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     Sep 11, 2012

Can North Korea's agony find an end?
Reviewed by Spengler

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

Melanie Kirkpatrick tells one of the saddest stories I have ever read, about a North Korean family of four apprehended by the Chinese authorities after they had fled to China. Before their 

repatriation, a Chinese policeman took pity and ordered a Korean meal for them in jail.
The officer then said good night and went home. When he arrived at work the next morning and opened the door to the North Koreans' cell, he found four corpses. The mother and children had been strangled; the father had hanged himself.
South Korean journalist Koo Bum-hoe, one of the first to report on starvation in North Korea and the refugee flood it caused, wrote of the incident: "It seemed as if the family had concluded that instead of going back to North Korea where they could be punished or even put to death for betraying their country that it would be better to die with a full stomach."

The amount of human misery brought about by the Pyongyang regime challenges the imagination. Kirkpatrick quotes a 2005 Chinese police document estimating the number of North Korean refugees in China at more than 400,000. Many are caught and sent back to severe punishment, which often means death by starvation in a work camp. Female refugees routinely are sold as brides in rural areas. Some fail to find work or help and return to North Korea of their own volition, which perhaps is the saddest gauge of Chinese indifference.

George Orwell, who portrayed a dystopia of nagging poverty and perpetual war in Nineteen Eighty-Four, could not have envisaged a totalitarian system in which a significant portion of the people are condemned to death by starvation pour encourager les autres.

As a reporter and later an editor at The Wall Street Journal, Kirkpatrick has followed the plight of North Korean refugees for years. Her new book is not a litany of horrors, though, but rather a hopeful report on the efforts of Chinese, South Korean and American Christians to help the refugees. It is a moving document, and intended as an inspirational tale.

If there were a Chinese edition - sadly, a remote prospect - it might serve as a modern Uncle Tom's Cabin, the popular novel on the ills of slavery that built sentiment for abolition in the advent of America's Civil War. Taken as a whole, I found Kirkpatrick's report more frightening than uplifting. The difficulty of uprooting the Pyongyang regime still seems insuperably great.

For two reasons, Kirkpatrick's book has important value to analysts of East Asian politics.

First, it makes clear how radical the impact of Christianity has been in China. In the face of unspeakable horrors, the only segment of Chinese society that has taken action to help the hungry, frightened and bewildered runaways is an informal Christian network, often at risk of severe punishment from China's governments. Dozens of energetic and resourceful individuals have interrupted or even devoted their lives to helping the North Korean refugees.

Second, it shows indirectly how marginal Christian influence remains, despite official Chinese data suggesting that almost a tenth of Chinese are professed Christians. Evangelization of China is broad, but it does not appear deep.

The involvement of Chinese Christians in humanitarian aid to North Koreans involves a few thousand individuals out of a nominal Christian population well in excess of a hundred million. Kirkpatrick's analogy to the "underground railroad" that helped slaves escape the south before the American Civil War refers to another small network of devout Christians who risked their liberty to help others reach freedom.

The difference is that America had a free abolitionist press and an organized anti-slavery party.

Kirkpatrick depicts a handful of heroes who risked (and sometimes suffered) imprisonment to help the North Koreans. One is the resourceful Pastor John Yoon, raised in a South Korean orphanage and educated in theology on a Christian scholarship. He moved to Alaska to lead a Korean-American Pentecostal church before his denomination sent him to Siberia to minister to South Korean business travelers. His mission soon extended to North Koreans who escaped from Siberian logging camps to which their government had sent them as slave laborers.

