Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, by Melanie Kirkpatrick (Encounter, 376 pp., $25.99)
North Korea’s continued existence is a blot on the consciences of the United States and other Free World nations. It is indeed “hell on earth,” as Melanie Kirkpatrick’s new book describes it, although few Washington political leaders or media commentators focus on it or do much to change it. This lucid and gripping book, however, might well prompt a revolution in how Americans see North Korea. It certainly should.
Not only does the ludicrously named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continue its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs unchecked, but the oppression and misery of its citizens remain unequalled. Not even Kim Jong Un’s recent hereditary accession to power as his family’s third Communist dictator has caused serious rethinking in our media. Instead, reporters have written about higher heels and hemlines for DPRK policewomen, Kim’s attendance at a performance of Walt Disney characters (pirated, of course), and the revelation that he has a wife as signs of impending change in the North. As always, the pundits focus on what Pyongyang wants rather than exploring the kinds of stories Kirkpatrick highlights, such as the newest Kim’s personal order clamping down on refugee escapes.
Through sustained and systematic research and old-fashioned shoe leather, Kirkpatrick uses individual incidents and the available (although usually sparse) official data to describe what the mainstream media have largely missed for decades. She traces the chilling arc of enormous risk North Koreans seeking freedom must be prepared to take in escaping their country-wide prison camp, through cordons of border guards and domestic-surveillance agencies. What follows is as hard or harder: the gruesome travails and dangers refugees face once in China, both from those who would exploit them and from the indifference and overt hostility of the Chinese government. Ultimately, only about 3,000 refugees annually reach South Korea; many fewer end up settling in other countries, including the United States. These successful escapees then face the further arduous task of adjusting to a free society.
Kirkpatrick analogizes the tribulations of North Korean refugees to those of slaves trying to flee along America’s pre–Civil War Underground Railroad to free states or Canada. Her apt historical template thereby exposes a profound political reality. “Fugitive slaves” represented one of the most profound vulnerabilities of America’s antebellum South, with slave owners understanding that even a trickle of successful escapees was a beacon they had to extinguish. Thus, despite “states’ rights” rhetoric, the real keystone to protecting southern slavery was federal power. The Constitution itself provided that “no Person held to Service or Labour” could legally gain freedom merely by reaching a free state, and required that escapees “be delivered up on Claim” to their owners.
Because free states increasingly balked at facilitating this coercive system, the South successfully pushed through Congress “fugitive-slave laws,” our first national law-enforcement system. In a telling inversion of the conventional wisdom, the South sought increased federal power in Washington, while the North resisted. Congress enacted the first fugitive-slave law in 1793, and an even harsher one as part of the Compromise of 1850. Many historians believe that the South’s strident insistence on strictly enforcing the fugitive-slave laws, and the Underground Railroad’s resulting expansion and success, were critical factors in igniting abolitionist sentiment in free states, thereby ultimately triggering southern secession and the Civil War.
Similarly, Hungary’s opening a small stretch of the Iron Curtain in 1989, rolling away just a few miles of barbed wire on the border with Austria, produced a flood of East German refugees and the Berlin Wall’s collapse only months later. Even a pinhole in North Korea’s tyranny could produce the same unstoppable dynamic.
Unfortunately for DPRK refugees, however, they escape not into relatively benign American free states or Western Europe, but into China, which Kirkpatrick rightly labels “another circle of hell.” Today’s Underground Railroad faces hostile Beijing authorities, and is accordingly run covertly, often by ministers and churchgoers, at great personal risk. As Kirkpatrick says, the first rule of survival for a North Korean reaching China is “find a Christian.” No one knows how many Northerners are hiding fearfully inside China, but the figure may be as high as 500,000, far more than the number reaching the outside world each year. Three-quarters of them are women, constantly at risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking throughout their time trapped in China.
