North Korea's Underground Railroad to Freedom

The covert trail that's helped thousands of refugees escape


A North Korean refugee watches her mother being dragged by Chinese policemen when her family attempted to flee to the Japanese Consulate. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Former deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal Melanie Kirkpatrick has written a compelling book describing the tortuous path North Koreans must undertake across China to reach freedom in South Korea and other countries in the West. The book captures the multiple paths that desperate North Koreans have taken to arrive safely in South Korea and the West. It champions the sacrifices of dedicated individuals outside North Korea who have risked their lives to assist North Koreans in their road to freedom and to provide information back to North Korea about the outside world. And it savages the policies of governments including China, the United States, and South Korea for turning a blind eye to the suffering of North Koreans who are victims of an uncompromising totalitarian political system.

Chinese government policies receive the lion's share of Kirkpatrick's criticism precisely because those policies are what make the North Korean underground railroad so dangerous. Kirkpatrick strongly criticizes China's failure to recognize North Koreans as political refugees as well as China's complicity in enabling human trafficking of North Korean women. Kirkpatrick also takes China to task for denying citizenship rights to Chinese-North Korean mixed-race children, and for Chinese government efforts to round up and return North Koreans to detention, often under life-threatening circumstances for those fleeing the DPRK. China's policies even punish Kirkpatrick's heroes who have sacrificed their own resources and freedom to lead North Koreans on the underground railroad to freedom.

Despite the efforts of courageous facilitators who comprise Asia's underground railroad, the road to freedom Kirkpatrick describes remains unnecessarily fraught with risk and tragedy for those who are caught, sold, or repatriated to severe punishments in North Korea. Over 20,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea in the past decade (2,737 arrived in South Korea in 2011 and 135 have relocated to the United States since 2006 ), but there is no way of knowing how many North Koreans fled the North but failed to find freedom. Even more serious for the future of the underground railroad is that the number of North Korean refugees during the first six months in 2012 under Kim Jong-un compared to the figure for the same period in 2011 dropped over 40 percent, to 751. This conspicuous difference is likely the result of strengthened North Korean border control efforts.

Escape from North Korea stands alongside Nothing to Envy and Escape from Camp Fourteen as books that highlight the tragic human consequences of North Korea's systemic failure. North Korea's famine in the late 1990s broke the hermetic seal that had previously shrouded the worst aspects of the North Korean system from the outside world; with growing flows of refugees came testimony to a political system that imposes absolute control by punishing even relatives of individuals accused of political dissent. These books convey the previously silenced voices of North Koreans, alongside North Korean refugee autobiographies such as Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Yong Kim's Long Road Home.

But the books also raise a chilling question. Why, despite the growing record of personal testimonies regarding the brutality of North Korean totalitarianism, has there not been more effective international pressure to hold North Korea to account for the most egregious injustices? A U.N. human rights rapporteur has submitted reports on the country for almost a decade, but has never been allowed to visit North Korea. North Korea takes umbrage at criticisms of the U.N. Human Rights Council, but beyond naming and shaming North Korea, the DPRK government faces few tangible costs for its human rights violations. President Bush reportedly took pride in highlighting the plight of North Korean refugees through personal meetings in the Oval Office with Kang Chol-hwan and the family of abductee Megumi Yokota, but while raising international consciousness about the plight of North Korea's victims these gestures did not materially change the situation in North Korea.

During a speech at a symposium on Genocide Prevention co-sponsored by CFR and held at the Holocaust Museum last July, Secretary Clinton highlighted the Obama administration's establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board designed to take action in response to "demonizing brutality in North Korean prison camps," but it is not clear that the establishment of that board will have any direct effect on the "slow-motion" crisis that has persisted in North Korea. The conditions reported by North Korean refugees who have experienced detention in North Korea are exactly the circumstances that the world has resolved should never be allowed to happen again. But it is happening, and Melanie Kirkpatrick's book provides a call for action.

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