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Books North Korea South Korea

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

[Book Review] I’m glad someone finally went to the trouble of researching and writing a book on the network, for obvious reasons quite secretive, which works to get North Korean defectors through China and into safety in South Korea or elsewhere.

You might ask why North Korean refugees aren’t safe once they reach China, given that China is obliged to protect the refugees by virtue of agreeing to international treaties including the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which includes The Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Unfortunately, at least in this case, China’s government pays about as much heed to international treaties as America’s Tea Party. Instead of upholding its treaty obligations, it actively tracks, arrests, and returns the refugees to the North, where they and their families face sentencing to one of the North’s infamous gulags. Those caught helping North Korean refugees in China face, at best, expulsion from the country, at worst, years in a Chinese prison.

Given these conditions, Kirkpatrick’s choice of subtitles, “The untold story of Asia’s underground railroad,” becomes more apt. Though the book’s comparisons to the slave-era American underground railroad are occasionally jarring, suddenly transporting the reader from modern Asia to 1800s America, they serve to highlight the similar dangers faced by everyone involved.