfriend and to attend his grandmother’s funeral, and he’s agreed to tell me his story.
At first impression, Mark doesn’t come across as a military guy. He’s not especially serious, for one—his sly, easy smile and sleepy eyes are very warming, and his approachable demeanor puts those around him at ease.
As his story unfolds, though, the waters prove deep and serious indeed, as a portrait of a disciplined man who has always been on one mission or another continues to surface. It’s clear that the pain and suffering presented in Soon Ok Lee’s one story has helped bring to the surface many more of the secret horrors inside North Korea.
“This [book] was dramatic in shifting my decision to leave the Army and work [for the North Korean people],” Mark said. “A friend of mine translated it [with a pseudonym] into English.”
Before he left his command, in an effort to give his fellow servicemen a glimpse into what’s been going on in the country across the fence from them, Mark was able to get Soon Ok Lee—who has also testified before Congress on North Korean human-rights abuses—to come to his camp and speak to the soldiers about her book and her experiences.
“My boss shut down all activities,” Mark says, “We had over 800 U.S. soldiers in my gym.” As Soon Ok Lee unwrapped the tragedies of her life—being thrown into a gulag for not continuing to pay bribes to government officials and there suffering torture, beatings, starvation, forced labor and the arrest, and probable murder, of her family members before she was able to defect to South Korea—the soldiers listened so intently, as Mark puts it, “You could hear a pin drop.”
As he expected, his superiors weren’t thrilled by his decision to leave the military, but as Mark explains, “My boss and the boss above him had the same response: They were both frustrated and didn’t want me to leave the Army, but as I explained what I was doing, [they said], ‘OK, how can we help you?’
“If I had said, ‘I’m getting out, sir, and I’m going to go work for 3M and make a hundred thousand dollars because I just want to get out of the Army and have a stable, rich life, they would have taken a two-by-four and hit me on the head.”
“There’s a huge irony in this,” Mark confesses. “These are people we were trained to kill and go to war with. … Now, we want to find ways to come alongside, underneath, around, to bring food, hope, light, freedom—ultimately freedom.
“While I may be stepping out of a uniform, I’m just stepping on the other side of a focus to continue a different way [for] the same bigger picture—shifting, but still serving the country.”
Mark’s parents were both able to visit him while he was stationed in South Korea, and during the time when Mark was agonizing over whether to leave the military, his father was able to make a second trip and spend some time with his son.
“I spent two weeks with him when he was right in the middle of his most focused time of having to make the decision. It thrills my heart to no end to know I got to be there for that.
“He came in one morning, there right up on the DMZ—here we are, dad and son staying in this little Army quarters right in the place where combat could break out any second, and he says, ‘Dad, listen to what I read during my quiet time.'”
Mark shared the reading, from the book of Hebrews: “Remember those in prison as if you yourselves were their fellow prosoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
The words and their timely delivery tipped the scale for him. Of the two great influences that together had affected so much of the decision-making in his life—his uncle the colonel and his father the minister—Mark was splitting off from one road to take another on his journey, saying, as his father remembers it, “I really think this is where I need to go.”
Mark’s job now is helping North Koreans. He works with Christian relief workers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help send supplies to those in need, and he travels around Northeast Asia to bring relief to North Korean refugees who are in safe houses along the underground network in China, Mongolia and Russia seeking asylum and eventual passage to South Korea.
As he explains the work, Mark stops and shares horror stories he’s heard from the refugees.
One defector was a woman who as a child was in class in a North Korean school when the teachers told all the kids that they were going to play a game. The instructors showed the children Bibles and said to go home and hunt for any of these books that might be hidden there ("Do it secretly, because it’s a game!"). Told they’d win a prize if they found one and brought it to school, the child did just that. “When she went home, her parents were gone, and she never saw her parents again,” Mark says, adding, “She still lives with the guilt that she caused the imprisonment and probably eventual execution of her parents. This [kind of story] is not uncommon.”
These stories haven’t always been readily available, and not everyone gets to hear the firsthand accounts that Mark and his fellow aid workers do. But that’s starting to change. In addition to Soon Ok Lee’s book, there’s a report compiled by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, an NGO based in Washington, D.C. The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps (available free online at www.hrnk.org) is a compilation of testimonies by prisoners, guards and other witnesses to the conditions in the North Korean gulag prison system. Satellite images of the various camps are also included.
