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SEOUL — Tim Peters has worked for nine years to find inventive ways to help North Koreans and their nation’s refugees.

He and his group, Helping Hands Korea, began by trying to send a ton of corn into the communist country each month to battle famine there. Corn is less valuable than rice, which might be redirected by North Korean officials to military bases instead of to elementary schools, he said.

About three years ago, he paired with a bakery in China that sends high-nutrient buns over the North Korean border each day to feed school children. Sending baked bread, instead of sacks of ingredients, provides more insurance students, rather than others, will get the loaves before they spoil, he said.

More recently, Peters has taken to raising money to help North Korean refugees who have made it as far as China, but need more help escaping to another nearby country where South Korean officials can offer help. The refugees often live in China for six months or longer.

Getting a refugee into China costs about $500. Getting someone out of China — where people are returned to North Korea if caught — costs about $2,000, rescue workers have said.

Now, Peters is trying to revive interest among South Koreans, and even U.S. military personnel, to help North Koreans fight their poverty. He’s holding a fund-raiser Friday night to collect more money to help the refugees.

“It’s not only for raising resources,” he said at a Monday interview, “but to raise awareness about the North Koreans.”

The fund-raiser is from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Federation of Korean Industries building near the Yeouido subway stop. The night will include a silent art auction. Suggested admission is 20,000 won, or about $20.

In 2004, Helping Hands raised almost $150,000, a stunning amount for a group that generally raises about $50,000 a year. He credited European donors — a previously untapped market — for the boost. The money helped sustain about 500 North Koreans living in China, he said.

Refugees typically live in urban apartments or makeshift rural homes once they make it to China, Peters said. From there, they must travel to another country, usually Mongolia or through Vietnam to Cambodia, where South Korean officials can begin to help, he said.

Peters has lived and done missionary work in South Korea on and off for 30 years. He said North Koreans he helps know of his religious motivation but “our help is not contingent on their acceptance [of Christianity]. This is important to me.”

Twice, Peters has testified before congressional committees about his work with North Korean refugees, according to the Family Care Foundation. He also submitted a paper last year to the World Economic Forum during its East Asian Economic Summit.

Peters talked Monday about some of the success stories — a child who received “clandestine medical assistance” while hiding in China, a woman who managed to cross the North Korean border although she had lost all 10 or her toes to frostbite as a labor camp.

Not all make it. Recently, a 12-year-old boy, caught in China, was returned to North Korea, he said.

“You get to know these people, even if you only see them for a day of two,” he said.


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