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
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
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.
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.
This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.