Escape From North Korea

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

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    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:

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.

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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.

Within and beyond China, remarkable heroes extend the escape networks into numerous Asian countries as they work to send North Korean escapees to freedom in South Korea and beyond. These heroes include: Steve Kim, founder of 318 Partners (named for Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code which sent him to jail for aiding North Koreans in China); “Mary and Jim,” a retired couple, who run orphanages in China for mixed children abandoned by missing North Korean mothers and desperate Chinese fathers (the undocumented status of these children makes them ineligible for adoption); and “Mr. Jung,” who has undergone face-changing surgeries to repeatedly fool Chinese authorities while rescuing South Korean prisoners of war held illegally in North Korea since 1953.

The tenacity of such brave individuals is sharply contrasted with the failure of the world – especially South Korea, the United States, even the United Nations – to confront and combat North Korea’s atrocities. Kirkpatrick convincingly argues that escaped North Koreans – from starving children to highly-placed officials – will prove to be the best weapon against toppling the despotic, third-generation Kim regime.

Kirkpatrick is a methodical writer, and "Escape from North Korea" is a solid, matter-of-fact title that falls somewhere in between the unrelenting brutality of Blaine Harden’s recent “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West,” and the flowing narrative of Barbara Demick’s lauded 2010 National Book Award nonfiction finalist, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” As literature, “Escape from North Korea” is efficient at best; it reads like a series of separate articles patched together. Certain details are unnecessarily repetitive (such as explaining yet again who North Korean founder Kim Il Sung is, two-thirds through the book). Other details seem oddly missing and sometimes surprisingly inaccurate. Kirkpatrick refers to the underground railroad-multiplying organization LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) as “founded at Yale University in 2004 by two Korean-American students,” but identifies only one founder (whose story is one of the book’s most inspiring). Meanwhile, however, Kirkpatrick neglects to tell readers about the never-named co-founder who was actually already a California college graduate when LiNK began.

Quibbles, inaccuracies, and typos aside, Kirkpatrick undoubtedly offers an eye-opening opportunity to explore an overlooked, pressing topic. She shares with readers the harrowing testimonies, the wrenching struggles, and the inspiring successes. Regretfully, in its current incarnation, “Escape” reads like a powerful draft waiting for a diligent editor’s transformative prowess.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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