Escape from North Korea

The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.

What risks are all parties taking by escaping — or facilitating escape?
The North Koreans are risking arrest and repatriation. It’s hard to overestimate what a very big deal that is in the mind of a North Korean hiding in China. In many cases he decides that he just can’t take the risk of being sent back to North Korea by exposing himself on a journey on the underground railroad so he’ll decide to stay in hiding in China. If he is captured and sent back the punishment is severe. The Chinese will send North Koreans back with a dossier. If it says he has had contact with South Koreans or Americans or if he is perceived to have been trying to get out to South Korea on the underground railroad then he is treated even more harshly than the ordinary returnee. Everybody is sent to some kind of jail for the perceived crime of having left North Korea without permission. But those who have had contact with undesirables in China are considered more dangerous and face harsher sentences — even death, in some cases.

As for the people who assist them, it’s against the law in China to help North Koreans to hide out there, and people go to prison for doing so. Many Americans and South Koreans have gone to prison and been deported. The Chinese who help also go to prison and it’s harder for them because when they get out they have to live there. They have a record and that’s not good. I know of one woman who went to prison for two years for buying a train ticket for a North Korean.

But a lot of this is haphazard. There is a national policy, of course. But enforcement varies from town to town and village to village and also depends on the word that is handed down from Beijing.

What challenges do escapees face once they reach their destination, whether that is in China or South Korea or elsewhere?
The majority of North Koreans who opt to stay in China feel trapped and feel that they don’t have any way to get out. In some cases, they are satisfied with their life in China. The majority of those who leave North Korea are women, and many of them are sold as wives. But there are women who are satisfied with the men to whom they have been sold and the lives they have created with them and don’t want to leave. There is always the risk of being arrested, but they feel somewhat secure that the community will not turn them in to the police. But they have to stay in hiding or have some kind of protector because their status is illegal.

So China is very much a facilitator of inhumane treatment of North Koreans. China sends people back to this place, where they are brutally treated and sometimes executed. And if a woman [who is repatriated] is pregnant, it is assumed that the child she is carrying has a Chinese father. She is forced to abort, or if the child is carried to term that child is killed.

In China itself there are a lot of North Koreans who are mistreated because of their status. If they are working someplace employers often don’t pay them what they are owed and won’t take care of them. If they are women they often end up in the sex industry. They don’t have any options. 

What kind of comparisons can be drawn between Asia’s underground railroad and the one in pre-Civil War America?
The way it’s set up is similar. The safe houses and transit routes are kept secret and vary a lot. There is another similarity in that many of the people who operate on the underground railroad are ethnically Korean, just as many of the operators on the original underground railroad were free blacks. Another similarity is that the enslaved person has to make that initial decision to leave. It’s very difficult to get access to a person in North Korea and talk to him about getting out. In many cases the North Korean has to make that decision on his own and make his way to China. That’s changed some in the past couple of years. There are now brokers and missionaries that have contacts that help them reach into North Korea and get people out. And once they get to China another set of operators take over.

Another similarity is that a lot of the operators are Christian. One other comparison — and a very important part of my book — is the effect of this underground railroad. In the U.S. the escaped slaves played a very pivotal role in forming public opinion in the north about slavery. There was sentiment among some people that slavery wasn’t such a bad institution — that African-Americans were well treated. But the stories of the slaves put the lie to that idea. In the north and in Britain it shaped the understanding of what the institution of slavery was really like.

How might the escapees transform North Korea? Is a transformation already underway?
I think so. The information trail works both ways. People who have escaped have found creative ways to get information back to North Korea. For example, some have hired Chinese couriers, who go into the country — legally or illegally — and visit an address that an escapee has given them and deliver a verbal message to a family member. This is a primitive way of delivering information but it is effective. Sometimes couriers will take in Chinese cell phones — ones that will capture a Chinese satellite signal. They will tell the contact to go to a place near the border on a certain day and hour and then turn the phone on, and a relative in South Korea or China or America will call. The calls last no longer than two or three minutes because if they talk any longer the police scanners in North Korea might be able to locate the signal, find the cell phone, and arrest the person using it. But this is another way people are able to communicate with relatives. When you think about it, the first thing any refugee wants to do is to get word back to their family members back home. But you can’t make a phone call to North Korea or send an email or even send a letter.

Some of the exiles have set up organizations for the express purpose of getting information back into North Korea. There are four refugee-run radio stations in Seoul and they broadcast several hours a day to North Korea. I have a strong sense that there is a profound change going on in North Korea now because North Koreans are becoming more aware of what life is like in China and the rest of the world. Their eyes are opening about the possibilities available elsewhere. They are also beginning to understand that their own leaders have lied to them, and that South Korea, for example, is not the poverty-stricken place they have been told about.

Melanie Kirkpatrick dot-com

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