on September 11, 2012
I have been following Melanie Kirkpatrick's work at the Hudson Institute for years and she is an absolutely outstanding journalist and writer and has done a superlative job with Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad. I especially appreciate the credit she gives to Chinese Christians in aiding escapees. Having written one of the few other books out there on North Korea I have used her work over the years in my own research. I want to encourage anyone interested in this problem to buy this book and get educated on the subject. "Free Tibet"? How about "Free North Korea!" Thank you, Ms. Kirkpatrick for writing this important work and best of luck on your product launch!
An estimated 24,000 North Koreans have fled the nation of 24 million to South Korea - those that succeed have a difficult time adjusting to life in a free society and their education/skills may not be up to the task. Since 2004, 128 have gone on to the U.S., and an estimated half-million live within China. Few tried to escape prior to the early 1990s - until then life in China wasn't much better, if at all. Then came a major famine in North Korea, coinciding with improvement in China. The author reports that it is easier for women to escape because they're less likely to be missed (if homemakers) and reported to authorities; in addition, women are more likely to be taken in by Chinese families. (The 'bad news' is that many end up married to Chinese men or pressed into prostitution.) Some are recruited to leave North Korea by those connected to this 'slave trade.'
About 250,000 North Korean men are employed in Russia's Siberia as loggers, and a number of them also manage to escape.
Mail service to/from North Korea is limited - South Korea is not included. Cell phones are programmed to work domestically only, the Internet, radio, and TV are run by the State
Border guards operate under 'shoot-to-kill orders, and those found by the Chinese within that nation are returned to face severe punishment. Crimes of an individual in North Korea are paid for by three generations of that individuals family. About 200,000 North Koreans are in political prisons - their crimes may be a minor as possessing a Bible or failing to show respect for a portrait of one of North Korea's 'Dear Leaders.'
on September 12, 2012
This outstanding book will wrench your heart as well as relate the harsh realities of North Korea. This is a reader must, not only for scholars, theologians and politicians, but also for any compassionate person with a desire to do whatever it takes to help a repressed society. Hats off to Ms. Kirkpatrick for so skillfully handling this delicate but important issue.
on September 21, 2012
This book is written with the skill and heart of a story-teller and equally so with the scholar's unshakable regard for facts. A former Wall Street Journal deputy editor who has spent years living in Asia, Kirkpatrick develops solid arguments for ways to change a country that is frozen in time. Because of her credentials and the story she tells so well, her ideas are certain to command the attention of policy makers. But beyond Washington and New York, many readers may be moved to act once they've read the harrowing narratives, the descriptions of ordinary souls bravely helping others, once they've read Kirkpatrick's careful portrait of a grotesque and unimaginably cruel regime.
on September 29, 2012
Melanie Kirkpatrick has written a book about an unimaginably cruel system in a way that enables the reader to absorb the information instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer horribleness. She also paints a picture of indomitable human spirit, both on the part of the North Korean escapees and those who help them. It's a beautifully written and carefully structured book that no reader will forget.
on November 4, 2012
The 20th Century birthed many mad and cruel regimes, mixing and matching a familiar litany of horrors -- barbed wire, torture, war-mongering, official hatreds and paranoias, stale economic and political creeds in lieu of transcendent faith, hungry bellies, ugly buildings, concrete grey statues of monomaniacs, weapons of mass destruction -- in varying patterns and degrees of ferocity. For my money, the worst of the worst were the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, both of which lasted a few years, and the Kim Family House of Horrors, which has lasted half as long as hell, from whence it springs.
That is the background to this book. Escape from North Korea tells the story of those who try to escape from many different angles: the escape itself, hiding (mostly in China), the role Christians play in helping North Koreans get away, political escapees, South Korea's changing attitudes about its brothers and sisters, the difficulties of adjusting to freedom, the impact individual liberation may have on what is to be hoped with be a freer North Korea in the future. Kirkpatrick is not naive about any of this, recognizing the difficulty, for instance, of ill-educated slaves adjusting to a modern, free, technological society. She has done a thorough job of investigation, and while she chimes certain bells repeatedly -- such as the Christian connection, and her dislike of the South Korean "Sunshine Policy" -- all in all this is a richly informative and thoughtful account. Among other interesting scraps, one escapee noted that something she (he?) missed after leaving North Korea, was the dark sky at night.
