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Culture Q&A

ESCAPE ROUTE: The Tumen River (above), which separates China and North Korea

The new underground railroad

North Korean refugees desperate for help have learned to find a Christian or a church, says reporter Melanie Kirkpatrick

The new underground railroad

ESCAPE ROUTE: The Tumen River (above), which separates China and North Korea (Du Bin/The New York Times/Redux )

Elbert Chu

Melanie Kirkpatrick

Next July WORLD plans again to publish a list of 10 or so outstanding books from the previous 12 months. One of them is likely to be former Wall Street Journal editor Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad (Encounter). With entrepreneurial reporting Kirkpatrick documents the ways desperate North Koreans are fleeing their country, although many die in the process or end up in concentration camps. 

In how many ways is North Korea a dark land? Let’s start with electricity. A famous satellite image shows the Korean peninsula at night. South Korea, half the peninsula, is filled with bright lights. North Korea has a bit of light around Pyongyang, the capital, but the rest is black. 

And North Koreans are in the dark about what’s going on in the rest of the world? North Korea is a truly sealed society. Every communist regime, every totalitarian regime, wants to control information, because knowledge is power. North Korea has taken that to a new extreme. You can’t make a phone call outside the country, you can’t send a letter—but because of the people who have escaped, stories have gotten in to North Korea about the rest of the world, and people are beginning to wake up.

Your subtitle, with the words “underground railroad,” resonates powerfully in American history. What’s the Asian underground railroad? The underground railroad in Asia begins in northeast China near the border with North Korea. Some Christian rescuers in the late 1990s and early 2000s coined the term after deciding they wanted to model their rescue attempts on the underground railroad for escaping slaves in antebellum America. It’s similar to the original underground railroad in its network of safe houses and secret transit routes that help people get across China. 

They can’t escape south. Because of the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. So North Koreans go north to China, often hook up with a local Christian community, and eventually go all the way across China, usually to a southeast Asian country such as Thailand or Laos or Vietnam, sometimes north to Mongolia. They head to the South Korean embassy and ask for help.

They have to cross a river to get to China, but that’s not the main deterrent, right? The real deterrent is the North Korean border guards, who do not hesitate to shoot people in the back as they’re crossing the border.

What propels people to risk their lives trying to escape? Some seek food: In the late 1990s about a tenth of the population died in a North Korean famine. A lot of people who get to China and see the relative freedoms offered to them there make the decision to go to South Korea. Others who leave are real defectors: They’re carrying with them state secrets, or maybe are professionally trained and they want to get out. 

Do you have a sense of how many North Koreans escape in the course of a year? In 1992, nine people reached South Korea. In 2002, the number was 153. Now it’s about 3,000 a year.

Any sense of what percentage of people who try to escape make it? Impossible to tell. And China’s policy is to track down North Koreans, arrest them, and send them back to North Korea, where they’re treated very harshly. But, incredibly, people will escape several times before they finally reach the underground railroad and make it to safety.

What’s the first thing escapees to China look for? Many people say the first thing they’re told is, “Look for a building with a cross on it.” 

The people who offer help are jeopardizing a lot. It’s against the law in China to help a North Korean—even giving somebody a meal is against the law—and the people willing to help them are Christians. 

Is it getting tougher under Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new dictator? He has issued a crackdown order along the border. The word from my sources in South Korea and along the border is that fewer people are getting out. 

What can college students like those here at Patrick Henry College do? Look at LINK—Liberty in North Korea—run out of Torrance, Calif. It’s a secular group, but most of those in it are Christian and motivated to help because of their Christian beliefs. They raise awareness and they also have a program that aims to bring a hundred people out of China every year to safety. 

What should American policy be toward North Korea? We need to bring the issue of human rights into our dealings with North Korea. Right now human rights issues, if they’re raised, are totally subordinate to all the other issues. But think about the Soviet Union: We always made demands on human rights issues. We don’t do the same with North Korea and I think we should. I also think our goal should be the bringing down of the Kim family regime and the peaceful unification of the Koreas under a free and democratic system.

Taking risks

You tell stories about Americans who have become personally involved in helping, like Mary and Jim. They are a Korean-American couple from the Midwest. Their kids have graduated from college, they both have had successful careers, and a few years ago they decided that they wanted to devote the rest of their lives to helping people. They are devout Christians and their first thought was to go to Africa. 

They speak Korean? Yes, and eventually they made the decision to go to China. Their church and the organization they work for, Crossing Borders, supported them, and today they run a string of orphanages in northeast China, and a shelter for young women who are in danger of being sold as brides.

Koreans typically see children with one Chinese and one North Korean parent as impure? They’re half-and-half children rejected by both countries. Some background: When China arrests a North Korean woman and sends her back to North Korea, if she’s pregnant, the North Korean policy is to abort the baby, because she is carrying Chinese seed, which is considered impure. 

What about the Chinese? They are also racist, and their attitude to North Koreans is very derogatory, so these kids are rejected. Often if the mother leaves—and mothers do leave on the underground railroad and leave their children behind—the fathers often reject them, because they’re impure. Some fathers care about their children, though, and feel that they would be better off in one of these orphanages run by Christians. 

What risks do the foster parents who run those orphanages take? They’re Chinese citizens and if they’re caught taking care of these kids and proselytizing—the children are all raised in Christian homes, and proselytizing is against the law in China—they could face severe repercussions.


Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Melanie Kirkpatrick: