Red State, Blue State, Slave State: Reviewing Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Escape from North Korea” (Part 1) [Updated]
by Adam Cathcart
North Korea is a huge slave state wherein the Workers’ Party oversees 24 million people as an absolute despotic master. Virtually every North Korean person wishes to take the path blazed by 0.1% of its population who have successfully defected to the Republic of Korea. Holding back this tide of enslaved humanity is the North Korean regime, a government lacking in the most basic legitimacy, capable only of human rights violations. The North Korean regime literally steamrollers Christians who shout as they become martyrs, shoots fleeing men in the back, carries out enforced abortions on untold numbers of women, and menaces the world with nuclear weapons.
Against these forces of unparalleled darkness are arrayed a small but flinty band of highly committeed freedom agitators who cluster in Seoul and along the long North Korean border with China, often Christians, ready to aid the North Koreans in a desperate quest. Some send Bibles into North Korea, and all act to counterbalance the manifest inhumanity of the Chinese government and its disgusting counterpart in Pyongyang. Some are elderly South Korean pastors; others are American college students newly converted to the cause. All are committed to freedom. They are nothing less than a new brand of abolitionists who seek to bring the slaves out of bondage and, ultimately, make manifest the kingdom of heaven on earth with the very destruction of the DPRK.
At the risk of oversimplifying, this is the basic black-and-white oppositional notion that one gets from reading Melanie Kirkpatrick’s new text, Escaping North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad (New York: Encounter Books, 2012). Kirkpatrick — a former writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal — reminds us that the North Korean state is fundamentally evil and completely incapable of caring for its own population, much less making any concession or change that would allow refugees not to suffer persecution. Close behind on the text’s list of villains is China: The PRC’s failure to abide by treaties to which it is signatory mean that China is tagged as a complicit partner in the ostensible enslavement of the North Korean people. Finally, the complicity of Western observers and those in South Korea (including the Korean-American community) is called out in this text. Guilt is another powerful call to action.
Variations on a Theme by Harriet Beecher Stowe | The North Korean refugee “crisis” is not a new theme, but Kirkpatrick wraps a new thematic skin around the problem, comparing North Koreans in 2012 to African-American slaves in the antebellum American South. The comparison is, like most applied to North Korea, slightly slipshod, more used for purposes of marketing and mobilization than anything else. (One is not supposed to take the comparison too far, after all: this would require positing North Hamgyong as Kentucky, Manchuria as the American North, Kim Jong Un as Jefferson Davis, all ultimately leading to the inevitable assertion that a war to free the “slaves” is inevitable. Or should we call them Hitler?) The point is clear enough, however: the North Korean people are trying to escape, and they need help. One has to have courage to break the silence. Joining the crusade to aid North Korean refugees today thus becomes the modern equivalent of joining the abolitionist movement in the US in the 1850s.
Kirkpatrick’s book joins a number of relatively new — and relatively similar — texts that lend momentum to the political movement that seeks to undercut North Korea’s ability to control its own population, and spirit those who try to leave out into the free world beyond. It should do wonders for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) fund raising, and will probably end up being assigned as reading to more than a few university classes. The author is a convincing stylist and moves wonderfully between specific data points and painting with a broad moral brush, unafraid of oversimplifications. There is, after all, a struggle afoot, and readers must be reminded of the mission.
New Data | Kirkpatrick does far more than simply mobilize individuals who might be prone to join the struggle. She informs the community of North Korea watchers with a number of choice anecdotes, some of which have either not been told before, or which have been written about only in sporadic and partially-informed ways. Among the highlights of the text are:
- Kirkpatrick’s brisk and bracing takedown of the actions of the US Consulate in Shenyang which essentially accuses the Consulate of selling out an American abolitionist (Adrian Hong, the founder of LiNK) and several North Koreans in his care to Chinese agents in 2006.
- Discussion of a secret South Korean government program that started under President Kim Young Sam designated to extract South Korean Prisoners of War from within the DPRK, via the Chinese border. Is it any wonder the DPRK appears obsessed with the idea that the Sino-North Korean border region is infested with enemy agents?
- Summary of the case of Reverend Kim Dong-shik, a Korean-American pastor from Chicago who was abducted by North Korean agents in Yanji and who died in North Korea in 2005.
- Interviews with the usual band of very intersting suspects like Tim Peters (founder of Helping Hands Korea), Ishimaru Jiro (editor of Rimjin-gang), and Kim Seong-man (Free Radio North Korea).
- Other elements ably described by Stephan Haggard and Joshua Stanton in their own reviews. Interestingly, Haggard’s research is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author through the first 180 pages, but does get acknowledged in a footnote [see link for more detail]. Joshua Stanton’s website (One Free Korea for the uninitiated; there’s no escaping it) remains an important forum, particularly when it comes to authenticating or disputing sources coming out of the Sino-North Korean border region.
Debating the Sources | One Free Korea bears mention here, because it was the site of a fairly vigorous debate back in 2009 regarding supposedly secret sources about a North Korean massacre on the border, sources whose very emergence stemmed from Melanie Kirkpatrick’s work at the Wall Street Journal. As I argued at the time, she was wrong to authenticate them, as they were quite likely fraudulent. The fact that Kirkpatrick would endorse these particular sources or treat as credible a complete canard of an anecdote which has North Korean Christians being crying out for Jesus as they are smashed with a steamroller in front of witnesses who later escaped the DPRK (a steamroller? do these even exist in North Korea? or the variation on this urban legend that the men were buried up to their necks first) gives a bit of pause.
These examples stand out as exceptions, however, and are marginal in what is a very well-documented text. It is also commendable that Kirkpatrick has chosen not to recylcle her Wall Street Journal reportage wholesale and draws only selectively from all of her various encounters with North Korean refugees and the people dedicated to extracting them from danger and exploitation. She also keeps herself conspicuously on the fringes of the text, only occaisionally writing in first person even though she has every right to do so and the technique lends richness to the text.
North Korea has yet to find its Mark Twain (according to Haggard and Noland’s surveys, only 38% of male defectors had ever heard jokes about the regime before their exodus) or its Harriet Beecher Stowe, but now it is closer than before. If we are to discard our modernist ironies and fully embrace the antebellum metaphor and its attendant poetry, we might say this: In seeking to churn up that dark river of aorta-perforating research toward an unknown goal, Melanie Kirkpatrick is armed with a moral compass, and she carries many stories in her wake. Out of her years of sources and from within chests full of anecdotes, she might have crafted a steamship, but instead has fashioned a raft, which is light and nimble on the water, surely intended to link up with others surging north on the parallel journey. The book is no less impressive, and probably more effective, in this way. Finally, we very much know where she stands, scanning the stars for a freedom that may or may never fall from within the black canopy that yet holds the firmament so taut, unassailable, above.
Part II of this review will wrestle with a battery of related (and obviously loaded) questions: What is the proper response in South Korea / the West to the plight of the North Korean refugees, and why might this plight demand a pragmatic rather than an ideological response? Why might this response need to be geared almost completely at the PRC, rather than aiming at transformation within North Korea itself?
Tags: Escaping North Korea, Harriet Beecher Stowe, heroic white people, LiNK, Melanie Kirkpatrick Wall Street Journal, North Korea and slavery, North Korean refugees in China, North Koreans trying to get out, review of Escaping North Korea, Wall Street Journal reporters in Asia