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The Underground Railroad from North Korea to Freedom

by Scott A. Snyder
October 16, 2012

Kim Han-mi watches her mother being dragged by Chinese policemen when her family attempted to enter into the Japanese Consulate in order to seek asylum in Shenyang. (Kyodo/courtesy 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 freedom in South Korea and other countries in the West. The book captures the multiple paths that desperate North Koreans have taken upon their departure from North Korea through China and other countries to safety in South Korea and the West. It champions the sacrifices of a range 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’s progressive administrations 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 refugee path to freedom on Asia’s 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, denial of citizenship rights to Chinese-North Korean mixed race children of trafficked unions with Chinese citizens, and Chinese government efforts to round up and return North Koreans to detention, often under life-threatening circumstances for 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 forty-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 UN 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 UN 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.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Thangleader

    The world was not astonished for some bad news from North Korea over the daily life of Koreans. In fact, there are no choice for them between the death and life, only.

    How the leaders from this country should do? Naturally, I remember Victor Hugo in “Miserables” book. The leaders would be more happier or not when their citizens live under development, the famine, poverty … under way.

    From outside, someone guess that one or few key-players in the North Korea game fully understood the importance of two nations “Korea” instead of one unification Korean peninsula. The core interest according to their views made clear that this problem should be deadlock and an unlimited marathon efforts will lead it to somewhere – unforeseeable.

    Finally, basic instinct from Koreans will allow them to overcome this statuquo by their means and mentalities. Korean history will born some heroes who can make the accurate decision on due time.

  • Posted by saucymugwump

    10/22/2012 BOCA RATON

    BOB SCHIEFFER: This question is for both of you.

    As the CFR wrote in “The Underground Railroad from North Korea to Freedom,” China considers North Korean refugees to be economic ones, not political ones. China routinely deports them back to North Korea where they are imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed. South Korea has repeatedly asked China to allow it to bring these refugees to Seoul, but China ignores these requests. Although China is a state party to the U.N. Refugee Convention, it has prevented the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, from gaining access to North Koreans in China. What kind of pressure are you willing to employ against China to stop it from indirectly murdering North Korean refugees?

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