As someone who has spent quite a bit of time in China, I am particularly happy to learn more about the role churches in China are playing in helping these lost souls. I can't imagine that even the most hard-boiled western atheist would deny that if anyone needs a little hope in their lives, its the people of North Korea.
One wonders about the wisdom of writing books like this, though. (Like David Aikman's equally skillful journalism in Jesus in Beijing, which I reviewed some years ago for Christianity Today.) Will the North Koreans get ahold of the information here, and use it to go after the good guys? Most likely Kirkpatrick wrote this book on the calculation that the good it may do, in encouraging China to treat its neighbors more humanely, and in encouraging westerners to support the efforts of those who help the North Koreans, will outweigh the dangers. I hope she's right.
on January 12, 2013
If you really want to learn about North Korea then the following books will teach you far more than you will find here.
1. The cleanest race (B.R. Myers)
2. Nothing to envy (Barbara Demick)
3. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag (Pierre Rigoulot, Yair Reiner).
Escape from North Korea, is a choppy collection of tales about refugees and Christian missionaries with the usual naive liberal conclusions and solutions for solving the current crises. Let's be realistic, the North Korean regime will only collapse due to a military coup, or the assassination of Kim Jong Eun. There will be no revolution no matter how many Kpop cds find their way into the hands of the average North Korean. Most likely will be the gradual opening up of the country through trade and tourism, as we saw in China, but if you are waiting for an unarmed Confucian populous to rise up, cast off their shackles and overthrow their God (as this author appears to think), then you will be waiting a very, very, very, long time.
on October 25, 2012
this is an amazing book giving the reader a book that explains what north koreans endure to reach a free society. it should cause readers living in free societies being grateful for living with the freedoms and rights that we enjoy while there is 23 million people who are essentially living in a giant prison.
on March 24, 2016
“Escape from North Korea” is the most intriguing non-fiction book I’ve read in recent months. Kirkpatrick offers a glimpse into the operations of a modern-day underground railroad, one thats stories—sadly—are often no less chilling than those associated with its US Civil War namesake from 150 years ago.
The 17 chapters of this book are arranged into six parts. The organizational logic of the book takes the reader from the germ of an idea to flee all the way to settling into life in a free country, with all the trials and tribulations that are experienced in between. It begins as a story of one person who decides to escape, and who must virtually always get across the border into China on his or her own. Once across the border, there is help to be had if the refugee can find it before he or she gets caught by the Chinese and repatriated or is exploited by nefarious individuals. Danger is ever-present, occasionally even once the individual gets to South Korea.
Chapters 3 through 7 were particularly interesting because they looked at various classes of escapee, some of which one might not realize existed. It starts with the classic defectors, similar to those one might associate with the USSR—political, military, sporting, and artistic figures. This was the main class of refugee until people began starving in the 1990’s due to nation-wide famine.
Next is a chapter on brides for sale. Many North Korean women end up forced into slave marriages. China has a dearth of eligible women due a bias against female children, particularly combined with its one-child policy. Some women are lured across the border under false pretenses, but others, finding themselves fugitives in China, end up being exploited due to their vulnerability. Each bride fetches about $1,200 to $1,500 ($500 to $800 from the wholesaler to the retailer.) There’s also a chapter devoted to the children of such marriages, and particularly the cases in which the mother is repatriated and the child ends up orphaned because children born in China will not be taken by the North Koreans and frequently the fathers want nothing to do with the children. Pregnant women repatriated to North Korea are often forced to abort pregnancies involving Chinese fathers.
One of the most intriguing chapters was on the North Korean lumberjacks residing in Siberia. This profit-sharing deal goes back to the Soviet days. When the Soviet Union imploded, however, the arrangement was kept with some worker rights installed on paper to appease Russia’s newly developed human rights watchdogs. One might wonder how the Kims—fearful of dissidents as they are—would let a group live outside the country on a remote site that’s hard to guard. The answer is that all the lumberjacks had to have both wives and children at home to serve as hostages. Still, some decide to make the break.
There is also a chapter about the Prisoners of War from the Korean War who were trapped on the wrong side of the border.
I’m fairly well-read on the subject of North Korea, but, like most Americans, the bulk of this has to do with Pyongyang’s nuclear program. I, therefore, found some of the stories of the regime’s depravity to be beyond the pale. A sampling of such stories includes:
- guards severely beating a prisoner and then having other prisoners bury the victim alive
- the warden in a state-run orphanage having orphans fight each other for bigger food servings
- a family that killed themselves rather than be repatriated to North Korea
- individuals, such as Ri Hyok-ok, who were executed for distributing bibles
- North Korea’s provision of family information on trans-border family members as a profit-making scheme
- Kim Jong Il pulling a Pol Pot and shutting down the universities and colleges and sending students to work on farms and in factories for months in 2011 because he was afraid that the Arab Spring might be infectious
- Kidnapping foreigners on foreign soil, which North Korea has even admitted to openly.
