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South Korea jails former hero pastor for sexually abusing North Korean teenage defectors

A South Korean pastor once hailed as a hero for helping North Korean defectors escape to safety has been jailed for sexually abusing minors.

Chun Ki-won was sentenced to five years in prison last week for abusing six teenage victims between 2016 and 2023, all of whom are either North Korean refugees or children of refugees, according to the Seoul Central District Court.

“The nature of the crime was bad considering the circumstances, method, content, period, and number of crimes,” the judge said, according to the court. The judge added that Chun had molested the teenagers while “in a position where he has absolute influence over the victims as a school principal.”

“Chun’s crime appears to have had a negative impact on the victims’ formation of sound sexual values, and the victims also wanted him punished,” the court said.

Chun was head of Christian aid organization Durihana, which he claimed had helped more than 1,000 defectors reach Seoul since 1999. According to the organization’s website, it runs a boarding school for North Korean children to be “taught the Christian faith.”

CNN interviewed Chun and described Durihana’s work in 2019.

Chun was arrested and indicted last September for violating the Act on Sexual Protection of Children and Adolescents, according to the Seoul Central District Court.

The judge also ordered Chun to complete an 80-hour sexual violence-related treatment program. He will also be restricted from employment for five years at organizations related to children and youth with disabilities.

Refugees fleeing North Korea often make the perilous journey across the border into China, before attempting to reach South Korea.

China, a close ally of Pyongyang, doesn’t consider North Korean defectors refugees, instead seeing them as illegal economic migrants. Under a border agreement with North Korea, it forcibly deports them.

Once returned to North Korea, defectors face possible torture, sexual violence, hard labor, imprisonment in political or re-education camps, or even execution by the state, according to activists.

Many defectors rely on a network of secret routes and safe houses, set up by Korean pastors inspired by the Underground Railroad, the secret passages enslaved African Americans used to escape to free states from the late 1700s until the American Civil War.

Chun and Durihana were part of this network, helping refugees and victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. Thousands of North Korean refugees have been abducted or trafficked to work in China’s multimillion-dollar sex trade, according to a 2019 report by the London-based non-profit organization Korea Future Initiative (KFI).

The secret network and the pastors who run it offers a vital lifeline to sex trafficking victims looking for a way to escape, CNN reported in 2019, speaking to refugees who had escaped to South Korea with help from Durihana.

CNN has reached out to Durihana for comment.

Julie Zaugg contributed to this report.

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