Helping North Koreans to Escape

Korean-American Mike Kim, author of 'Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World's Most Repressive Country,' discusses how and why he put a career in finance on hold to help North Korean refugees in China.
2009-03-26
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Executive Editor Dan Southerland interviews Mike Kim in RFA's Washington DC office on Mar. 24, 2009.
RFA
Q: Welcome to Radio Free Asia. Tell us what caused you to give up, or at least postpone, your career in financial planning. You stopped doing that, and you took up what amounted to a nonpaying job smuggling North Korean defectors out of China.

A: Well, to answer that question I’d have to take you back to July 2001. At that time, I had my own financial planning business in Chicago. My clientele was growing, and I had just hired my own personal assistant. Business was looking good, and I decided to take a two-week vacation to travel to China, and it was there in northeast China that I met a North Korean refugee for the first time. And when I met this little girl, a North Korean refugee, my immediate question was: What’s a North Korean refugee?

I’m a Korean-American, born and raised in the States, but I had never heard of refugees in China before. So that trip was the first I had begun to learn about the problem of the famine and political and religious oppression and people fleeing the country. And as a result, when I returned to the States, I decided that I had to do something to help out.

I’d tell people often that [it was] something like the U.S. Peace Corps type of deal. And while I was young, single, mobile, I wanted to do something like this, at least once in my life, to go and live at the border and help the North Koreans. And I felt like I would regret it if I didn’t. And that was how I came to that decision.

Change of tack

Q: How did you manage to escape being arrested by the Chinese police? You were living for four years up there, pretty much permanently inside China for four years. How did you manage to escape?

A: A couple of reasons I can think of. One is that we made a policy change to not help North Koreans get to South Korea any more. My observation was that anybody engaged in that type of work was captured and deported within a year and blacklisted from ever re-entering the country.

So we decided we wanted to have a long-term perspective to stay in China, and as a result we would only help refugees stay in China or return to North Korea. So as a result, I feel like that was one of the big reasons we were able to stay under the radar.

The other is that we were very careful with security, so we changed our cell phone numbers often. We were very careful about language—language that we used on the phone or when we met in public areas. And also our staff there in China, we had good covers and good reason to be at the China-North Korea border.

Border controls

Q: We hear that the North Korean government has tightened controls along the border in recent months. This might have started after the Dear Leader suffered a stroke. Is that correct?

A: I have also heard similar reports that the security along the border has tightened in recent months. And North Korea is doing everything it can to stop the exodus of refugees, and I’ve heard reports that they’ve sent senior military personnel to replace younger border patrol guards at the North Korea and China border in hopes somehow that the senior guards would not take bribes. And as a result, this made it a lot more difficult for refugees to escape.

One of the things I have noticed is that there has been a correlation, during my time there as well as now, between the number of women that are trafficked and the security at the border. And as the security tightens, there are fewer options for the North Koreans to escape the regime. And as a result, women increasingly turn to sex-trafficking rings in order to escape the country. So I’ve noticed that as security at the border tightens, a larger percentage of the women that come across will come as a result of being trafficked.

Q: What happens to the North Korean defectors whom the Chinese police arrest and send back to North Korea? Does the punishment they receive depend on whether they are Christians or not?


A: The punishment ranges from imprisonment to beatings and torture and, in some cases, execution. And it really depends on the type of "crime." As a result, the punishments can vary widely. We've heard from our interviews that when refugees are repatriated, they're asked two questions. One is, "While you were in China, did you have any contact with foreigners, specifically Americans and South Koreans?" The second question is, "While you were in China, did you have any contact with Christians?" And to answer yes to either of those questions means the most severe of punishments.

To be caught owning a Bible can mean having you and your entire family up to three generations sent to the gulag. But North Koreans have come up with creative ways of hiding their Bibles.

'Underground railway'

Q: You led two North Korean women through a 6,000-mile underground railway all the way to Laos from the North Korean border. Was that your most dangerous trip escorting defectors?

A: Yes, that was definitely by far the most dangerous experience I had during my four years in China. This was a project to help two North Korean women get to South Korea: Mrs. Lee and Ms. Kim. Mrs. Lee was sick with tuberculosis, and we learned later that if she had not received medical help within the next two to three weeks, she would have died. She was that sick. And Ms. Kim was a victim of sex trafficking.