Sadly, the woeful tales aren’t limited to the North Koreans. Kirkpatrick devotes a considerable amount of space to chastising the Chinese for repatriating North Koreans. Under international law, which China ratified, refugees shouldn’t be sent back to their country of origin if it’s likely they will be punished. China claims that individuals are economic migrants and not political refugees, and it compares them to Mexicans crossing onto American soil—without addressing the fact that Mexicans are not sentenced to hard labor or killed when they are returned to Mexico. The Chinese might also point to Hwang Jang-yop, the author of the North Korean Juche (self-reliance) policy, as an example of a “true” political refugee that they didn’t repatriate, but allowed to migrate to South Korea (where the North Koreans tried to assassinate him in Seoul several times.)
There’s even some disappointing behavior on the side of the US. In 2006, a US consulate employee in China not only turned away several North Korea refugees, but--by speaking openly over an unsecured line--got a conductor on the Underground Railroad arrested.
The end of the book contains an interesting description of how the Kims are beginning to lose the war on keeping the information age out of North Korea. From balloon drops to radio broadcasts, North Koreans are beginning to get true information about both the outside world and their own leadership. Lest one think that no one could possibly believe the propaganda out of Pyongyang, even in the absence of information inflows, there’s a story about an immigrant to America who had a hard time coaxing his family out because they believed that America was out to kill North Koreans. This father’s story of the good life in sunny Florida didn’t entirely convince them, and ultimately they had to be coaxed to their new home in stages. It’s telling that the cellphone was only introduced in North Korea in 2008. While cellphones aren’t that useful for the railroad because they can’t call outside the country, they do allow for some spread of information inside.
One might think that once a North Korean gets to freedom, everything is hunky-dory, but Kirkpatrick discusses the problems that most North Koreans have adjusting to life in South Korea. As workers, North Koreans tend to lack initiative. They just want to be told what to do, and will do no more. It’s not that they’re inherently lazy; they come from a world in which initiative is not rewarded but is often punished.
While it may be hard to believe, most of the emigrants have trouble coping with the massive amount of choice available in their new homelands. Having an entire aisle of the market devoted to laundry detergent overwhelms them. Apparently, a few—very few—have even snuck themselves back into North Korea where all they have to do is do what they’re told, eat what they can, and maybe starve to death.
I think this is an important book that should be read by anyone interested in world affairs. North Korea is truly unique in the world. One telling line from the book was, “Even during the Communist era, Russia was more liberal and prosperous than North Korea.” The continuance of the Kim Dynasty is an unstable proposition, and it’s impossible to know when it will fall and what damage will be done internationally when it does.
on January 26, 2016
This is an excellent non-fiction book that concentrates on the Underground Railroad that shelters and helps North Koreans escape from their hard lives in North Korea and assists them in getting into China so that they can eventually make their way to South Korea. Some choose other countries, such as the U.S., but most want to go to South Korea. The Asian Underground Railroad is based on the one that helped American slaves escape to the north in the 19th century.
This is a very sad book to read. The plight of North Koreans is one of no freedom, not enough food, often starvation, no electricity at night and everything, including radio and television, is controlled by the state. Television programs might be about the grandiose history of the Dear Leader's family, and of course, North Korea is the best country in the world to live in. People trying to escape into China are often caught and sent back and for that offense they can be sent to a work camp or worse.
For women crossing the border into China, it is especially hard. They are there illegally and have no means of support so they wind up as sex slaves or they are sold off as wives to farmers. Many have to escape that life in order to ever make it to freedom. Christian missionaries and volunteers make up a good portion of those helping on the underground railroad. Many of the North Koreans convert to Christianity but as long as they are in North Korea or China they cannot talk about or show any interest in religion since it is banned in those countries.
Stories of people who have made it to freedom are told in this book and what surprised me was how long it takes from the time they escape until the day they are free. Those helping the ones to escape face the same dangers as the escapees.
I learned a lot by reading this book and I hope that someday North Korea will open its doors and boundaries to freedom instead of being the most closed-off country that it is.