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Escape From North Korea

Journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick shares the harrowing stories of North Koreans desperate to escape a despotic regime.

By Terry Hong / November 26, 2012

Escape From North Korea By Melanie Fitzpatrick Encounter Books 376 pp.

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Please allow me to share a so-called North Korean political joke:

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Kim Jong Il and Vladimir Putin ... decide to ... see whose bodyguards are more loyal. Putin calls his bodyguard Ivan, opens the window of their twentieth-floor meeting room, and says: ‘Ivan, jump!’ Sobbing, Ivan says: ‘Mr. President, how can you ask me to do that? I have a wife and child waiting for me at home.’ Putin ... apologizes to Ivan, and sends him away.... Kim Jong Il ... calls his bodyguard.... ‘Lee Myung-man, jump!'.... Lee ... is just about to jump ... when Putin grabs him and says: ‘… If you jump out this window, you’ll die!...’ Lee ... tries to escape Putin’s embrace and jump...: ‘President Putin, please let me go! I have a wife and child waiting for me at home!’”

Ghastly humor aside, the tragic joke barely disguises the inhumane policies of the world’s most secretive, repressive regime. In Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, former Wall Street Journal journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick documents the desperate, dangerous flight of North Koreans toward an uncertain new life. Drawing parallels with American slaves seeking freedom 150 years and continents apart, Kirkpatrick traces North Korean journeys through a network of clandestine routes, safe houses, and courageous individuals willing to compromise their own safety to help others.

For North Koreans attempting to escape starvation, torture, repression, and worse, the “new underground” begins just over the border in China. Because of China’s official political support of North Korea, the Chinese government refuses to recognize escapees as refugees (even though China has signed the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees). Nor does China allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to operate in the country.

North Koreans in China live constantly under threat of arrest and repatriation. Women are often trafficked, sold as “brides” in response to a shortage of partners in China (due to that country's history of male preference that has created a “sex imbalance … [of] epic proportions”). The children of these North Korean/Chinese unions perhaps suffer the most, trapped in stateless limbo: The fear of exposing a North Korean mother’s illegal status prevents a Chinese father from officially registering the child who, in effect, doesn’t exist and therefore has no access to education and healthcare.

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