I was just deeply moved by their situation and wanted to help them get to South Korea. Initially, I did not want to do this project myself, so I met with others to see if they would be willing to help these two women get to South Korea. And the response I got was, in some cases people said no, they could not help at that time. In other instances, they said that they would be willing to help, but that it was a risky time. I wasn't very comfortable with the options out there, so I decided to explore, myself, and came up with a plan to help get these women to Bangkok, Thailand.

It's still largely unknown today, but there is a modern-day, 6,000-mile underground railroad in Asia that resembles the underground railroad during the Civil War to help slaves get to safety in the North. And it also resembles the railroad to help Jewish refugees escape during the Holocaust, to escape the Nazi regime. We operated on this path, and we would help refugees get to safety by helping them move from North Korea through China, into southern China, across into Laos, and eventually into Bangkok, Thailand, where they go into the South Korean embassy and are given permission to be flown to Seoul, South Korea.

In the case of Mrs. Lee and Ms. Kim, once we were inside Laos,  Laotian border patrol soldiers came up with their AK-47s pointed at us. I’d never had a gun pointed at me like that before. They threatened to send the two women back to the China. They held us under arrest for two days. But in the end, a Laotian police captain charged a “fine” of $1,000 for each of the two women and allowed us to head on in to Thailand.

Q: You helped to smuggle several young North Korean defectors into the British consulate in Shanghai. You got them into the consulate, and they were able to escape to South Korea. Tell us a little bit about how you managed to do that.


A: I had never done anything like this before. Again, I turned to other organizations, other groups and individuals, to help these North Koreans, and again I received a similar answer that they could not help at that time. Or they told me their plans, and I just wasn't comfortable with what I was hearing. So, as a result, I decided that I would try to help them myself.

I got a tip from a friend, and he said to check out the British consulate in Shanghai, where he noticed that security was weak. So I got on a plane over to Shanghai. I walked into the consulate, picked up a visa form and pretended to read it, and observed my surroundings. I noticed that the Chinese guard outside the door was kind of careless with security, and as a result I concluded that this might be a good location, since he would leave the door unattended from time to time.

So I returned to the northeast, to the border, and met with the teenagers and laid out the plan for them. I recall Yonhee, the oldest of the group, begging me for a 100 percent guarantee that this would be a safe project. And I took the advice of a friend who had done this work, who said, "Mike, if you ever decide to do this, tell the North Koreans the risks involved. Tell them that they might be repatriated, and they could be executed." And he said, "Because, if you don't tell them, you don't want to live with that on your conscience. That's happened to me, and it's pretty awful."

So I took his advice to heart, and I told the teenagers about the risks involved. They decided that they wanted to risk it all for freedom.

When the four teenagers entered the consulate, the guard tried to drag them outside. His action was actually against international law. The four of them kicked and screamed and one of the consular employees came out and rescued them.

Now they are all safely in Seoul, South Korea. A couple of interesting details are that they made it in before July 4 and also a few days before Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean president at the time, visited Shanghai. On July 4, of all days, they were given their freedom and tasted it for the first time in their lives. Also, refugees are usually kept in consulates for months before being given permission to fly out to South Korea. In this case, the Chinese government wanted to get them out as soon as possible, because they didn't want any media attention with the visit of the South Korean president.

I wish I could say I was clever enough to plan those two details out. But things just kind of worked out that way, and I was very pleased. After doing these two projects, we made a policy change, saying, "We're not going to engage in this kind work. We'll leave this important work to other organizations. From here on out, we'll just help North Koreans live safely in China or return to North Korea."

Chinese sympathy

Q: Do you think the Chinese police, at least some of them without saying so openly, might have sympathized with your efforts to find occupations for North Korean defectors to make sure they avoided the brothels and the sex trafficking? When I worked in China, I would find people in the military or the police who were actually more open-minded, who were not corrupt, and who had some ideals.


A: I would say, without a doubt, there are some Chinese police and some in the government that sympathize with our cause. I wonder sometimes if there was some sort of understanding where they said as long as I’m just helping the refugees live in China or return to North Korea, and not causing any other problems, that they would let me continue to do that. There’s no way to know for sure, but I wonder why I was able to live there for four years and our organization was able to operate with relative ease.

