2007 Civil Courage Prize Honoree
The Rev. Phillip Buck
Guided refugees from North Korea in their escape to freedom.
Responding to the humanitarian disaster created by conditions in North Korea and Eastern China, this heroic rescuer personally guided dozens of North Korean refugees out of China via the "underground railway" to South Korea. For this, and for sheltering and feeding more than 1,000 refugees stranded in China while fleeing Kim Jong-il's regime, he spent 15 months in a Chinese prison until his deportation in August 2006. He continues to aid and inspire those who carry on this dangerous work.
An Award Ceremony was held in New York City on October 16th, 2007.
Year 2007 Award Recipient
The Rev. Phillip Buck was born as John Yoon in North Korea in 1941. He fled with his brothers to South Korea, but like so many Koreans during the Korean War, he was tragically separated from his family. He spent his childhood in a South Korean orphanage and then obtained a bachelor's and Master's degree in theology from Han Sae University. He immigrated to the United States in 1983, becoming a US citizen in 1989. For 24 years he has been a pastor based in Seattle, Washington. In 1992 he was sent by his denomination to work as a missionary in Russia.
In 1994 Pastor Buck began to aid North Koreans escaping to China to flee the brutal regime of Kim Jong-il, helping them to obtain basic necessities such as food. However, Rev. Buck soon realized that feeding North Koreans was futile because Kim Jong-il's regime was intentionally starving the North Korean people to death.
Hence, Pastor Buck became a rescuer.
The plight of North Korean refugees hiding in northeast China is one of the least known humanitarian disasters today. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled their country seeking sanctuary in China which, contrary to international law, tracks down and repatriates the refugees. China's policies have created a situation where North Korean females become victims of trafficking; men become slave laborers and children become orphans existing on what they can find to survive.
Between 1997-2006 Pastor Buck built numerous shelters at many different cities in China, providing refugees with humanitarian assistance such as shelter, food, clothes and medicine, traveling secretly from town to town, always knowing that he was risking his own life to help some of the most vulnerable people living today. He assisted and supported more than 100 North Korean refugees to obtain asylum in South Korea.
He describes one journey as follows:
"During one of these escapes to freedom, I was especially happy and exhilarated. 32 North Korean refugees arrived at the same time safely at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, located in Bangkok, Thailand. They were immediately granted asylum in South Korea. I led all 32 out of China without detection.
On our trip, which included 10,000 miles by foot, vehicle, boat, and train, we eluded the police and soldiers successfully. We even boarded a train at the Three Northeast Provinces in China going past Beijing and Yunnan. We ultimately crossed the border of Laos without any visas. We traveled clear across the land of Laos and crossed into the border of Thailand , where we traveled to reach Bangkok, eventually arriving at the Embassy. The reason I was able to lead these 32 courageous refugees, like a commander leading his army, over dangerous terrain, mountain passes, cities, rural villages, swamps, and forests, was because of the love I had for the lives of these refugees."
As Pastor Buck stated in an interview, "North Koreans fleeing their country face a double-edged sword — oppression, torture and starvation in their homeland and mistreatment in China."
In 2002, Pastor Buck narrowly escaped arrest in China when his organization was infiltrated by an informant. One of his safe houses was raided and his apartment was searched. But he escaped capture as he was out of the country. His family pleaded with him not to return to China, but he did, giving up his birth name of John Yoon and adopting the name of Phillip Buck to help prevent Chinese authorities from uncovering the expanding underground railway bringing North Koreans to China and South Korea.
While traveling with 14 refugees in 2005, Pastor Buck and most of his party were arrested. He spent 15 months in the notorious Yanji prison, suffering malnutrition, intense interrogation and sleep deprivation. Every day in prison he "thought about the refugees and prayed to God to help them." Thanks to the US Embassy, he did not suffer further abuse and was deported to the United States in August 2006. Pastor Buck reports, however, that "The Chinese authorities have been after me since I left jail."
He believes the refugees are the key to dealing with North Korean political issues, that the more people escape, the weaker the North Korean regime will become.
Pastor Buck is barred from returning to China legally, but he has continued to help North Korean refugees who manage to reach China through financial and other support, raising money from afar to house and feed the displaced in China. He has been affiliated in his efforts with Christian churches in South Korea, Europe and the US. He has been a speaker at a public forum on the plight of North Korean refugees at Capitol Hill, hosted by Defense Forum Foundation, as well as serving as a witness in congressional hearings and meetings with staffs and officials at the State Department. As Pastor Buck states, "My work is nowhere near finished."
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Pastor Buck with The Hon. John Train (Founder and Chairman of The Train Foundation) and keynote speaker Lord Howe.
Pastor Buck delivers his address to the audience.
Pastor Buck with his children, Maria, Grace and Jamin (left), Nominator Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal (behind), Chairman John Train and Keynote Speaker Lord Howe (right).
Pastor Buck with Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Forum Foundation and Stephen Kim, a NY-Based businessman who has also assisted Korean refugees.