by Leslie Patrick
Standing at the 38th parallel that divides the two Koreas is a surreal experience. On the southern side, buses of foreign tourists on day trips from nearby Seoul buy postcards and gawk across barbed wire fences into one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes.
My tiny peek across the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, into the North left me curious as to what exactly goes on in a country so secretive. North Korea is a land where horrors like public executions and forced abortions still exist, and the constant threat of imprisonment for even the smallest of infractions against the government looms over the head of every citizen.
Since the peninsula was split in 1945 after World War II, the Kim family dynasty has often deprived its citizens of the most basic human rights, causing thousands to risk their lives fleeing its heavily guarded northern border each year. The escape is fraught with danger. From bribing border patrol and fording freezing rivers to life on the run in unwelcoming China, North Korean refugees face not only capture and repatriation, but also the threat of torture and imprisonment at every turn.
In my quest to understand North Korea, I came upon “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” the new book by Melanie Kirkpatrick, a longtime journalist who spent many years covering Asian affairs. Kirkpatrick found herself at once fascinated and appalled by the things going on in the darkness and secrecy that encompasses North Korea.
The glimmer of light that is a new Underground Railroad has prompted Kirkpatrick to tell this harrowing story. Each page tells the tale of both the brave men and women who had the nerve to attempt escape, and the equally brave souls who risk harsh punishment assisting them in their flight. This new Underground Railroad has sprung up in the name of freedom and human rights, a reminder that 60 years of oppression have not quelled North Koreans’ hunger for freedom.
What led you to write this book about the plight of North Koreans?
Two reasons: one personal, one journalistic. I covered many issues over the course of my long career at The Wall Street Journal, but the suffering of the North Korean people was a story that kept coming back to haunt me. It was close to my heart. That’s the personal reason. As a journalist, I also saw an important story that no one else was covering. There have been several books about life in North Korea and the Kim family regime’s appalling human rights abuses there. But there’s been little published on how North Koreans escape, China’s mistreatment of them, and the courageous people – many of them Christians – who help them.
What was the most poignant moment during your research for “Escape from North Korea?”
There were so many moments. Every North Korean I interviewed had a powerful story to tell of life in North Korea and then life on the run in China. A high percentage of North Koreans who escape are women and their stories affected me deeply.
Many were the “brides” of Chinese men who were desperate for wives. A Chinese man can place an order for a bride from North Korea with a broker who will find a woman for him. A North Korean woman may be lured to China under false pretenses, or kidnapped, or sometimes, if she is desperate enough, she may be talked into agreeing to the sale.
China’s one-child policy has been in force for three decades, and since so many couples have aborted female fetuses or even killed baby girls, there is now a severe shortage of young women. The one thing some young men want most in life is a wife, and so they purchase one from North Korea.
I interviewed one North Korean bride who had been kidnapped from North Korea and sold to a Chinese man. She eventually escaped on the Underground Railroad with the help of a South Korean pastor. When I interviewed her in the U.S., I could feel her pain as she recounted her story and then – a horrible thing – talked about the two children she had left behind. One daughter lived in North Korea, and the other daughter lived in China. The former bride couldn’t stop thinking about them and about how she wanted to be reunited with them one day.
I was also deeply inspired by the bravery of the Christians who help rescue North Koreans in China. I interviewed an amazing couple from the American Midwest. They run a chain of house-orphanages in China for the abandoned children of Chinese men and North Korean women.
It’s likely that many more people attempt escape and are caught in the act. Any idea what percentage of North Koreans attempting escape is caught at the border?
It’s impossible to know how many North Koreans are caught trying to escape from North Korea. Nor is it possible to know how many are arrested and repatriated by China; Beijing keeps such information secret. Nor do we know how many are hiding in China. The only hard figures we have are courtesy of the South Korean government, which keeps close track of the numbers of North Koreans who reach safety in the South. They currently number about 25,000.
You said the defection rate has steadily risen since the 1990s. Do you feel the defection rate will continue to rise under Kim Jong-un?
Unfortunately, the number of escapees appears to have dropped significantly since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as dictator in December 2011. Reports from the Sino-North Korean border said that one of his first acts was to issue a shoot-to-kill order. That is, anyone spotted crossing the border to China was to be shot in the back, no questions asked. Other reports say he is cracking down on the use of illegal Chinese cell phones, the means by which North Koreans receive news of the outside world and also receive advice about how to escape.
How are North Koreans perceived in the South and vice versa?
It’s getting harder for North Korea’s dictators to lie to their people about the South. In Escape from North Korea, I write about the “information invasion” that is taking place there. Thanks in large measure to the North Koreans who have escaped, North Koreans back home are learning more and more about South Korea and the prosperity and freedom enjoyed by their fellow Koreans south of the border.
North Koreans who get out are finding ways to smuggle Chinese cell phones into North Korea that they then use to talk to their relatives. North Korean exiles are sending information into the North through radio broadcasts, DVDs and flash drives that they smuggle into the country, leaflets dropped by balloons. North Korea has been sealed shut for decades, but these exiles are beginning to pry it open.
What do you think is the most common misperception westerners have about North Koreans?
With his bouffant hair-do, boiler suit and elevator shoes, Kim Jong-il was often a figure of fun in the West. He was the face of North Korea, as his chubby son, Kim Jong-un is today. But the real face of North Korea is a malnourished child on the brink of death or the political prisoner who has been sent to the gulag for such “crimes” as reading a Bible or listening to a foreign radio broadcast.
What can the average person do to help North Koreans?
It’s impossible, or nearly so, to help North Koreans inside North Korea. The regime diverts aid to the elites and the military and it won’t let aid organizations effectively verify that aid is going to the people for whom it is intended. We can, however, help people who have escaped. At the end of my book, I list nonprofit organizations that help North Koreans in China, in South Korea and elsewhere. We can also build awareness by telling friends about the plight of the North Korean people and also about China’s mistreatment of them.
About the Author: Leslie Patrick is a freelance journalist specializing in travel, culture and women’s issues. In addition to The WIP, her work has appeared in Marie Claire Australia, Monocle and Hemispheres among other publications. Visit her website at www.lesliepatrick.com.