Christians risking life to help North Koreans escape

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

A new underground railroad run significantly by Christians has formed to help North Koreans escape their oppressive regime, Hudson Institute senior fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick told The Daily Caller.

“The new underground railroad is a secret network of safe houses and escape routes that carries North Koreans across China to safety in neighboring countries,” Kirkpatrick, author of the new book “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” explained to TheDC. “From there, most go on to South Korea, though a few come to the U.S. or go to Europe or Canada.”

“Two groups of people operate the new underground railroad,” she continued, “brokers, who are in it for the money, and humanitarian workers — especially Christians — who are in it to serve God. It is against Chinese law to assist North Koreans, and anyone who helps them is subject to arrest, prison, and, if he’s a foreigner, expulsion. In ‘Escape from North Korea,’ I profile several American Christians who help. They operate safe houses, they run orphanages, and they lead North Koreans out of China. These people are brave and incredibly inspiring.”

Kirkpatrick says escaping North Korea is no easy task.

“Anyone who wants to escape needs large measures of courage, determination and luck,” she said.

“The only practical escape route is through China — across the Yalu or Tumen River. North Koreans who cross the river to China can be shot in the back by North Korean border guards.”

While Kirkpatrick says North Korea is “the world’s most repressive state,” she explains that the “lowest circle of hell is the gulag, where 200,000 or more North Koreas are incarcerated, often with three generations of their family.”

“They are usually there for political crimes such as possession of a Bible or listening to a foreign radio broadcast,” she said. “Inmates are fed little and worked hard. Many don’t survive long. It’s estimated that at least 1 million North Koreans have died in the gulag.”

Read below TheDC’s full interview with Kirkpatrick on her book, the horrors of North Korea and what the West can do to hasten the fall of the Kim family regime.

Why did you decide to write the book?

During my years at the Wall Street Journal, I covered the story of North Koreans who escaped to China and the Christians and others who helped them there. I couldn’t get their story out of mind. It kept tugging at my heart, and I wanted to bring it to the attention of a broader audience.

The plight of the tens of thousands of North Koreans hiding in China is a humanitarian crisis unknown to most of the world. China’s policy is to track down the North Koreans and send them back to North Korea, where they face horrific punishment, even death. This is a terrible tragedy — and China’s policy is in contravention of its obligations under international treaties it has signed. China needs to meet its international obligations and let the U.N. or other humanitarian organizations help the North Koreans there.

But I also wanted to show the hopeful, and often inspiring, aspects to this story. The North Koreans who reach China, and the smaller number of North Koreans who go on to find sanctuary in free countries, are the future of their country. There are 24,000 North Koreans living in the South now, where they are being exposed to free markets and a democratic political system. Ten years ago there were just half that number.


Is North Korea the closest place to hell on earth?

North Korea is the world’s most repressive state. The Kim family regime controls every aspect of every citizen’s life: where he lives, where he works, even what — or whether — he eats. The reason we know this, and more, is thanks to the escapees I write about. North Koreans who get out are educating the world about life in their secretive country and the suffering of the North Korean people.

What are North Korea’s concentration camps like?

Every single North Korean suffers under the terrible tyranny of the Kim family regime. But the lowest circle of hell is the gulag, where 200,000 or more North Koreans are incarcerated, often with three generations of their family. They are usually there for political crimes such as possession of a Bible or listening to a foreign radio broadcast. Inmates are fed little and worked hard. Many don’t survive long. It’s estimated that at least 1 million North Koreans have died in the gulag.

How hard is it to escape North Korea?

Anyone who wants to escape needs large measures of courage, determination, and luck. The only practical escape route is through China — across the Yalu or Tumen River. North Koreans who cross the river to China can be shot in the back by North Korean border guards.

Money also helps — to hire a guide to shepherd you across the river or to bribe guards to look the other way. The bribery option is harder nowadays, though. Kim Jong Eun, the young new dictator who took over after his father’s death last December, has issued a crackdown order, and border guards are afraid to disobey.

