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.
The United States, South Korea, and Japan also need to work with China to help China understand that a peninsula united under democratic and free principles would be something that would be in China's interests and much better than the current status quo.
In the book, you describe the dream the late leader Kim Jong Il had where Americans lined up to stone him, then South Koreans, then North Koreans. What effect do you think that this dream had on his political policies and behavior?
I think that dream, as it was recounted by the South Korean Hyundai tycoon Chung Ju-Yung, was an expression of Kim's thinking. It showed how he was afraid of his own people. He realized what he had done—what his father Kim Il Sung and what their regime had done—to the people of North Korea, and he was determined to maintain the totalitarian grip on the people. He wasn't prepared to change.
Do you think that Kim Jong Il's experience could have a positive impact on his son Kim Jong Un?
I'd like to think that there could be a positive impact, but I see zero indication of it. One of the first things Kim Jong-un did after the death of his father in December was to clamp down even harder on the border to prevent the crossing of North Koreans to China. I've even heard from very good sources that he has issued orders that families of people who've escaped be arrested and moved away from the border to interior locations where they can no longer receive information from their families who have escaped.
There just is zero indication that he has any kind of different thinking than his father or his grandfather had about the need to control every aspect of his countrymen's lives. And he's clearly terrified of information getting into the country.
In your book, you refer to evangelist Billy Graham's visit to Kim Il Sung in 1994. Kim died later that year, but do you think he gained anything from speaking with a man like Graham?
I think in his view he probably thought he was gaining some favorable international attention. I had no indication that he took any personal spiritual sustenance from his meeting with Billy Graham. But pictures of Billy Graham shaking hands with Kim Il Sung went around the world, and maybe he thought that that would be helpful to him.
You also discussed Kim's childhood and his Protestant background. Did his Christian ties affect his dictatorship?
Kim Il Sung apparently had parents who were Christian, and as a child he went to church. I gather he even seemed to be a believer as a small child. He spoke with Billy Graham about a Protestant minister who had been helpful to him as a boy. It is kind of ironic that a man who grew up in a Christian family could create what is essentially a system of self-worship in North Korea. I quote Billy Graham saying maybe he would have some effect on Kim Il Sung as he was growing old. But he doesn't seem to have done so.
You wrote that conversions in the underground railroad are common and once North Koreans move from China into third countries, the religion sticks. Why do the conversions seem to be deeper than what we call "rice Christians"?
If a lot of the conversions in China were merely to receive benefits, it would follow that once they were safely out of China that they would renounce the religion. That's not the case. Nobody has numbers on this, but my experience from talking to a lot of refugees and their rescuers and people who work with them is that a high percentage of the North Korean refugees do become Christians.
Is the global Christian church playing much of a role in supporting the underground railroad?
No. It's very haphazard. It is individual churches in South Korea and in the United States and individual people who are moved by this experience. There certainly have been some international awareness programs, and that's a good step. But I am unaware of any organized system of helping them. It's more difficult when you're operating in a country where you're not welcome and where there are dangers of arrest and imprisonment and expulsion. It's a lot more difficult to operate in China than to operate in India, for example.
How can the evangelical community influence the U.S., China, and the global church to motivate North Korea's government to reform itself?
Awareness is the first requirement. There's already been a leap forward in the past few years, but we need a lot more. Second, I think Korean Americans could use their political clout in a way that they've been reluctant to do on human rights in North Korea.
Christians were the prime movers of the original underground railroad during the years leading up to the Civil War. If the church community in America wanted to do that today, there's a lot they could do to raise awareness and support both politically and financially simply by making it a priority in their own churches. It would also give a lot of comfort and encouragement to North Koreans who are hiding in China.