Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad


Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick is the best book I have read on the subject of the hidden network of routes, safe havens, brokers and agents who assist North Koreans in their life-or-death quest to escape their country. Kirkpatrick has written an account of the new underground railroad by covering all bases in her interviews. She spoke with the North Korean refugees themselves and with those who live across the border in PR China who shelter them. She met with numerous religious and humanitarian organizations who help directly or raise awareness of the refugee situation. Kirkpatrick even managed clandestine meetings with brokers who arrange the transport of refugees out of mainland China. Once the North Koreans have made it to the South, Kirkpatrick interviewed those in Seoul who work with them, and she even spoke to several high-ranking officials who had defected from North Korea. Escape was a rapid read that I could not wait to finish. Kirkpatrick, formerly a writer with the Wall Street Journal, organized her story intelligently and did not resort to American jingoism, although that’s what I felt when I saw the title of the penultimate chapter, “Invading North Korea”. Instead of a military invasion by the South, she was referring to an infiltration of the North by technology, the inevitable opening of the country by smuggled cellphones, DVD’s and flash drives.

Kirkpatrick spoke to escapees of all ages who risked their lives leaving North Korea. The primary reason for their flight was that of hunger. Those who fled were mostly from the north of the country, the area that was devastated by the famine that started twenty years ago. The refugees were overwhelmingly women, who sometimes fled with their children or sent for them after they had reached a safe haven. Simply put, it was easier for women to escape, as they could be more inconspicuous in a society which polices every city limit and bars anyone from entering without the proper paperwork.

The border with PR China is “wet”; in other words, it is a water frontier. Two rivers separate the two countries, the Yalu in the northwest and the Tumen in the northeast. In the winter, these frozen rivers can be crossed on foot, while at other times during the rest of the year there are certain points along their course where one can wade across. Kirkpatrick impressed me in that she also covered the rarely talked-about escape route over the short 17-km wet border North Korea shares with Soviet Russia.

Once safely across in PR China, refugees meet those whom they would otherwise consider the enemy. It is these people who end up being their rescuers:  

“And yet many North Koreans who escape to China, although they’ve been warned against Christians all their lives, end up turning to Christians for help. This is particularly striking given that some of the Christians are South Koreans or Americans, two other groups of people the North Korean regime has demonized.”

While religion may be quietly tolerated in the People’s Republic of China, the government has less tolerance for those whom the religious organizations shelter. Using the excuse of legally repatriating North Koreans as “economic refugees”, likening what they do with the United States and its refusal to grant admittance to illegal Mexicans, PR China will not hesitate to send North Koreans back across the border:

“China’s repatriation policy dates back to the early 1960s, when it concluded a secret agreement governing the border area with North Korea. In 1986, the two countries signed another bilateral agreement. It mandated the return of North Koreans who crossed into China. Beijing’s official position is that it strictly adheres to this obligation and that there are no exceptions.”

The key to avoid detection, then, is to catch a ride on the underground railroad shortly after crossing the border. One has to make one’s way out immediately after crossing in. Refugees must navigate carefully among those who have set up safe shelters, and avoid those whose job it is to lure them into traps sending them back to North Korea. Often those who proffer assistance are only interested in preying on the most vulnerable–again, almost all women–to sell them as brides to Chinese men. Those who spend only a brief time in mainland China before leaving for South Korea don’t have to worry about blending in with the local population who can tell North Korean escapees from their appearance alone. Sarah Yun, an American who manages a shelter for North Korean refugees in an undisclosed southeast Asian city, makes the following assessment of the coping skills of North Korean refugees:

“Yun notices a difference in attitude between North Koreans who arrive directly from North Korea after having spent only a few days or weeks in China and those who have lived in China for extended periods. ‘Those who come straight out are pampered,’ she said. It’s an odd word to use to describe people who have just left the world’s most repressive state. She puts it another way: Many North Koreans go through a version of adolescence once they reach a free country, she says. They are used to having decisions made for them in North Korea. Now, for the first time in their lives, they are expected to take control of their own lives. They don’t understand how to handle their newfound independence, she says, and they can be overwhelmed with choices and responsibilities. Life in North Korea has left them with few problem-solving skills.”

Integration into South Korean society is easier said than done. This is the impression made throughout Escape. Once in South Korea, many North Koreans cannot grasp the foundations of a capitalist economy and personal progress:

“The director of Hanawon [1], Youn Mirang, explained: The North Koreans ‘don’t understand the real meaning of competitiveness or competition,’ she said. Teaching such concepts is difficult. North Korean refugees are good at taking directions, but they are very passive workers. ‘They accept orders, but that’s it,’ Youn Mirang said. ‘They don’t have any initiative.'”

Sixty years of separation since the Korean War armistice has taken its toll on the people separated by the DMZ. We are definitely not dealing with a situation like that between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, where although the same people was divided by an Iron Curtain, those in the east had full access to the west via TV and a little island called West Berlin. Mail also flowed between the two Germanys, which is still not possible between North and South Korea:

“Even a low-tech form of information technology–the mail service–is highly restricted. North Korea is a member of the Universal Postal Union, but it has direct postal service with a limited number of countries. South Korea is not among them.”

I have to take issue with this statement, as I myself sent numerous postcards from the DPRK to several countries: among them Switzerland, Australia, England, Finland, Canada, plus the great imperialist aggressor the USA, and they all got delivered. What does Kirkpatrick mean by “direct postal service”?

Kirkpatrick in borrowing the metaphor “underground railroad” for a new context in southeast Asia, used the expression “the new underground railroad” to excess. I am sure readers would have understood perfectly well what underground railroad she was referring to if she had left out the adjective “new”. The phrasing, “the new underground railroad” was burdensome for the eyes to trip over.

One final item puzzled me. Within the photos section was a shot of American activist Suzanne Scholte addressing the North Korea People’s Liberation Front. This is a Seoul-based organization comprised of more than one hundred former North Korean soldiers, whose vow is to overthrow the Kim family regime and unify the Korean peninsula. That’s a pretty spectacular mission statement, yet there was no mention of the North Korean People’s Liberation Front anywhere in the entire book, except within the photos section. Granted, the focus of Escape is the untold story of Asia’s underground railroad, yet I would have expected anything in the photos section to have some kind of antecedent in the text.

[1] The Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees based in Seoul


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