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Flight from North Korea
Image: Courtesy of the Hudson Institute
Flight from North Korea

As the Kim regime maintains its grip on North Korea's people and starvation persists, a handful of refugees are risking the welfare of their families and their lives to escape through China. In recent months, crossing into China has become even more dangerous as dictator Kim Jong Un has tightened security around the border.

Escape from North Korea, the Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, by journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick, describes how Chinese Christians and churches are supporting escapees in defiance of laws prohibiting such assistance. (See also our review of the book.)

After a long career with The Wall Street Journal, including a 10-year stint at The Wall Street Journal Asia, Kirkpatrick was drawn toward the plight of the North Korean people. In her book, she describes the challenges that refugees must overcome to gain freedom and the risks Christians take to help them flee. Kirkpatrick, currently senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, spoke with Christianity Today about how this underground railroad operates and the dire situation inside North Korea.

How do Christians explain their willingness to risk so much for the North Koreans coming into China?

It's a really powerful example of Christian belief put into action. Many of the rescuers are Christians. Others are humanitarians. The people who say they work for nonsectarian institutions often are motivated by their own personal Christian faith. One American pastor said to me, "If you saw a man drowning, wouldn't you hold out your hand and help bring him to safety?"

It's that attitude, that profound belief in wanting to help one's fellow man, that inspires them. They know that they're taking a lot of risk in helping the Koreans in China, and they also know that it's not a popular cause.

One of the stories that I heard that really disturbed me was from the American Tim Peters, one of the leaders of the underground railroad who lives in Seoul. He spoke at a leading seminary in South Korea and asked, "Where are you going to on your mission after you graduate?" There were lots of people who wanted to go to India. But nobody, not one person, talked about going to China to help North Koreans.

Certainly the dangers are part of it. But I think it has more to do with politics. The president of South Korea went to Pyongyang in 2000 for a famous summit and played down the negative aspects of North Korea. The attitude of some South Koreans became, "Well, if our government doesn't think it's important, why should we?"

That's changed profoundly in the past few years, in part because the current government in South Korea has taken a far more open and compassionate view when it comes to the suffering of the people of North Korea.

Hunger seems to be the main reason North Koreans risk their lives to cross the Tumen River into China. How is it possible that a nation wealthy enough to make nuclear weapons cannot feed its own people in its own nation?

If North Korea wanted to feed its people, it could do so. North Korea is asking for handouts from other countries and international organizations, but it's not willing to put its own money into either purchasing food for its people or into improving its agricultural policies and practices so that it can grow its own food.

National reunification seems to be an enduring hope for all Koreans. Could reunification happen peacefully?

Absolutely it's a possibility. I pray that it will be a peaceful reunification. And one of the ways I think it could be peaceful is if we brought concerns about human rights and refugees into the discussions with North Korea about the nuclear program. We've missed an opportunity to talk about that.

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