The Magazine

Highway from Hell

Humanitarian relief from a totalitarian regime.

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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In the mid-1990s, a severe famine brought millions of North Koreans to the brink of starvation. Floods precipitated the crisis, but the failed economic policies of Kim Il Sung—the paranoid dictator intent on maintaining a vast military machine and acquiring nuclear weapons—were the real culprit. The result, as the Economist described it in 1997, was North Korea’s “descent into destitution.” The country’s state-run health care system essentially collapsed, clean water became scarce, strict food rations were enforced. The U.S. State Department estimated that during 1995-97 between one and two million North Koreans perished because of the famine.

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad


Thus, for the first time since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, many North Koreans made plans to escape the regime—a crime punishable by imprisonment, torture, or worse. By the late 1990s, tens of thousands fled to China, South Korea, or other destinations. Few could expect to evade the nation’s police and security forces, however, without help from the outside. Many were forcibly sent back. Yet the response of the “international community” to their plight was a mix of indifference, paralysis, and bad public policy.

The best hope for North Korean refugees seeking sanctuary came from outside the international community: an informal, multinational network of safe houses and transit routes run by private citizens, working mostly through Christian churches and humanitarian groups.

Here, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick chronicles the efforts of these modern-day emancipators. Though largely overlooked by policymakers and pundits, they have established a clandestine rescue operation not unlike the underground railroad that brought American slaves to freedom prior to the Civil War. “Sixty years of political oppression have not dulled North Koreans’ appetite for freedom,” Kirkpatrick writes. “The Christian and humanitarian workers devoted to this cause see their mission as the liberation of North Korea one person at a time.”

Escape from North Korea reads like a primer for the uninitiated, offering a concise overview of the human-rights situation in North Korea, drawing heavily on interviews with asylum seekers and human-rights advocates. In a well-researched and often poign­ant work, Kirkpatrick describes what must rank as among the most dangerous human-rights campaigns in the 21st century.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, a demilitarized zone stretching 2.5 miles wide and 155 miles long has divided North and South Korea. Stocked with land mines and barbed wire, and patrolled by heavily armed soldiers, the DMZ is virtually impenetrable; it effectively prevents the people of North Korea from fleeing south. Instead, many head north and cross the Tumen and Yalu Rivers to China, with the hope of eventually making their way to South Korea or other friendly locales.

It is a fearsome undertaking. As Kirkpatrick explains, no North Korean survives long in China without assistance, and no North Korean gets out of China without help. As Pyongyang’s staunchest ally, Beijing forcibly repatriates asylum seekers—a violation of international law. Once returned, they face indefinite prison terms, the confiscation of their property, or execution. On the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, for example, North Korea executed 15 people (most of them women) for trying to cross the border into China.

Nevertheless, with help from the underground railroad, North Koreans continue to flee. Once in China, they look for routes out of the country: by train, express bus, car, boat, or on foot. Their next step is to find sanctuary in places such as Vietnam, Burma, Laos, or Thailand. If they reach Bangkok safely, they go to the South Korean embassy. After months of interviews to make sure they aren’t spies, they are allowed passports to Seoul. All told, it is a 6,000-mile trek to gain asylum in South Korea. If North Koreans were allowed to leave Pyongyang and go directly to Seoul, they would travel 120 miles.

North Korea’s underground railroad can be traced to the work of Tim Peters, an evangelical Christian pastor from Michigan whose missionary experience in the region exposed him to the suffering of North Korean refugees. In 1996, he founded Helping Hands Korea to assist North Koreans hiding in China. Ten years later, a Time cover story called him “the public face” of the rescue movement. Based in Seoul, Peters focuses on those who would suffer the most if caught and repatriated: pregnant women who would be forced to have abortions; children suspected of being fathered by Chinese men, who would be killed to maintain the state’s vision of racial purity; people with medical problems who would not survive imprisonment; and, given the militant atheism of the regime, anyone suspected of having become Christian.