Although Beijing says as little as possible about the refugee issue, its policies are wholly antithetical to its obligations under several international refugee conventions, and its anti-refugee activities are the farthest thing from humanitarian. The refugees’ most imminent danger is China’s policy of repatriating them to DPRK security forces, which treat them as instant criminals guilty of multiple offenses simply because of their escape efforts. China attempts to justify its harsh policies by labeling the escapees as economic rather than political refugees; economic refugees are not entitled to protected status as asylum-seekers. But this is simply a transparent excuse to deter other North Koreans from crossing the border.
In fact, Beijing and Pyongyang understand the threats and potentially unbearable pressures posed by refugee flows just as acutely as southern slaveholders or Eastern European Communists did. The DPRK, already gravely weakened internally by its own policies, would simply be unsustainable if people were allowed to leave. And the collapse of the Kim-family dictatorship could easily lead to the reunification of North and South Korea, something China’s leadership has heretofore consistently feared.
Yet it is precisely China’s complicity in propping up the DPRK that should be spotlighted. Beijing proclaims internationally that it opposes North Korea’s having nuclear weapons because of the risks thereby posed to Northeast Asian stability, and the consequent negative effects on Chinese economic development. That is a sensible statement of China’s interests, but its actual policy has been visibly schizophrenic. Despite its lofty language, China has taken no tangible steps to actually terminate the DPRK’s nuclear program. The explanation? If China were to do what is uniquely in its hands, such as cutting off the fuel-oil supplies accounting for 90 percent of the North’s energy, the Pyongyang regime could well disintegrate.
China’s leaders fear that outcome more than they fear the consequences of a nuclear North Korea, for two principal reasons: the prospect that ultimate Korean reunification will bring U.S. forces right up to the Yalu River border (a specter still vivid from Korean War days) and the fear that chaos following regime collapse in Pyongyang would lead to massive refugee flows into China as well as South Korea.
But China need not be so worried. The peninsula’s 1945 partition along the 38th Parallel was always intended to be temporary, and its erasure is inevitable. The only question is whether it will be hard or easy. We can in fact accommodate Beijing (and particularly its younger, emerging leaders) while still accomplishing the objective of Korean reunification, although we have failed for years to make this clear. First, we should pledge full U.S., South Korean, and Japanese humanitarian assistance for North Korean refugees so that the burden is not China’s alone. More important, we have no aspirations for the future deployment of American forces on the Yalu, any more than we want them along the Demilitarized Zone today. We want them in Busan so they can be more readily dispatched to trouble spots around Asia. Of course, China will not be enthusiastic about that disposition of forces either, but they would find it preferable to Americans with sensors on the Yalu.
For now, the U.S. should say publicly that we are prepared to ratchet up dramatically the number of DPRK refugees we accept. A more welcoming American posture, along with diplomatic encouragement, should, in turn, prod South Korea to do far more. The South should uphold and implement its own constitution, which offers full citizenship for all Koreans, including those escaping from the North: the greater the possibilities for safe haven, the greater the refugee flows. It is a tragic blight on a free and successful South Korea that more of its citizens do not demand that their government pursue freedom for their countrymen in the North. Under the badly misguided policies of South Korean presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, indifference to conditions in the North was “one of the great moral travesties of our time,” in Kirkpatrick’s words.
Underlying Seoul’s policy errors has been a misunderstanding of the lessons and mistakes of German reunification, with many in the South opposing reunification because they believe the costs will be prohibitively high. In fact, by utilizing the North’s massive supply of low-wage earners, and the “green field” advantages for new investment there, reunification will foster an even more prosperous Korea. And in any event, watching silently while their fellow Koreans suffer in bondage is simply unworthy of a free people.
Escape from North Korea may someday be compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for blowing the lid off the DPRK gulag. In the meantime, anyone who wants to be truly knowledgeable about Korea or China has an obligation to read Kirkpatrick’s book. And if, after reading it, anyone disagrees with her conclusions, shame on him.
– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.