Red State, Blue State, Slave State: Reviewing Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Escape from North Korea” (Part I)

By | November 06, 2012 | No Comments

North Korean Worker with Railroad Spike in Hand, Siberia | Photo via

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.

“These nooks and hollows among the mountains produce a race of intellectual activity.” | Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852

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?  

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  1. The current trend of ‘NK related studies / writings’ reminds me of what Plato said (excuse the ancient reference, I’m a classicist): one may grasp the truth of a matter but not be able to argue soundly on account of it; on the other hand, one may be able to argue soundly but miss the point of truth; therefore, there is a state between knowledge and ignorance.

  2. That’s very, very interesting, New Focus INTL. Why don’t you expand? Either on your home site or right here on Sino-NK?

    Chris (Asst. Ed.)

  3. A really perceptive review. I’ve just been at the SEAWrite awards in Bangkok with Jang Jin-sung, who has an essay in the latest issue of the Asia Literary Review, online at the end of this week. Worth remembering the first speech to the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1945, which puts on notice ‘dictators and gangsters masquerading as a state’. Plus ça change…

    While I’m here, look at the trailer for the graphic film version of ‘Nothing to Envy’, which is seeking funding through indiegogo.

    Martin (Editor in Chief, Asia Literary Review)

  4. I’ve been talking to Andy Glynne over at Mosaic about the Nothing to Envy project. It’s extraordinary how hard it is to get funding for such fundamentally sound ideas. Thanks for commenting, Martin. Here at SinoNK we’re going to keep putting out book reviews, so please keep coming back!


  5. If Dan’s implying that there isn’t really much of a problem given the figures he’s quoted, I’ve got a couple of responses.

    First, the vast majority of those who leave the DPRK are victims of human trafficking. Most, I understand, remain in China, where they are sold as ‘wives’ and slaves in rural areas. This is a significant number of people, far larger than the number of NK refugees currently in SK.

    Second, many of the tiny proportion who defect or escape from their traffickers and reach South Korea are so disaffected by their treatment they receive at the hands of the general population in the South that they seek refuge elsewhere.

    But there’s a Catch-22: since all who defect from the North are automatically given citizenship by the South, this citizenship prevents them from claiming asylum elsewhere. This is because the hardship they face in the South doesn’t meet the criteria for asylum, and ‘repatriation’ to SK is their only option.

    Many of these refugees regret their earlier, and understandable, vision of SK as a holy grail as they end up trapped and miserable in a country that has given them citizenship but whose people largely reject and discriminate against them as unwelcome foreigners.

    Finally, the extreme difficulty and danger facing would-be escapees from the enormous concentration camp that is the DPRK, makes even a small number of surviving defectors something of a miracle. Escape is a crime, and punishment in the DPRK is meted out to three generations of a ‘criminal’s’ family. Capture and return – in which the Chinese authorities are both active and complicit, means violent punishment or death.

    The plight of refugees from North Korea is a terrible tragedy.

  6. Dear ALR, thanks for the comment. I think Dan quite surely agrees with you! He’s done quite a bit of organizing in Seoul.

    As to the numbers thing, it seems we’re getting somewhere; some “key statistics” that are currently floating around:

    – # of NK defectors in South Korea: 24,000.

    As Dan notes, this is .1% of DPRK population, meaning that almost precisely one out of every 1000 DPRK citizens has fled successfully to South Korea.

    – # of North Koreans currently incarcerated in labor camps: 150,000 to 200,000.

    This statistic comes from testimony of two former camp officials, cited in David Hawk, _The Hidden Gulag_ Second Edition, p. 27. This means that between 0.63% and 0.83% of the entire DPRK population is in the gulag. Splitting the difference, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 of every 1,000 North Koreans is presently in a labor camp. I haven’t seen meaningful disputations of this statistic, mainly because the North Koreans deny the existence of the camps altogether.

    – # of North Koreans estimated to have died in labor camps: unknown.

    I recall there being a high estimate early on in Blaine Harden’s book (something like 400,000?), but need to revisit this and check the sourcing for the claim.

    – # of North Koreans killed by the Great Famine, 1994-2000: between 580,000 and 1,120,000.

    The estimates are from KINU White Paper on North Korean Human Rights, 2012, p. 345.

    – # of North Korean refugees currently in China: unknown; estimates have ranged from 30,000 upwards.

