The untold story of Asia’s underground railroad.
“More than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall,” writes Melanie Kirkpatrick, “North Korea remains the world’s last closed totalitarian state, intent on keeping foreigners out and its own citizens in.” It ranks at the bottom of every international standard of freedom. Those trapped inside North Korea (leaving is a capital crime) are doomed to a hellish existence. Those who risk their lives to flee face a different kind of hell.
Journalist Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and deputy editor of the editorial page for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, a gripping read about the treacherous journey for those not only seeking freedom for themselves, but also helping to expose their fellow countrymen to Western ideas that may subvert the totalitarian regime.
Mark Tapson: What is the new underground railroad out of North Korea, and who runs it?
Melanie Kirkpatrick: The new underground railroad actually begins in China, not North Korea. It’s very difficult for an outsider to help someone in North Korea, which is a tightly sealed country. If a North Korean wants to reach freedom, he first needs to get to China – something he needs to do on his own or, perhaps, with help from a broker who specializes in extractions from North Korea. If he can get to China, however, there are people who can help him hook up with the new underground railroad.
Like the original underground railroad in the antebellum American South, the new underground railroad is a clandestine network of safe houses and transit routes. It carries North Koreans across China to safety in a neighboring country, usually in Southeast Asia. Once the North Korean fugitives are in Vietnam or Laos or Thailand, the South Korean government can help them reach permanent homes in South Korea. Under South Korea’s constitution, every North Korean has the right to live in the South.
The new underground railroad is operated both by Christians, whose religious beliefs compel them to help the North Koreans, and also by brokers, who are in it for the money. It’s against Chinese law to help North Korean refugees there, so working on the underground railroad can be a dangerous business. I’ve interviewed Americans who have gone to jail in China for helping North Koreans get out of China. Steve Kim, a Long Island businessman, spent four years in a Chinese prison for providing food and shelter for North Koreans who were hiding in China.
MT: What is the “information invasion”?
MK: One of the first things any immigrant wants to do when he reaches his new country is to get word to his family back in the old country. But a North Korean who gets out of North Korea can’t do that through legitimate channels. He can’t send a letter back home or make a phone call there or wire home money. So what does he do? The exiles have set up informal channels in the black market to get news and money and goods into North Korea. They send in Chinese couriers to deliver messages and money to their loved ones. Sometimes they have the couriers carry in cell phones that will capture Chinese phone signals. The courier tells the North Korean relative to go to a spot near the border on a certain day at a certain time, turn on the cell phone and wait for a call from his relative in China or South Korea or America.
North Koreans now living in Seoul also have started radio stations that broadcast news into the North. Some exile organizations secretly send in videotapes of South Korean soap operas, flash drives containing news stories, and other potentially subversive information. Imagine the impact of watching a South Korean TV show where the characters are driving their own cars, running their own businesses, and sitting down at their dining room tables to eat meat, fish and other food that is scarce in North Korea. This influx of news is helping to transform North Koreans’ perception of the outside world, especially of South Korea.
MT: We usually associate the Middle East with Christian persecution, but North Korea is actually the world’s worst persecutor of Christians. Why does North Korea fear them so much?
MK: Every totalitarian regime fears religion because religious adherents answer to a higher power than the totalitarian state. I interviewed Billy Graham some few years ago, and he talked to me about the link between Christianity and freedom. That’s the reason North Korea fears it. Christianity teaches the equal value of every human life.
MT: How do North Korean women feed into the human trafficking problem?
MK: There’s a severe shortage of young women in China, due to China’s one-child policy, which has been in effect for 30 years. Many young Chinese men are desperate for wives. This has sparked a market in North Korean brides – young women who are kidnapped or tricked into going to China, where they are sold as “wives” to Chinese men. A North Korean woman who is sold as a bride is in a hopeless situation. If she leaves her husband and goes to the Chinese police, they will arrest her and send her back to North Korea, where she’ll be imprisoned for the crime of leaving her country. If she’s pregnant, her unborn child either will be aborted or delivered and killed. Every former North Korean bride I interviewed remembers the price that she was sold for.
MT: How can or does all this impact U.S. policy toward North Korea?
MK: First, we should face up to the fact that it is impossible to help North Koreans inside North Korea. The regime won’t let international food aid reach the people in need. It’s diverted to the elites and the military.
But we can do more to help the North Koreans who escape. We can publicize their plight more than we do. We can help them get more information into North Korea by increasing our aid to North Koreans who are running radio stations and other programs that send information to North Koreans in North Korea. The exiled North Koreans are helping to open their information-starved homeland. In doing so, they are opening the minds of their countrymen and sowing the seeds for dissent. We need to better support that effort.
The U.S. and the United Nations also need to put more pressure on China to stop sending North Koreans back to North Korea.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the stated policy of the U.S. should be the removal of the Kim family regime.
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