Since taking power in early 2012, North Korea’s young new leader Kim Jong Un has tightened controls over the country’s borders and shows no signs of improving its human rights record. Here, Melanie Kirkpatrick speaks to RFA’s Executive Editor Dan Southerland about her book, Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.
Q: What is it that inspired you to compare the new underground railroad with the railroad before the Civil War that was used to get slaves out of the American South?
A: I interviewed a couple of the people who set up the original networks in the late 1990s that helped get North Koreans out of China, and they told me they were inspired by the underground railroad in America itself. That metaphor always stuck with me. One of the first things I did when I started to research my book was begin to read literature about the underground railroad, including a wonderful book that is a record of every slave that they helped—how they helped them, what they did. I realized that those stories were remarkably similar to the stories of the network of people in China who help North Koreans get out.
The underground railroad is a network of safe houses and secret routes that go across many thousands of miles in the United States in the case of the original underground railroad, and across China in the case of this new underground railroad.
Q: And they take incredible risks.
A: Both the rescuers and the North Koreans take incredible risks. It’s a crime to help a North Korean in China. China takes the view that a North Korean who comes to China is not a refugee. It makes that determination without allowing the United Nations to interview any North Korean. This is in contravention of China’s obligations under international treaties it has signed. It’s also immoral. China’s policy is to track down the North Koreans, to arrest them, and to send them back to North Korea.
Q: And then what happens?
A: Once the refugee reaches North Korea, he’s thrown into jail. In some cases he’s executed for the so-called crime of having left North Korea. Again, that alone—the fact that he would face persecution once he is repatriated—makes it a crime for China, in my view, to repatriate North Koreans. It’s also probably illegal under international law, because people who face retribution once they’re returned to their country are considered refugees automatically. There’s a term called refugees sur place that applies to them.
Q: Are these rescue groups becoming stronger?
A: It’s very hard to tell, Dan. It’s a motley group of people who are in it for the money—brokers and traffickers, including some very nasty people—and humanitarian groups and Christians. Many of them are operating independently. One of the hallmarks of the underground railroad is that it’s this undefined network. If it were systematized, then it would be very easy to penetrate. My reporting and my instinct tells me that there are more people trying to help North Koreans in China now than there were 10 years ago. But again, it’s very hard to quantify.
Q: Do you get the impression that any of the North Koreans you’ve interviewed really believes in the system? Is there some remnant of North Korean nationalism?
A: Every North Korean I interviewed struck me as patriotic. That is, he loved his country and he wanted to return to North Korea someday. But nobody I talked to had any confidence in the Kim family regime.
Q: I take it that there is still no sign of organized dissent in North Korea.
A: There is no organized dissent in North Korea. The regime would just crack down on the slightest hint that somebody is defying it. People who speak out against any aspect of the regime are sent to political prison camps, along with three generations of their families. That’s a big deterrent to anybody to speak out against the regime.
Q: What impact does China have on North Korean refugees?
A: Every refugee I interviewed, once they reached China, was astonished to see how well Chinese lived. One comment was, “Dogs in China eat better than people in North Korea.” They were astonished to find even the limited freedoms in China that were, of course, not available to them in North Korea. And they were astonished on a couple of levels. One level was that it contradicted everything that they had been told all their lives by the regime’s propaganda.
Q: Wasn’t the famine in the late 1990s a turning point for some of them?
A: I think the famine of the mid-to-late 1990s was a turning point for a lot of North Koreans. They realized that the system of food distribution had totally broken down and that they could no longer rely on the regime in Pyongyang to feed them.
Q: Seventy to eighty percent of the refugees are believed to be women. Why so many women?
A: The sad answer to that question is that there is a market for women in China. China’s one-child policy has resulted in a severe shortage of marriageable-age young women. The one thing many Chinese men want most in their life is a bride, and in some cases they purchase one from North Korea. So women who go to China have something they can sell; it’s a way for them to make a living. Sometimes they’re tricked into going to China and becoming the brides of Chinese men. Other times, they get there and then are trapped. If they go to the Chinese authorities, they’ll be arrested and shipped back to North Korea. That’s a fate worse than being the forced bride of a Chinese man.
Q: They’re also very badly treated in some of these marriages, though not in all, perhaps.
A: Those who have gotten out on the new underground railroad generally have come from abusive marriages. But then there are other women who are satisfied with their new lives. They have new families, and they are willing to stay in China. But remember, they’re always at the risk of exposure, arrest, and repatriation.
Q: How much do we know about what happens when they are repatriated, sent back to North Korea?
