Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Today’s Underground Railroad- The North Korea Story

The North Korea crisis is an issue that has been close to my heart. So when I saw flyers around campus advertising that Melanie Kirkpatrick, the author of Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, was being interviewed by the editor of World Magazine, I asked my boss to let me cover it for the blog.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the North Korean situation, North Korea is currently one of the more repressive nations in the world. It is ruled by a dictator, Kim Jong-un, has few political freedoms, and contains concentration camps where political prisoners are held in lifelong detention, tortured, starved, and often executed.

Refugees flee for a number of reasons. Some seek food and jobs, some are political targets of the state, and some are professionals who seek freedom from government control (Kirkpatrick talks in her book about a classical pianist who fled in order to play jazz music, a style of music forbidden by the North Korean government).

South Korea offers asylum to North Korean refugees, but escape across the southern border is nearly impossible. The ironically titled Korean Demilitarized Zone established in 1953, has since become the world’s most militarized border, and any refugee fleeing southwards faces certain death.

Instead, up to 3000 refugees flee across the northern border into China every year, along an Asian underground railroad. The “underground railroad” term was coined in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Christian missionaries to refer to a network of safehouses and Christian communities. The railroad runs from Northern China, near the North Korean border, to Laos and Vietnam, from which refugees ultimately escape to South Korea, and is operated almost entirely by Christians.

To escape North Korea, refugees must first cross the Yalu or Tumen river, which together form the border between China and North Korea. Many of the refugees wait until the heat of the summer when the rivers have dried enough to wade through, or the dead of winter when the rivers have frozen over. The area is patrolled by North Korean border guards, who have orders to shoot refugees on sight.

Once across the border, the refugees find themselves in hostile territory. The Chinese government has declared it illegal for Chinese to aid North Korean refugees and any refugee caught in China faces immediate deportation. A number of Chinese human traffickers offer to “aid” female refugees, selling them as brides to Chinese men, as prostitutes to brothels, or enslaving them in the online pornography industry. Any pregnant women arrested in China are returned to North Korea to face coerced abortions for carrying “impure” Chinese children, and many “half-and-half” children are abandoned by their parents to become orphans rejected by racist Chinese and North Koreans alike.

Refugees seeking to get on the underground railroad are encouraged to look for a building with a cross on it. Once in the network, many refugees hide out in China for several years. For a North Korean born in a culture of oppression, often without basic necessities of food and electricity, the comparative freedom in China is overwhelming and requires adjustment. Some seek to wait and bring their family out of oppression. Many are arrested during their stay in China and are returned to North Korea, with some refugees escaping multiple times.

Once the refugees make the decision to flee to South Korea, they begin moving towards southern China to cross the border into Laos, Burma, or Vietnam. The infamous “golden triangle” of opium smuggling these southeast Asian countries are also a hotbed of human trafficking. Once across the border, refugees seek South Korean embassies, which have orders to aid them in relocation to South Korea.

A number of Americans and westerners have gotten involved in helping the North Korean refugee situation. The California-based organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is dedicated to raising awareness of the North Korea crisis. They also participate in the network of safe houses and have a goal of bringing 100 refugees out of China to South Korea every year. Though a secular organization, many of LiNK’s employees are Christian, and are motivated by their Christian worldview. Christian missionaries have settled in Northern China and are active participants in the underground railroad.

Kirkpatrick’s book is scheduled to release this September, so make sure to grab your copy at Amazon.com.

For more information, or to get involved in the North Korea crisis, visit LiNK’s website here.

To get involved in the international human trafficking crisis, check out the International Justice Mission’s website here.

For more information on ending China's one-child policy, click here.

By Nick Barden

A dark North Korea at night, with neighboring countries.

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