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.

Like the previous underground railroad, many (though by no means all) of the networks in China are funded and operated by Christian organizations. All seemingly bent on earnestly balancing secrecy with a need to attract donations to fund their activities: feeding and sheltering the refugees, paying bribes to police and border guards, buying transportation, and occasionally even buying a person – commonly a North Korean female refugee sold by someone along the border to a Chinese farmer in need of a bride. Given the choices faced by these women are, either telling the police, which means the woman is arrested, returned to North Korea and likely sent to a labor camp; or remaining with the man who purchased her as a farm wife with at least some access to food and protection from being returned to punishment in the North, many women choose to remain ‘married’ on the farm. At least, until presented with the option of fleeing via the underground railroad, though this often means the group aiding the woman must buy her back from the husband – hence the constant, extreme need for funding.

In short, Kirkpatrick’s book will bring alive the voices of those fleeing the North, and those that are helping them. If you’re new to reading about North Korean refugees, much here will surprise and shock you. If you’re not, much will seem depressingly familiar. The author’s proposed solution to the problem, convincing the Chinese government to allow the establishment of refugee camps as temporary way stations before permanently relocating them to South Korea or elsewhere (the U.S., Europe, Canada, and others take in some North Korean refugees), is almost absurdly optimistic, given it flies smack against decades of Chinese practice. That quibble aside, the book is well worth your time.

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