It’s important to remember that the escape story doesn’t end when a North Korea reaches Chinese soil. In China, a North Korean trades in one circle of hell for another. If he wants to be safe, if he wants to achieve freedom, the next step is to get out of China. He can’t do that on his own. He needs help to get out of China and then reach sanctuary in South Korea. That’s where the new underground railroad comes in.

What is the new underground railroad and who helps North Koreans escape?

The new underground railroad is a secret network of safe houses and escape routes that carries North Koreans across China to safety in neighboring countries. From there, most go on to South Korea, though a few come to the U.S. or go to Europe or Canada.

Two groups of people operate the new underground railroad: brokers, who are in it for the money, and humanitarian workers — especially Christians — who are in it to serve God. It is against Chinese law to assist North Koreans, and anyone who helps them is subject to arrest, prison, and, if he’s a foreigner, expulsion. In “Escape from North Korea,” I profile several American Christians who help. They operate safe houses, they run orphanages and they lead North Koreans out of China. These people are brave and incredibly inspiring.


What about those North Koreans sold into sexual slavery in China?

A high percentage of the North Koreans hiding in China are women. Many are sold as brides to Chinese men. There’s a shortage of marriageable young women in China due to Beijing’s one-child policy, and many young men are desperate for wives.

The North Korean brides are trapped. They can’t go to the Chinese police, because if they do so, they’ll be arrested and repatriated to North Korea. Most accept their fate and hope that their so-called husbands treat them kindly, as some do. Others find their way to the new underground railroad and escape to South Korea. They often leave children behind.

How aware are North Koreans of life outside their country, due to the media blackout that exists in country?

I write about this in a chapter titled “Invading North Korea.” The invasion I refer to is an information invasion that is being mounted by the North Koreans who have escaped. Thanks, in major part, to the North Koreans who have gotten out, North Koreans back home are learning more and more about the outside world. The North Korean expatriates have set up black market systems to communicate with loved ones who are still in North Korea. For example, a courier might deliver a cell phone that can capture Chinese cell signals so that a North Korean in the South can talk to his relatives.

Also, North Korean expatriates are forming organizations with the specific purpose of sending information in their country. There are several radio stations in South Korea that are run by North Korean escapees — and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy in the U.S. They broadcast news, interviews, history lessons and other information to the North.

You write of covert operations taking place in North Korea. Who is launching these operations and what’s the purpose?

Clandestine North Korean journalists are secretly reporting on their own country. They gather information, video and photographs in North Korea and then smuggle this material out to China. There are also secret Christian missionaries in North Korea. These usually are North Koreans who were converted in China and now feel the call to go home and evangelize. They are planting secret new churches in the North.


Is South Korea more fearful of the economic turmoil that may come from unification with a collapsed North Korea than the continued maintenance of the regime?

South Koreans are very concerned about the potential costs of unification, and who can blame them? Even with help from the other countries, the financial burden will fall most heavily on South Korea.

At the same time, there’s also a growing sense among many South Koreans that they and North Koreans are one people — that they are all brothers and sisters. The arrival of so many North Korean escapees in recent years has helped to reinforce that attitude, especially among young people. President Lee Myung-bak has used the bully pulpit of his presidency to point out the moral necessity of Korean unification.

What can the West actually do to hasten the fall of the regime? Or will any step to push for regime collapse come with the attendant threat that North Korea will level Seoul or Tokyo?

First, we can put more pressure on China not to repatriate North Koreans and to let international refugee agencies help take care of them. Second, we need to work — perhaps in back channel discussions — to persuade China that a peninsula unified under a democratic system like South Korea’s is not a threat to China. Third, we must insist that human rights be included in any discussions with North Korea. Right now, we are sending the message that alleviating the suffering of the North Korean people is completely subordinate to the nuclear issues that we want to discuss. And finally, we need to do more to help North Koreans who get out, and prepare them for leadership roles when their country is finally free.

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