The last book I read about the DPRK before I leave for Asia at the end of the month is Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country by palindromically-named Mike Kim. I could tell the direction the book would take by the title alone, as well as by the photo on the front cover showing a North Korean mother and daughter trying to find refuge in a Chinese consulate. Escaping North Korea is not a substantial book, which at 239 pages and large type and wide spaces between the lines leaves too much to be taken at face value without corroboration. After having read Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin just before, I am spoiled as a reader demanding footnotes and multiple sources to back up the author.
Escaping North Korea is a sensationalized story about the North Korean famine, gulag system and every other horror one has heard about the country. While there is no doubt in my mind that the economic and penal systems in the DPRK might be among the harshest in the world, Kim piled on the negative superlatives long and thick. It felt as though I was reading a book of urban myths about North Korea. There was only so much the reader can take before he asks aloud “But where did you get all this information from?”.
Kim worked for four years on the DPRK-China border helping refugees who risk their lives crossing the river into China. He acquired his knowledge from defector testimony which in itself is highly unreliable. That is not to say that what defectors say about their own lives is untrue. I however was not swayed by much–if any–of the defectors’ testimony about other people left back home.
Kim was at his best when he wrote about the escape routes of the Asian Underground Railroad. North Korean defectors or refugees cannot simply fly to South Korea if they are fortunate enough to escape into China. They must make a lengthy, tiresome and life-threatening journey through a number of countries. Kim himself tested one such journey in advance of sending a group of refugee women from China to Laos. He was met with blazing sun, day-long hikes through mountainous terrain, double-crossing locals, border guards who could or who couldn’t be bribed, and stressful interrogation when he was apprehended on his route. As he wrote about his attempts to cross the Chinese border into Laos, and then to cross back, also illegally, into China, it was the only time while reading where I could not put the book down.
The last chapter of Escaping North Korea is entitled “The Future of North Korea”, wherein Kim asked fifteen experts for their prognostications. This final chapter seemed boring since there was a string one after the other of fifteen often similar predictions for the future of the DPRK. It was overkill, when Kim could have narrowed it down to five opinions.