Escape from a North Korean concentration camp

–A brief account byYong Kim, who escaped from a political prison camp in North Korea and after living as a refugee in China, 1 year later arrived safely in South Korea, via Mongolia

On September 28, I made a miraculous escape from [my concentration] camp of death on a coal train. I passed through various North Korean provinces, finally crossing the Tumen River in December [escaping into] China. I wandered in Yanji not knowing where to go in the strange Chinese land.

The sad fate of North Koreans in China as a poor homeless race came home to me. The women are sold for rape and forced into prostitution by Chinese and Korean-Chinese. Some women try to go back to North Korea with the money they earned to feed their families, only to be caught and imprisoned in police detention centers.

Pregnant women often suffer the most, as officers would kill the fetuses while in the womb by kicking the women’s belly. In the market in Yanji, you see North Korean children whose fingers have been cut off for stealing food.

There is a pecuniary reward for every North Korean defector captured, and the Korean-Chinese go all out searching for North Koreans in hiding, to hand them over to the Chinese police. The arrested North Koreans are strung together with a wire that is pierced through their noses. And in groups of fifty, these people are deported.

Chronicling the escape from North Korea

Christianity Today features a review of Melanie Kirkpatrick’s new book, excerpts following:

In Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad (Encounter), Hudson Institute senior fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick labors … to set the record straight on survivors who have fled North Korea. She tells a story of bravery, luck, disappointment, and death; of Christian activists and money-hungry brokers united behind a simple Mosaic invocation: Let my people go.

Until the mid-1990s, there wasn’t much to be gained by rushing the 880-mile border with China. With borders sealed and news of the outside world scarce, few ordinary North Koreans escaped. But when a crippling famine struck and a sudden Chinese prosperity beckoned, the trickle of refugees swelled to nearly half a million, its path smoothed by a relaxation of restrictive internal policies. Freedom, religious or otherwise, never entered their political vocabulary. Most fled simply out of hunger.

Yet North Korea receives less international attention than other failed states. It does not have the status of an “Asian Darfur.” Nor is the degradation of its people widely understood, even among South Koreans or Korean Americans.

Culpability for this apathy and ignorance, argues Kirkpatrick, belongs at least partly to South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, whose “Sunshine” policy (1998-2008) muted official criticisms of the Pyongyang regime in an effort to build good will. Activists and aid workers now call this period the “Lost Decade.”

Chinese intransigence makes the situation still worse. In contravention of international law, it remains official Chinese policy to hand North Korean refugees back to North Korea, where they face torture, incarceration, and possibly death.

Here is a rare book that puts human faces on the numbers, a lamentation over policies and duplicities that have haunted a people terribly divided.

 

How the North Korean parliament functions

Virtually all legislators of North Korea’s parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, are members of the Kims’ party who ran unopposed in the last nationwide election, leading many outside observers to consider the body a rubber stamp for the regime’s policies.

North Korea’s Constitution allows political parties, but politics is overwhelmingly dominated by the Workers’ Party, founded by Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current ruler.

Here’s a look at the Supreme People’s Assembly and how it works:

  • The current 12th parliament formed in 2009 has 687 legislators, or deputies, of which 107 are women. The number of deputies is determined by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly in proportion to the country’s population.
  • The assembly meets at the austere Mansudae Assembly Hall in the capital, Pyongyang.
  • Deputies are elected after a committee of more than 100 people from each district recommends candidates to represent the constituency in the parliament. Even though the law provides no limits on the number of candidates who can run from each district, almost all candidates ran unopposed in the last election in March 2009.
  • According to Kim Song Chun, a parliamentary official, deputies meet to discuss and pass laws and establish the country’s domestic and foreign policies. They also can appoint or dismiss officials at top state organizations and confer titles. For example, at the last session in April, Kim Jong Un was made first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.

Parliament typically met only once a year under Kim Jong Il, the now-deceased father of the current leader Kim Jong Un. With a second parliamentary session having been convened in the first year of Kim Jong Un’s reign, this could mark a return to the more active role that parliament played under Kim Il Sung, who often held two sessions a year, said John Delury of Yonsei University in South Korea.

