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Mr. Son grew closer to a South Korean missionary, who had talked to him about Christianity and North Korea, while sheltering and feeding him and his family after their arrival in China.

Their meeting was not unusual. South Korea has a large Christian population, and hundreds of South Korean, American and Canadian missionaries work undercover in Chinese towns near the North Korean border, said Seoul-based activists specializing in North Korean human rights issues.

They hide Bibles in shipments of food, clothing, bicycles and other aid bound for North Korea. They release balloons imprinted with the Gospel of St. Mark and let winds carry them across the border. They help North Koreans flee and teach them about Christianity.

And sometimes they send them back to their home country.

One missionary, Korean-American Robert Park, made headlines after he crossed into North Korea last Christmas, shouting that he brought God’s love and carrying a letter demanding Mr. Kim’s resignation. The 26-year-old was arrested and released in February.

The South Korean missionary who converted Mr. Son disguised himself as the head of a timber mill. Mr. Son’s brother never met the missionary; he said his brother wouldn’t let him and wouldn’t even reveal his name, because of concerns about the missionary’s safety.

After becoming a Christian, Mr. Son began helping the missionary try to convert other North Koreans hiding in China.

“My brother said he realized the Kim Jong-il regime is hypocritical, and living in accordance with what the Bible says is what we have to do,” the younger Mr. Son said. “Christianity can come upon innocent people like my brother so fast.”

In January 2001, Mr. Son was arrested by Chinese police on charges of trying to convert North Korean defectors in China, which bans foreigners from proselytizing. He was deported home in April, where he was detained and tortured, leaving him with a limp, his brother said. He lost about 70 pounds in captivity.

“He was beaten in the head with clubs and given electric shocks,” his brother said, his eyes welling with tears.

Mr. Son was released in 2004 and sneaked across the border to Yanji to see his daughter, who had been left in the care of a Chinese missionary. He soon decided to return to North Korea to proselytize.

“I repeatedly urged him to change his mind, but he told me he has something to do in North Korea,” said his brother, who was living in Seoul by then but returned to China briefly to see his brother.

Mr. Son headed back with the Bibles and tapes. Little is known about how he evangelized, though his brother said Mr. Son worked at a state-run defense institute and was allowed to travel freely.

It’s unclear whether efforts such as Mr. Son’s have met with much success. Mr. Lee, the Seoul-based missionary, claims his Cornerstone Ministries International has 135,000 members in North Korea.

But analysts such as Kim Soo-am at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul are skeptical of purported active underground church movements.

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