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North Korea routinely ranks at the top of lists of the world's nations in terms of most repression, least open to the rest of the world and greatest persecutor of Christians. Any disobedience to the communist regime is dealt with very harshly, yet the dire conditions motivate many there to attempt an escape.
Former Wall Street Journal Deputy Editorial Page Editor Melanie Kirkpatrick has studied the stories of those with the courage to lave for a better life. Her new book on the subject is "Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad."
Kirkpatrick said offenders who are caught trying to escape face horrific imprisonment, even for the offender's immediate family. Nonetheless, many try to get out of the country – either by paying off guards at the Chinese border or sneaking across on their own. But once they're in China, the challenges really begin.
"China's policy is to track down North Koreans, arrest them and send them back to North Korea," said Kirkpatrick. "So once they reach relative safety in China, then that's when the underground railroad kicks in and they need help to help them make their way across China and eventually to South Korea."
Knowing what to do and where to go after getting into China is critical. Kirkpatrick said most escapees are desperately looking for one thing.
"The first thing a North Korean learns when he gets to China is to find a Christian," she said. "Many of the people I interviewed told me that the advice they were given was to look for a building with a cross on it; that is a church. If a North Korean is lucky enough to hook up with a local Chinese Christian, that person is likely to help him. Christians are really the only people in China who are willing to help the North Koreans."
Once that contact is made, the North Korean can be introduced to one of two networks that will help them get to South Korea – human traffickers who will take them to South Korea for a hefty fee or a network of South Korean and American Christians who are in China for the sole purpose of helping North Koreans escape their brutal homeland. In the Christian network, Kirkpatrick said people are shuttled from one safe house to another, until the North Koreans can find a South Korean consular office in Southeast Asia and apply for asylum.
Women want to escape North Korea just as much as the men do, and some of them have opportunities to go to China as arranged brides for Chinese men who can't find wives as a result of China's one-child policy. The women are not told this, however. Instead they are promised good jobs or the chance to visit distant relatives. Only when a North Korean woman arrives at the Chinese man's house is she informed he is her new husband.
"This is very, very sad. The woman is so desperate that she will agree to a 'marriage' with a Chinese man," Kirkpatrick said. "Sometimes these marriages work out and the women are happy to be there. They don't want to risk leaving China on the underground railroad."
But Kirkpatrick said those are the rare exceptions. Normally, this new arrangement is just the start of another nightmare.
"Many other times, there are terrible situations," she said. "The women may have children in both countries, North Korea and China. ... Once these women reach safety in South Korea, one of the first things they do is start saving their money to try to get their children out of China or North Korea. It's very, very sad."
There's another surprising group looking to escape the clutches of the communist regime in North Korea – the South Koreans still being held as prisoners 60 years after the end of the Korean War.
"The South Korean government estimates that there are around 500 South Koreans who are still being held captive from the Korean War," Kirkpatrick explained. "These men, of course, are now very elderly. ... I uncovered a secret network that since the late '90s has been helping get these old soldiers out of North Korea, to China and then on to safety back home in South Korea where they are, of course, treated like returning heroes. There are about a hundred of them, so far, who have made their way back to South Korea."