“… A general trend under Kim Jong Il [was] holding less frequent and less regular meetings of key party and government organs,” Delury said. “The striking thing is that Kim Jong Un seems to be reversing that trend by regularizing and re-institutionalizing governance.”

 

North Korean parliament holds second session this year

North Korea’s parliament convened Tuesday for the second time in six months, passing a law that adds one year of compulsory education for children in the socialist nation, the first publicly-announced policy change under leader Kim Jong Un.

The Supreme People’s Assembly’s second meeting of the year was notable mainly as a departure from how Kim’s father did business. Before he died in December, Kim Jong Il convened his legislature just once in most years. And during one three-year period after his own father’s death it didn’t meet at all.

By adding a year to North Korea’s state-funded educational system, from 11 to 12 years, Kim may be trying to cultivate loyalty among younger generations as he consolidates his power base.

Kim Jong Un himself attended Tuesday’s session, which was adjourned after a single day, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. Foreign reporters were denied access.

North Korea’s Constitution allows political parties, but politics is overwhelmingly dominated by the Workers’ Party, founded by Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current ruler. Virtually all legislators are members of the Kims’ party who ran unopposed in the last nationwide election, leading many outside observers to consider the body a rubber stamp for the regime’s policies.

North Korean missile launch pad pause

North Korea has stopped construction on a launch pad where intercontinental-range rockets could be tested, an interruption possibly due to recent heavy rains and that could stall completion up to two years.

Despite the setback, however, Pyongyang is also refurbishing for possible future use another existing pad at the same complex that has been used for past rocket launches, according to the analysis of August 29 images provided to reporters by 38 North, the website of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

While the renovations don’t mean a launch is imminent, they indicate North Korea is preparing the site for possible future rocket tests, according to the 38 North special report written by Nick Hansen.

North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, but experts don’t believe Pyongyang has yet mastered the technology needed to shrink a nuclear weapon so it can be mounted onto the tip of a long-range missile

There are worries, however, about North Korea’s rocket and missile programmes. The United States, South Korea and others have said North Korea uses rocket launches, including a failed effort in mid-April, as covers to test banned missile systems that could target parts of the United States. North Korea says recent rocket launches were meant to put peaceful satellites into orbit.

North Korea has repeatedly vowed to push ahead with its nuclear program in the face of what it calls US hostility that makes a “nuclear deterrence” necessary.

Agriculture is changing in North Korea but will it last?

Deep in the North Korean countryside, in remote villages that outsiders seldom reach, farmers are now said to be given nearly one-third of their harvests to sell at market prices. Collective farms are reportedly being reorganized into something closer to family farms. And State propagandists are expounding the glories of change under the country’s new young leader.

In the rigidly planned economy of this Stalinist state, could this be the first flicker of reform? A string of long-doubtful observers have become increasingly convinced that economic change is afoot, akin to China’s first flirtations with market reforms 30 years ago. But, they also warn, exactly what is happening remains a mystery.

“My gut sense is that something is changing,” said Marcus Noland of the Washington, DC-based Peterson Institute for International Economics and a leading scholar on the North Korean economy.

Kim Jong Un “is trying to do something new. … Whether that succeeds or not is a completely different issue,” he added. Like many other analysts, Noland remains pessimistic. The economic reforms appear to be very limited, he noted, and could quickly be abandoned if Kim changes his mind or faces opposition from his core supporters.

North Korea has flirted with radical economic shifts before. The 17-year rule of Kim Jong Il — whose December death paved the way for his son, Kim Jong Un, to take power — included market experiments in 2002, and a devastating currency devaluation in 2009 that stripped millions of people of their savings. Nearly all the changes were rolled back amid internal disputes, and fears among the ruling elite that they could lead to demands for change that could spiral beyond the state’s control.

Iraq blocks Syria-bound North Korean plane on weapons suspicions

Iraq has denied permission to a North Korean plane bound for Syria to pass through Iraqi airspace because it suspects it could be carrying weapons, a senior official said.