A: People who are sent back to North Korea automatically get prison sentences. Just how bad or how lengthy the prison sentences are depends on a couple of factors. The Chinese return the North Koreans with a dossier, and the dossier will say if the North Koreans have been captured trying to escape on the underground railroad, or if they’ve met with Christians in China, or if they’ve met with South Koreans in China. Somebody who’s met with a Christian or met with a South Korean or been trying to get to South Korea is likely to end up in a political prison camp, or even be executed. Two years ago there was a case of a woman who was publicly executed for distributing bibles in North Korea.
Those who come back without such so-called crimes put on their dossier can expect to be in jail for several months. And when I say “in jail,” it’s not like what you or I would think of as being jail in America. It’s a place where food is scarce, where torture is common, and where people are worked very hard. There are people who don’t survive a stint in just an ordinary jail in North Korea, the conditions are so bad.
Q: What if a woman is pregnant? Does that happen sometimes?
A: It is unspeakable, what happens to women who are repatriated and pregnant. North Korea’s policy is to perform forced abortions on women who are pregnant. Or if their child is delivered, then they kill the child. The reason for this is that they assume that the woman is carrying “Chinese seed” and that therefore the child that would be born would be half-Chinese. The North Koreans are very racist. They believe in what they call the purity of their race, and so a half-Chinese child is anathema to them.
Q: According to your book, there are a number of children who are stuck in China. Their fathers may have abandoned them or their mothers leave, they’re taken into orphanages. We’ve done stories on these kind of unofficial orphanages. I think you’ve called them half-and-half children.
A: The half-and-half children are a kind of growth industry for missionaries in China. These are kids who are half Chinese and half North Korean. If the mothers are arrested and repatriated, or if the mothers decide on their own to go to South Korea on the underground railroad, the kids are often abandoned by their fathers. In some cases, the fathers love the kids but can’t afford to take care of them if their wife is missing.
Q: How many of these children are there?
A: We don’t know how many there are, but missionaries I’ve talked to estimate that there are tens of thousands of them. It’s impossible to know, but we do know that there are multiples of tens of thousands of women who have been sold as brides in China, so it makes sense that there would be children.
Q: Does Chinese law apply to the half-and-half children?
A: China’s nationality law says that the child of a Chinese citizen is Chinese. But to claim that citizenship, the father has to register the child at his birth with the authorities. And if he registers the child, he has to reveal the existence of the child’s North Korean mother, and that exposes the mother to the possibility of arrest and repatriation. So the father usually doesn’t register the child, and then because the child lacks official registration papers, the child can’t go to school, can’t get medical care, and is essentially a nonperson in China. This is going to become a bigger problem as these kids get older. Because it’s not good for China, either. They don’t want a group of young people who are illiterate or don’t have legal status. It’s a recipe for violence or disruption.
Q: Do you see any changes in South Korean attitudes toward North Korean refugees? There seemed to be some changes among younger South Koreans following the North Korean attack on the South Korean warship the Cheonan in 2010, and the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyong Island that same year.
A: I do think that’s changing, and one reason is that there are 25,000 North Koreans who are living in South Korea today, and South Koreans have more access to North Koreans. There are more interchanges. That’s part of it. Another part of it, and a very important part of it, is the change in government. Since President Lee Myung-bak took over almost five years ago, he has taken a very different policy toward North Korean refuges. He appointed a North Korean to a high-level government position, he set up a system whereby national agencies were required to hire North Koreans. He has publicly indicated to the South Korean people the importance of unification and of treating these people as “our brothers and sisters.” This was not the policy during the years of the Sunshine Policy, and people who help North Koreans refer to those ten years as the “lost decade.”
Q: What kind of difference can this rather large number of refugees in South Korea make on change in North Korea?
A: The people who have escaped from North Korea are performing two essential functions. One, they’re educating us about the reality of life in North Korea. It is no longer possible for anybody anywhere in the world to say that life in North Korea is not so bad. It’s thanks to the reporting that you folks are doing at Radio Free Asia. The exiles are providing what they call their testimonies about life in North Korea. It’s very important.
North Koreans who get out of North Korea also are getting information back into that country. They’re doing it in a couple of ways. On a personal level, very low-tech, they often hire couriers in China to go into North Korea and verbally deliver messages to family members whom they’ve left behind. Sometimes the couriers take them Chinese cell phones so the North Korean can talk to relatives in another part of the world.
There are, as you know, four refugee-run radio stations in Seoul that broadcast information to North Korea. There are other organizations that do things like using balloons to drop leaflets and DVDs and other information into North Korea. There is another organization, North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, that has figured out ways to get flash drives that contain information about North Korea into North Korea and into the hands of the small number of people who have computers.
Q: Do these North Koreans have a vision for the future of their country?
A: North Koreans who escape are very much committed to the unification of their country with the South and the betterment of their country. They understand what life in a totalitarian country is like, and now they’re living in a free and democratic country with a capitalist system, and they’re learning about that too. I think that when unification comes, they could be an effective bridge between the two parts of Korea.