Escape from North Korea

The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.

Escape from North Korea

North Korea is #22 on the 2012 Failed State Index and it’s generally regarded as the world’s most repressive state. So it’s no surprise that inhabitants wish to leave. That’s easier said than done, though, as it’s a crime to leave the country without permission — and the most common way out is via the neighboring, but unwelcoming, country of China (which rejects North Koreans as criminals and doesn’t hesitate to repatriate refugees). Those individuals who make the choice to flee North Korea travel along an underground railroad — not unlike the one that brought fugitive slaves north in pre-Civil War America. It’s a harrowing and dangerous journey, one that typically requires help from human traffickers and members of Christian relief organizations, who work clandestinely and at great risk to their own lives.

In “Escape from North Korea” (Encounter Books), journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick tells the story of this new underground railroad through the eyes of the refugees. “People don’t know a lot about the human issues regarding North Korea,” said Kirkpatrick prior to the following Q&A with Failure, but that is changing thanks to the North Koreans who have escaped and are now telling their stories to the world — and to people back in their information-starved homeland. “We now know more about North Korean life than we ever have,” she continued, “and after sixty years of totalitarian oppression the fact that people are still hungry for freedom is a very positive sign.”

Can you paint a picture of what life is like for the average North Korean?
One of the things we’ve learned from the people who have escaped is what life is like there. When I started the research for the book I already knew a lot about North Korea — or thought I did — but the more people I interviewed the more I learned, and I learned that it is far worse than even I imagined. One way to describe how awful it is is that the government controls access to food. Those who are considered politically loyal and friendly to the regime are at the top of the list and those who aren’t are at the bottom. And a lot of people who live in the northern regions of the country — which is considered North Korea’s Siberia — are at the bottom of the list. The food shortages are particularly severe in the north.

Another thing we’ve learned about is the apartheid-like system in North Korea. Every individual is assigned to a political class — a social caste, really. That is determined mostly by one’s family background and political loyalty. So, for example, if your grandfather was a Christian and fought in the Korean War on the side of the south, you as a grandson or granddaughter would be given a very low position in this caste system. You can never outgrow your assigned caste. [It] determines the kind of education you get, the kind of job you are assigned to, and who is willing to marry you. Of course, no one is going to be interested in marrying someone in a low caste if they can aspire higher.

Finally, from interviewing people I’ve learned about the extraordinary brutality of life in North Korea. You’ve probably heard about the torture and food depravation and the harshness of life in the political prison camps, but those conditions apply to the other prisons as well. One team of American social scientists did a survey of North Koreans hiding out in China and discovered that an astonishing ninety-five percent of them had some violent encounter with the police or security agencies. [Police] can pull somebody off the street and take them in for questioning and rough them up. A North Korean has zero rights.

How do North Koreans escape the country? In the book you explain how it’s not as simple as crossing the DMZ.
Occasionally someone gets out by going across the DMZ. There have been two examples of that this fall — both North Korean soldiers who saw a chance and took it. In one case a soldier was at his guard post and shot two superior officers and ran across to the South Korean side. But the vast majority go to China, which shares a long border with North Korea. Once there they exchange one circle of hell for another circle of hell, because of Chinese policy of arresting and repatriating them.

If they want to get out of China they have to find help. That is largely a matter of luck. Getting out of China is not something a North Korean can do on his own. A North Korean already stands out because he doesn’t speak Chinese and doesn’t blend in to Chinese society. In many cases North Koreans are malnourished and physically stunted. One of the first survival tips that North Koreans learn is to find a church, because church people are the only people who are likely to help.

And since Kim Jong Il died [on December 17, 2011] his son, Kim Jong Un, the current dictator, has really cracked down on border crossings. So it is harder now for a person to get to China, and fewer people have reached South Korea this year than in the past few years. 

Who are the people responsible for helping the refugees along the way?
It’s a motley mix. There are human traffickers and brokers who are very active in the border area. These are mostly Chinese but many of them are ethnic Koreans. A lot of them are unsavory characters. At the same time there are others who look at it like a business [and realize] if their business is going to be successful they have to have a good record of getting people out.

There are also humanitarian workers, most of who are working for Christian organizations, such as churches or non-profits. Finally, there are Chinese Christians. The locals are pretty limited in what they can do. They are the first line of support for North Koreans and often find them a place to stay and help them find jobs off the books. They also put North Koreans in touch with people working on the underground railroad. The trips out are generally organized by South Koreans or Americans [or brokers], not by local Christians. The humanitarian workers often work hand in hand with brokers. I’ve interviewed helpers — humanitarian/Christian workers — who won’t work with brokers as a matter of policy, but most I talk to say they are a necessary evil and you have to work with brokers if you are going to be successful.

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