Ali al-Mossawi, media advisor to the Iraq’s prime minister, told Reuters the scheduled plane’s itinerary, from North Korea to Syria, was what had aroused suspicions but that there had been no contact between the Iraqi government and North Korea on the issue.

Syria’s upheaval is politically tricky for Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-led government of Iraq. Close to Assad’s ally, Shi’ite Iran, Baghdad has resisted joining Western and fellow Arab calls for the Syrian leader to step down while also calling for a reform process in Syria. Iraqi leaders fear Assad’s fall would fracture Syria along sectarian lines and yield a hostile, hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq’s volatile Sunni-Shi’ite mix.

How difficult is it to escape North Korea?

Any North Korean who wants to escape the country needs large measures of courage, determination, and luck. The only practical escape route is through China — across the Yalu or Tumen River.

Money obviously helps — to hire a guide to shepherd you across the river, or to bribe guards to look the other way. The bribery option is harder nowadays, though. Kim Jong Un, the young new dictator who took over after his father’s death last December, has issued a crackdown order, and border guards are afraid to disobey. North Koreans who cross the river to China can also be shot in the back by North Korean border guards.

It’s important to remember that the escape story doesn’t end when a North Korea reaches Chinese soil.

In China, a North Korean trades in one circle of hell for another. If he wants to be safe, if he wants to achieve freedom, the next step is to get out of China. He can’t do that on his own. He needs help to get out of China and then reach sanctuary in South Korea. That’s where the new underground railroad comes in.

–Hudson Institute senior fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick

Christians help North Koreans escape

A new underground railroad run significantly by Christians has formed to help North Koreans escape their oppressive regime, Hudson Institute senior fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick told The Daily Caller.

“The new underground railroad is a secret network of safe houses and escape routes that carries North Koreans across China to safety in neighboring countries,” said Kirkpatrick. “Two groups of people operate the new underground railroad,” she continued, “brokers, who are in it for the money, and humanitarian workers — especially Christians — who are in it to serve God.”

“It is against Chinese law to assist North Koreans, and anyone who helps them is subject to arrest, prison, and, if he’s a foreigner, expulsion. I profile several American Christians who help. They operate safe houses, they run orphanages, and they lead North Koreans out of China. These people are brave and incredibly inspiring.”

“There are also secret Christian missionaries in North Korea. These usually are North Koreans who were converted in China and now feel the call to go home and evangelize, and who are planting secret new churches in the North.”

Kirkpatrick says escaping North Korea is no easy task. “Anyone who wants to escape needs large measures of courage, determination and luck,” she said. “The only practical escape route is through China — across the Yalu or Tumen River. North Koreans who cross the river to China can be shot in the back by North Korean border guards.”

Underground Railroad sowing seeds for change within North Korea

“China refuses to let the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees or any other international aid group help North Koreans [who escape North Korea.  Instead China repatriates them to North Korea where they are killed.] …This is an indictment of China.”

It is a crime to leave North Korea. Yet increasing numbers of North Koreans dare to flee. They go first to neighboring China, which rejects them as criminals, then on to Southeast Asia or Mongolia, and finally to South Korea, the United States, and other free countries.

The conductors on the new underground railroad are Christians who are in it to serve God, while others are brokers who are in it for the money. The Christians see their mission as the liberation of North Korea one person at a time.

Just as escaped slaves from the American South educated Americans about the evils of slavery, the North Korean fugitives are informing the world about the secretive country they fled.

The New Underground Railroad describes how they also are sowing the seeds for change within North Korea itself. Once they reach sanctuary, the escapees channel news back to those they left behind. In doing so, they are helping to open their information-starved homeland, exposing their countrymen to liberal ideas, and laying the intellectual groundwork for the transformation of the totalitarian regime that keeps their fellow citizens in chains.

With a journalist’s grasp of events and a novelist’s ear for narrative, Melanie Kirkpatrick tells the story of the North Koreans’ quest for liberty. Click here to order the book from Amazon