BOOK REVIEW: Escape from North Korea by Melanie Kirkpatrick

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground RailroadEscape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

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 whose 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, an American 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.

View all my reviews

The Most Intense Blockbuster You’ll Never See

REV_Kirkpatrick-designAmong the Kindle Daily Deals yesterday was a book entitled Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick. It was well-timed to a news story about a Korean War Veteran, Merrill Newman, whose video statement as a prisoner of the DPRK was released the same day. Anyway, I bought the book and I’m hooked. The stories it contains are a mix of chilling and thrilling.

As I began reading, I wondered why no one had made a major Hollywood blockbuster based on an escape from North Korea. It’s a journey fraught with peril. There’s so much to go wrong from being shot in the back crossing the Tumen River to being repatriated to being double-crossed by smugglers to falling into the hands of traffickers or other predators. Adding to the challenge is the fact that most North Koreans are severely undernourished, and each is on his or her own for the first part of the trip–getting across the border. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for North Koreans to stick out physically because they’re unusually small and, as pointed out by one of Kirkpatrick’s sources, prone to bad hair and split ends.

I know these are words that writers despise but the screenplay practically writes itself.

Then I remembered, oh yeah, this will never be a movie because China’s government would be one of the villains, and Hollywood isn’t in the business of making films that PO the Chinese any more. Why is China the villain? Well, it’s not the main villain. That distinction, of course, goes to the Kim dynasty, presently personified by Kim Jong Un–who has been the biggest bastard yet when it comes to escapees. China’s policy is one of repatriation. It would be kinder for China to just execute the North Koreans themselves. One of the stories early in the book is about an entire family that was to be sent back who–having eaten their first decent meal in a long time–decided to die full and committed suicide while in Chinese custody. Lest one think that this is a Communist thing, Kirkpatrick points to Vietnam as one of the countries that quietly helps North Korean escapees get to safety. Like the democracies that do so, Vietnam keeps this on the down-low to avoid cheesing off the Chinese, but at least they do it.

Why would such a movie be good? Because everybody needs to know what’s going on, and movies are the surest injection point into the public consciousness. There have been books and documentaries about this for years, but I don’t think most people realize how bad it is.

I should point out that there have been films on the subject. The Crossing, made in South Korea, is probably the most well-known feature film on the subject. It’s about a father who crosses the border to get medication for a wife, but ends up stuck on the other side of the border during which time his wife dies and his boy becomes–for all intents and purposes–an orphan. This film is apparently based on a true story.

And there have been a number of documentaries on the subject. The Defector: Escape from North Korea is one of the best.

This is the book trailer for the Kirkpatrick book.

The Case of the Biggest Ego

Dear Leader, Version 3.0, and Dennis Rodman

Dear Leader, Version 3.0, and Dennis Rodman

I was reading an article in The Economist over the weekend about the sanctions against North Korea, and Kim Jong Un’s “don’t mess with me, I’m CRAZY!” response.

The article featured the photo above. I was immediately struck by the fact that Kim Jong Un’s head is higher, despite the fact that Dennis Rodman is about six-and-a-half foot tall and Kim Jong Un is… well, let’s just say a dwarf.  I don’t know exactly how tall Kim is, and I’m sure nobody truly does. I tried to look up Kim’s height, but the figures ranged from 5’3″ to 5’9″. This isn’t surprising. The Kim family motto is, don’t let blatant facts to the contrary get in the way of a good lie; stick to your guns, execute people as necessary, and show your skeptics the crazy eyes. Kim Jong Il was believed to have worn six-inch lifts and a nine-inch pompadour to impress his underlings with his grand total 5’2″ physique. Of course, each successive generation of the Kim Dynasty has an easier time because the country’s citizenry is shrinking due to undernourishment, a fate that isn’t shared by the Kims. (Sadly, this isn’t a joke. North Korea is one of the few nations whose average height has been in decline over recent decades.)

It’s not really surprising that Kim insists on his head being higher than his guests. (I know what you’re asking. Whose set of phonebooks is he sitting on, because there sure as hell aren’t enough phones in North Korea for him to be sitting on the DPRK listings–which is more of a pamphlet?) Anyway, kings, emperors, and dictators have always required others to scrunch down so that the royal status will remain unquestioned.

However, if there is anyone who can match a dictator’s monumental ego ton for ton, it’s a professional athlete. Consider Lance Armstrong, he sued reporters for telling the truth about him. What kind of rarefied atmosphere does one have to live in to do that?  Then there are the many athlete-rapists whose defense was “Your Honor, I didn’t know I needed permission to have sex with that person. I think my lawyer may have failed to make you aware that I’m this year’s MVP… Even an MVP needs permission? That’s some crazy shit.”

As a society, we nurture the notion that the dictates of polite society don’t apply to those who are skilled at winning games. Coaches have been known to be fired mid-season for losing, but Bobby Knight beat the hell out of kids for decades before he got fired. We deify athletes just like the people of North Korea, who can’t afford leisure activities of any kind, deify their dictator.

So this photo answers for me an intriguing question, who’s more narcissistic: a professional athlete or a professional dictator. Seeing Dennis Rodman peering at the game over the twin humps of his knees answers the question nicely.

To be fair, Rodman did get a subtle dig in with his Team USA cap;  subdued as it may have been, that must have gotten Kim’s goat. Rodman also got in a nice Coca-Cola product placement. Fun fact: I was once told by a Coke employee that there were only two countries in which Coke was not sold. Everybody guessed that North Korea was one of them, but that’s not correct. It was Burma and Cuba (don’t ask me how the latter has been making Cuba Libres all this time.) Given Burma’s reforms, I wouldn’t be surprised if today it was down to one (or none.)  [World dominance… check.]

TODAY’S RANT: Pudgy Dictators, Ugggh

This is my iron hand for which to rule you.

This is my iron hand for which to rule you.

Well, the new Kim on the block is about to pop his first nuke. This will be the third test for the PAB* Dynasty over all. Of course, as an AP article today indicates, we won’t necessarily know whether they succeed because any seismic event emanating from the country might just be a perfectly choreographed simultaneous jump by all citizens.

News reports suggest that Kim is upset about the latest sanctions. While sanctions generally don’t succeed (see Iran), we have hit the DPRK leadership where they live by restricting the flow of commemorative NBA bobble-head dolls– preventing the new Dear Leader from finishing his collection. This has led to veiled threats that he might, “Stop lavishing on the world glorious views of national splendor and brilliance… or bust a nuke up in America’s grill.'”

We need a better class of dictatorial villain. North Korea’s one success has been in killing the new Red Dawn movie by providing such an improbable nemesis. (They almost killed James Bond in the same manner.) Don’t let them kill again.

* PAB = Pudgy Ass Bastard

If you like dark DPRK humor, their state news service is hilarious.

P.S. I had real trouble deciding on which caption to use for the photo. Please let me know which caption you prefer [write-ins enabled.]

KimJongUn3