After the famines of the 1990s that killed an estimated 1.5 million people, Yoon returned to the US to raise money from Korean-American Christians to relieve hunger in the North:
In 1997, Pastor Yoon joined a humanitarian mission to North Korea to visit a noodle factory supported by the donations he had raised ... The suffering was far worse than anything he had seen as a child in war-torn Korea. Children, in rags, were patrolling the streets, begging for food or picking up crumbs that had fallen to the street ... Worst of all, he found evidence that the government was stealing some of the international food donations.
Yoon relocated to China and "set up an underground network of assistance for North Korean refugees", offering safe houses, clothing, food, and eventually a cottage industry to employ the refugees making religious artifacts for sale in the US. For years he dodged the police until he was barred from entry to China. Undeterred, he changed his name to "Phillip Buck" and returned, until his arrest and 15-month imprisonment in 2005.

Pastor "Buck" combines the intrepidity of a John Buchan hero and the selflessness of a Christian martyr. It is clear from Kirkpatrick's account of his adventures that nothing less would thwart the vigilance of the North Korean regime and the hostility of the Chinese authorities. Movements that depend on extraordinary courage and capabilities are difficult to expand in scale.

Kirkpatrick sees hope in these efforts for "one free Korea", the title of her last chapter. "As Pastor Phillip Buck likes to say, help one North Korean refugee escape, and you are helping to save an entire people. You are educating a network of North Koreans about the reality of life outside their borders." That is a daunting task in a country where every radio is registered with the police and limited to local stations (with severe penalties for tampering to receive foreign broadcasts).

The Korean underground railroad has helped a few thousand, but Kirkpatrick sees far broader consequences:
While the long-term effects of the new Underground Railroad are not yet known, it's already evident that it is having a profound impact in North Korea itself. Those who escape are transforming North Koreans' understanding of their country and are helping to open their eyes to the rest of the world.
I wonder. One of the cruelest aspects of a totalitarian system like North Korea's is the mass complicity of the population in the crimes of the state, something that the state does its best to encourage.

Perhaps the closest parallel is East Germany, the impoverished police state abutting the prosperous and free half of the same country. One in 160 East Germans worked for the secret police and perhaps one in 60 citizens collaborated; in North Korea, the ratio must be even higher. When the crimes involve systematic starvation, not just political repression, small privileges take on a special meaning.

We observe in North Korea a degree of cruelty and determination that makes East Germany seem humane by comparison. Confronted by more than 300,000 demonstrators led by evangelical pastors in Leipzig in late 1989, East Germany's authorities chose resignation over massacre. Pyongyang is willing to kill its people, slowly and cruelly, by starvation. East Germans lived worse than their Western counterparts, but they didn't starve. North Koreans are on average 8 centimeters shorter than South Koreans, a South Korean study shows, because of malnutrition. [1]

A regime that organizes one part of its citizens to police the other in return for a few more calories, and holds the world at bay with atomic weapons, may not be so easy to dislodge. As food shortages become more frequent in a world market dominated by price-insensitive grain buyers, we may see more rather than less of this kind of political control, as Pyongyang's political success is noted by other prospective totalitarians.

Food shortages helped trigger the upheaval in Egypt as well as Syria, and are likely to shape Egypt's political future. The new Muslim Brotherhood government proposes to ration fuel and electricity as well as food, making a government ration card the ticket to daily survival, and concentrating power of life and death in the hands of the regime. Egypt might become a North Korea on the Nile, as I suggested in this space last month (see North Korea on the Nile, Aug 28, '12). Che Guevara called for "two, three, many Vietnams". I fear two, three, many North Koreas.

Perhaps 2% of North Korea's 24 million people have managed to leave. Whether they are typical of those who stayed behind, or a few brands plucked out of the fire, remains to be seen. Whether or not the reader shares Melanie Kirkpatrick's optimism, she has written a compelling case study that is as painful to read as it is hard to put down.

1. See North Koreans shorter than South Koreans due to famine, poor diet, Digital Journal, Apr 24, 2012.

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, by Melanie Kirkpatrick. Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN-10: 1594036330. Price US$25.99, 312 pages.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman, president of Macrostrategy LLC. His book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You, also appeared last autumn, from Van Praag Press.

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(Mar 29, '12)



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