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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Helping a North Korean is a crime in China, punishable by fines, jail time, or deportation. But this fact has not deterred Peters and a growing number of activists from setting up shop. Kirkpatrick tells the story of Long Island businessman Steven Kim, for example, who worked in China and witnessed the fate of North Korean women sold as sex slaves to Chinese men. Before he was arrested, Kim helped about 100 women escape to freedom. After spending four years in a Chinese prison, he launched the nonprofit 318 Partners, named after Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code that convicted him. 

These and other humanitarian groups rely on a network of Christians working secretly in China and elsewhere in Asia. Thanks in part to Protestant missionaries from South Korea and the United States, there are now an estimated 70 million Christians in China—about the same number of people who belong to the Communist party. Kirkpatrick describes how Chinese Christian communities provide safe houses for refugees, help them find temporary jobs on the black market, purchase train tickets, guide them to border crossings, and give advice on how to avoid arrest.
“The first survival tip a North Korean learns when he reaches China is: Find a Christian,” writes Kirkpatrick. “Christians run almost all of the aid organizations. So, too, much of the informal assistance that refugees receive comes from Christians, especially local Chinese. Christians are the only people who seem to care.”

All of this comes as a shock to North Korean refugees, who have been force-fed a diet of atheist, anti-Christian prop­aganda all of their lives. Freedom of religion hasn’t existed in North Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953, and most North Koreans have never seen a house of worship, a Bible, or any religious literature. The cult of personality surrounding the nation’s dictators, beginning with Kim Il Sung, functions as the state religion. Yet the example of Christians offering help—at great risk to themselves and out of love for God and neighbor—serves as “a powerful recruiting tool” among the refugees.

The great tragedy is that only a tiny fraction of North Korea’s 24 million people have been able to escape its vast gulag of violence, oppression, and mind control. A United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights estimates that over 200,000 people (a third of whom are children) are locked away in prison camps where they are subject to beatings, rape, torture, experimentation, and arbitrary execution.

No one knows for certain, but it’s estimated that perhaps a million North Koreans have been killed by the regime. A 2007 report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide in London, drawing on extensive eyewitness accounts, found prima facie evidence of crimes against humanity: “The widespread and systematic nature of the attacks means that a large number of perpetrators have incurred criminal responsibility for international crimes committed in North Korea.” Even the usually feckless U.N. Human Rights Council managed to pass a resolution earlier this year, without opposition, condemning Pyongyang’s human-rights abuses. 

Perhaps the most sobering and encouraging lesson of Escape from North Korea is that the failure of political leadership to confront a human-rights disaster need not be the end of the story. When the 1990s famine forced many North Koreans to seek asylum, the international community sent billions of dollars in food aid to Pyongyang. But most of it was diverted to the military and Communist party elite, propping up the ruling family. The South Korean government, committed to a “Sunshine Policy” of engagement, worked hard not to antagonize its militarized neighbor. Japan, anxious about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, pursued a policy of rapprochement. China actively collaborated with North Korean agents to shuttle refugees back to Pyongyang. Bill Clinton, distracted by his sex scandal, made no effort to assist North Koreans seeking sanctuary.

Civil society actors stepped into the breach. The remarkable efforts of these Christian activists—mostly American, South Korean, and Chinese—not only embarrass the international diplomatic community, they invalidate liberalism’s cynical narrative about religious belief. Many political and cultural elites view conservative Christianity as the enemy of tolerance, justice, and human rights. Yet Kirkpatrick’s refreshingly frank account is a story of Christian zeal in the cause of human freedom: a gospel message of love, hope, sacrifice, and rescue.