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.

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