There is one story that one of our refugees tells of when they were captured and repatriated, and this North Korean woman speaks of being captured and sent to a Chinese detention center, and when they were being repatriated to North Korea, she said that some of the women police officers were crying, sympathizing with them, and some of them gave their phone numbers, saying, "If some of you ever return to China, give us a call and we would be happy to help you out." So definitely there are some people that sympathize with the cause of helping the North Korean refugees.

Sex-trafficking rampant

Q: I want to clarify one thing about North Korean women being trafficked. Why is it easier for women to get across? And regarding the figure you've given that more than 80 percent of the women who do cross over fall into these sex slavery rings, trafficking rings. That was based, I think, on a survey you did. Can you tell us a little bit about the survey?


A: I’ve heard numbers saying that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of North Korean refugee women are sex-trafficked. I would say, within my observation, that would be fairly accurate. At one point before meeting with the U.S. State Department, the Trafficking in Persons office—the Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking—before meeting with them, we did a survey of our shelters and wanted to know what percentage of our women were sex-trafficked. And when we did that survey, we found that 97 percent of women were, in fact, there as a result of being sold.

So we don’t know if that’s representative of the full environment or what other organizations are seeing. But we did find that a large number of our women, at that moment in time, were there as a result of being sex-trafficked. I think the number of people who come as a result of being sex-trafficked throw off that ratio of men to women, and as a result you see more women refugees in China than men.

Q: If the large majority of people who come over are women, there must be some people in North Korea who are deciding, number one, we want to recruit these women. But number two, are North Korean families deciding the women might be able to get more work? I’m just trying to figure this out, what the psychology is on the North Korean side.

A: You have both men and women, of course, wanting to go to China, but it’s easier for women because they are sex-trafficked, so you’ll find a larger number of women being found in China. There’s two ways that we’ve seen that women are trafficked, which is that Chinese businessmen or their North Korean counterpart will make a pitch to a family, saying, "If your daughter comes with us into China we have a great job in a nearby factory, and they will make a good salary and be able to send money back to your family to help out."

As soon as they cross over into China, they’re in a land with no rights, in a foreign land, and as a result they’re sold to the highest-paying Chinese man. The other way that happens is when they venture into China on their own, they are abducted by these human-trafficking rings and also sold to the highest-paying Chinese man.

Q: So many of these women are tricked. They actually believe these stories about possibly getting a job inside China.

A: Yes, many of them are tricked or abducted, and there are also some women that willingly—especially when security at the border is tighter—they know that they’re going to be sold, and they consent. They are sold through these trafficking rings, and their plan is to run away at the first chance they get.

Q: And on both sides, the North Korean police and the Chinese police are taking bribes to let this happen.

A: That’s right. All of this is done in conjunction with the Chinese and North Korean police and government. It couldn’t be done without them.

Q: According to your book, your staff attempted to simulate the refugee experience by hiking over trails often used by North Korean defectors coming in from China. What did you learn from that "mock walk"?


A: As we were walking along the trail, we came across small houses where dogs rushed out to bark at us. Our guide explained to us that the owners of the houses use the dogs to detect refugees. Any women they caught on these trails would be sold to the sex-trafficking rings.

Future plans

Q: After four years along that border, you came back to George Washington University to enter the MBA program, the business administration program. What is next for you? What do you plan to do with that degree, which I believe you are going to get in May?


A: After I graduate in May, I will be starting my own company. The plan is to do business and nonprofit work in Asia. I’ve always loved both. I love doing business, and I’ve always loved doing nonprofit work as well. I think it’s important, it’s healthy, to have a certain involvement in nonprofit work for the rest of your life, so I hope to engage in both, and my goal would be to explore other issues as well as continue to be involved in the North Korean one as well.

I am currently working on a study as well for next steps on North Korea and on a study on the business environment in North Korea. So we’re doing case studies, interviewing people who are currently or have formerly done business in North Korea. We want to come up with some recommendations for people.

I joke that it’s kind of my way to patch things up with the North Korean government after writing this book on the refugees, a very sensitive topic. Now my next publication, which we’re hoping to publish in the summer, is on business in North Korea.