    Does one count the newly-born children of North Korean women illegally resident in the PRC?

    – % of North Korean refugee women involved in the sex trade: unknown.

    This gets to your claim that “the vast majority of those who leave the DPRK are victims of human trafficking.”

    Jane Kim’s truly remarkable article on the North Korean-Chinese “foreign bride industry” cites (on p. 455) “an aid worker” being quoted in a Lee Tae-hoon article that asserts that 90% of all North Korean women in China are sex trafficked. I would be very interested to read other estimates.

    In fairness to the DPRK, here are some relevant stats on their “positive” (sort of) side of the ledger:

    – # of “re-defectors” to DPRK from South Korea in 2012: 3.

    Source: Rodong Sinmun.

    – # of North Korean defectors to South Korea who have been revealed, since 2000, to be agents for the DPRK: unknown.

    Here is one example from September 2012 that was little-noticed. Daily NK has reported others, including one of the celebrated “re-defectors.”

    – # of Japanese-Koreans who migrated to the DPRK 1959-1960s: 93,000.

    Source: David Hawk, _The Hidden Gulag_ Second Edition, p. 45; see also Tessa Morris-Suzuki, _Exodus to North Korea_.

    In one of my other areas of interest, Sino-Japanese relations, we spend a fair amount of time hashing out the numbers questions of how many Chinese civilians were killed in Nanking in 1937-38. The Chinese government has staked out a sacrosanct line around the number of 300,000; they’ve learned their lesson from the Holocaust education movement in the US and Europe and feel that associating this one act of barbarism with a staggering death total, and not budging one centimeter from its claim, will help them make their case to the world. The problem is that it’s impossible to get to 300,000 in a scientific fashion (i.e., through using evidence) and backing down from the statistic would then open them up to a chorus of derision from both their own people (who they have successfully wed to the statistic) and their critics (who have been attacking them all along for inflating the figures and would surely not stop in their critiques).

    My point is that individuals concerned with North Korean human rights and the refugee issue, concerned with helping North Korean defectors, shouldn’t get hung up on defending a specific number to the death, but that we might want to get busy better establishing a line of credibility with the statistics presently available. Perhaps then, four or five years from now, we won’t be having the same nebulous debates around slightly-cooked questions like: “Is the North Korean refugee crisis more like American slavery or the Holocaust of the European Jews?”

  7. My point was to correct the article, which originally understated the situation by tenfold — at the time I wrote that it said “.01%”.

  8. To follow up on Kirkpatrick’s American slavery metaphor, it of course isn’t necessary to pose Kim Il as Robert E. Lee or Mu Chong as Stonewall Jackson. We can illustrate the metaphor with numbers.

    The number of North Korean defectors living in South Korea in 2011 (approx. 23,000) was almost precisely equal to the number of African-American slaves living in a single county (Rockingham County) in northern Virginia in 1860.

    Now, if we want to get quite dramatic and assert that the entire North Korean population of 23+ million is today living as slaves under the mastery of a single man (Kim Jong-un) or his 3,000 elites (figure sourced from Adrian Hong’s remarks), then the math gets quite convenient: North Korea has ten times more slaves today than existed in 1860 in the proto-Confederacy, as the seven main slave-holding states listed in this census had 2,311,260 African-American slaves).

    I have no idea what any given North Korean defector knows about the history of American slavery, or being likened to slaves, or in helping white people in the United States to remember what Abolitionism was all about, or if they see any utility in imagery from the latest LiNK video that directly evokes the sale of slaves and lynchings, but perhaps it doesn’t matter what they think about it at all, because what is needed is nothing less than shock therapy for the body politic — or so the logic would appear to be.

  9. Dear Dan and Adam,

    First, apologies to Dan for my misreading of his correction: I mistook it as a diminution of the problem rather than a statement of its scale. And thanks, Adam, both for clarifying the figures and for adding such detailed and focused information.

    Sino NK is doing a really wonderful job in bringing to light the truth about the regime.

    Many thanks.

    Martin Alexander
    Editor in Chief
    Asia Literary Review

  10. Thanks very much, Martin!

    And before I forget, I wanted to recommend to other readers this excellent North Korea essay from November’s Asia Literary Review:

    Jang Jin-sung, “North Korea: Absolute Power and Absolute Corruption” translated by Shirley Lee, _Asia Literary Review_ (November 2012).

  11. Aw shucks – my wife upstages me again.


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