Sources: Kirkpatrick on the Underground Railroad

September 29, 2012 7:00 AM

Melanie Kirkpatrick, who had a long and successful career at the Wall Street Journal, including as Deputy Editor of its editorial page, has written a lively and engaging book called Escape from North Korea: Asia's Underground Railroad. The link to the American underground railroad is explicit; for Kirkpatrick, this is a story of an exodus from slavery to freedom. Video of the book launch event can be found here.

The book adopts an approach that we used in our writing on the subject (for the US Committee on Human Rights in North Korea and in Witness to Transformation): to walk through the torturous route that starts with getting across the border, surviving in China’s inhospitable and even hostile environment, evading Chinese and North Korean captors and predators, getting to third countries, and finding and adjusting to new homes. But in contrast to our desiccated, social science approach, Kirkpatrick appears to have interviewed just about everyone involved with the railroad, or at least representatives of the various escape routes. As a result, the book is as much a story about the infrastructure of the railway—the conductors and their strategies—as it is about the escapees themselves. It thus invites us to ponder not only the refugees, but the odd collection of individuals that devote themselves, typically with great passion, to this difficult and often risky business.

Another theme of the book is the central role that Christians and churches have played in this process. “Look for a building with a cross on it” is standard advice for those who cross without guides, and Kirkpatrick describes the dense network of Protestant missionaries who have flocked to the border region since the mid-1990s. Among the interesting personalities profiled—and the difficult strategic choices they have to make—are Tim Peters, who founded Helping Hands Korea in 1996, Steven Kim, an American businessmen who became particularly interested in the trafficking issue, and a “Mr. Jung” who became obsessed with South Korean POWs and went so far as to have plastic surgery so that he could travel less conspicuously as a Chinese businessman.  Not all of these brave souls survive; among the prominent cases Kirkpatrick profiles is the disappearance of Chicago-based pastor Kim Dong-shik, who was kidnapped in 2000 and never heard from again. Unfortunately, he is not alone; nor are those who are detected and basically forced to abandon their missions and—more painfully—their wards.

Kirkpatrick also notes that the Korean Church Coalition, comprising over 2400 pastors, was a crucial political force—along with some conservative human rights activists—in pushing through the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act, although she sees that as the community’s last real success.

Kirkpatrick is not uncritical of the missionaries. In a particularly thoughtful chapter, she considers the complexities of proselytizing, and the sometimes instrumental relationship that exists between the missions and the refugees. But a testament to conviction is the fact that tiny cells of Christian churches—gatherings, really—have sprouted up against odds that can only be called ridiculous.

The book reminds us of the many refugee channels: there is a terrific summary chapter on the dwindling number of South Korean POWs, a chapter on those fleeing the Siberian work camps, and the problem of contract labor that is only likely to grow, and a riveting chapter on the intricacies of the bride market. Some women no doubt enter these relationships with eyes open; “voluntarily” would give them too much agency over lives lived under extreme duress. But others are bought and sold in ways that truly resemble the Southern slave markets of the first half of the 19th century.

Several chapters outline the more high profile efforts of groups like LiNK and particularly a group including Norbert Vollersten, Kim Sang-hun, Hiroshi Kato, and Tim Peters. These four devised the risky strategy of storming embassies; some of these efforts ended in well-publicized tragedies of deportation and disappearance. Kirkpatrick views these efforts positively in the end; we are much more skeptical. Nonetheless, she estimates that between seven and eight hundred refugees exited through embassies, even if after long standoffs with Chinese authorities. And she rightly profiles some particularly shameful cases in which South Korean authorities left escaped refugees dangling for fear of the “trouble” they would cause.

In addition to the North Korean bad guys, there is no love lost between Kirkpatrick and the Chinese authorities nor the governments of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. Kirkpatrick rightly slams the Chinese government for failing to abide by its obligations under the Refugee Convention, and in a thoughtful concluding chapter outlines a strategy for what she calls “bringing the underground railroad above ground.” Even though there was in fact a steady increase in the number of refugees reaching South Korea during the DJ and Roh years, Kirkpatrick faults the two administrations for their silence on human rights issues (I raise similar issues in a review of a new book by Chung-in Moon).

There can be little doubt that Kirkpatrick has little patience for engagement; like Nick Eberstadt, Katie Oh and others, she believes that the right objective is regime change and that the “hole in the fence” is the most promising route for accomplishing this objective. We wish we shared her optimism that the North Korean regime was poised to undergo a rapid transformation such as that seen in Eastern Europe. But whatever we think of the future course of the country’s political order is irrelevant to our basic rule of thumb, which is to get people in and get people out. This book provides a great introduction to the community pursuing the second half of our dictum, and with terrific human color.

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