While Mark’s understandably tight-lipped about what specific missions he’s involved in, he does let out that in general what’s happening is that, at potentially great danger to themselves, relief workers in the area are trying to go directly to where the refugees are. Since China still cooperates with the North Koreans, risks abound, as soldiers from both countries’ militaries actively seek out and deport refugees and imprison facilitators.
In a recent interview with the relief organization Family Care Foundations, the man who is internationally known as the expert and main spearhead for the cause, Tim Peters, commented on the need to take these kinds of risks when bringing relief. “There are no such things as unscheduled monitoring trips to aid delivery sites inside North Korea. … That’s not to say that all aid is diverted, but there are enough reports about lack of transparency to cause major concern.”
That concern has spread to such a degree that the only sure way to get aid to those who need it is by putting it into their hands out of the sight of the North Korean government.
“We look at it like as a big statue—you’re chipping away from any angle you can,” says Mark, assessing the work as a whole being done by many groups in the region, working both separately and together. The main ones Mark and another former Army captain, Jesse (who also served along the DMZ in the 4-7 Cavalry), are involved with include Cornerstone Ministries, Mission Aviation Fellowship-Korea and Helping Hands Korea.
Peters, who is a friend of Mark’s in South Korea, heads up the last group. He’s lived in South Korea on and off since 1975 and has been featured on 60 Minutes talking about the situation in North Korea. As Mark puts it, “[He’s a] tremendous hero of this whole fight.”
In the middle of telling me where this mission is taking him, Mark stops for a moment and makes very clear what his motivations are.
“My first priority is lifting up Jesus Christ and serving him.” End of sentence.
“My goal isn’t just to feed people. You can feed a person today, but he’s going to be hungry tomorrow again,” Mark adds, alluding to the “teach a man to fish” idea while impressing that his ultimate goal is “giving them a deeper spiritual freedom.”
“This is not out there,” Mark continues, “this is real life—it’s really happening. A North Korean hiding in China is treated like an illegal immigrant. There’s a Chinese bounty on a North Korean head, and there’s a bounty for turning in Chinese citizens who are hiding North Koreans. So it creates a knife fight among their own citizens. There’s a whole network of people who are running an underground railroad, hiding North Koreans, moving them farther and farther from the border regions.”
This network strives to provide food and clothing, offer medical care, bring Bibles to them (there are thousands of North Korean Christians who have not been allowed to openly practice their faith since the 1950s) as well as bring hope by telling them that there’s another world outside North Korea’s borders and “giving them a contrast of what they’ve been brainwashed versus what reality is.” The hope is that the refugees who do end up back in North Korea take these stories back and spread the message of hope while helping their fellow countrymen escape.
Back in Seoul now, Mark has been sending e-mail messages to America, filling my head with more links and contacts than I am able to get to. The dynamic of his being able to talk to me in real time from the other side of the planet (though Seoul is 16 hours ahead of Chico), while 30 miles north of him North Korean officials are busy rotating its decrepit and depleted electrical power from one area to another to share the light, is mind boggling. Undoubtedly there are new stories unfolding under the cloak of darkness as Mark sends his latest on to my inbox.
In relation to my question about the big picture featured on the cover of this issue of the CN&R (it’s Mark standing on a van looking out at the Mongolian steppe north of China): “I was sitting last night with a man who made it through Mongolia to freedom in South Korea about two years ago. A few months after his trip his 10-year-old boy died trying the same route.”
There are glimmers of hope. Recent skirmishes at the Japanese Embassy in Shenyang, China, where North Korean refugees tried storming the embassy for asylum only to be forcibly removed by Chinese troops, have put China’s role in the refugee crisis under a somewhat brighter spotlight. By the time this article hits the streets, there will have been a North Korean Freedom Day rally in Washington, D.C. (April 28), and delegates from the rally will have lobbied Congress on behalf of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, denouncing the human-rights abuses in Northeast Asia and urging the UN Human Rights Commissioner to assert its power of “binding arbitration” with China.
Plus, the 2008 Olympics are coming to Beijing, where religious leaders, NGOs and hopefully participating countries will demand China make good on its human-rights promises before the games begin. With the official Olympic slogan being “Celebrate Humanity,” the choice to do right would seem an obvious and a painless one.
When I ask him how long he sees himself staying and working in the area, Mark e-mails me back a very succinct rundown of his plans, punctuated by a very military-sounding promise: "I left the Army in March of 2003, one year ago. I just enrolled in intensive Korean-language study that will last seven quarters, or almost two years. I am prepared to fight for the freedom of these people until the doors open or God directs my path elsewhere."