Melanie Kirkpatrick is a senior fellow at the Hudson Interview, contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad. Melanie was kind enough to agree, with some minor, Sandy-related hiccups, to answer some questions about her new book and North Korea in general.
1) From news reports it seems that more people are leaving North Korea than ever before, is it becoming easier to escape or are people simply more desperate?
Actually, fewer North Koreans are escaping these days. After several years of record numbers of arrivals from North Korea, South Korea just announced a sharp drop this year. Arrivals are down 40 percent over last year.
There appear to be two reasons for the fall-off: First, North Korea has cracked down viciously on the border crossings. Kim Jong Eun, North Korea’s young new dictator, reportedly issued shoot-to-kill orders to North Korean guards along the Tumen and Yalu Rivers. Anyone spotted trying to cross the river to China was to be shot; no questions asked.
Second, China also appears to have cracked down on North Koreans hiding there. Beijing’s longtime policy has been to track down, arrest and repatriate North Koreans. Local officials don’t always enforce this policy – or they look the other way in return for a bribe. But they apparently have received word from Beijing to step up enforcement. There are also reports that China is letting North Korean security agents operate in China, where they sometimes kidnap North Koreans and force them back to North Korea.
Beijing’s repatriation policy is both immoral and a violation of international law, which bars the return of refugees to places where they would be endangered. Consider what happens to the North Koreans whom China repatriates: Pregnant women are forced to undergo abortions for the “crime” of carrying “Chinese seed.” Returnees are sent to prisons where they are badly fed, overworked and subject to torture. Some are executed for the “crime”; of meeting with Christians or South Korean or Americans in China. Forcing a refugee to go back to a perilous situation is both wrong and in contravention of the Refugee Convention, to which China is a signatory. China needs to live up to its treaty commitments.
2) There have been a number of books like yours in recent years that expose the brutality and harshness of life in North Korea (as well as satellite photos out last month showing a notorious concentration camp still in operation), have we gone past the point where the West and other major powers can feign ignorance about human rights violations in the DPRK?
No one today can say, “I didn’t know” about the suffering of the North Korean people. Thanks to the North Koreans who have escaped, the world now knows the truth about ordinary life in North Korea.
As I describe in Escape in North Korea, their role is similar to that of escaped slaves in the pre-Civil War American South. Like the former slaves, the exiles from the slave-state of North Korea are giving us their testimonies. Through their personal stories we have learned about how the Kim family regime uses access to food as a means of political control , how citizens can be jailed for possessing a Bible or listening to a foreign radio broadcast, how the gulag operates. For a decade now, the North Korean exiles have been testifying in the U.S. Congress and other political bodies in the free world, talking to reporters, writing books, advising film makers.
No one can feign ignorance. That includes China, which knows full well what happens to the North Koreans it repatriates yet continues to do so.
3) What future do you envision for North Korea in the next five years, will Kim Jong-un prove to be any sort of reformer?
Pundits have been predicting the collapse of North Korea for years now, and I;d be foolish to do so here. But something important appears to be happening there: North Koreans finally are learning about the world outside their borders. I call this an “information invasion” and it could be key to encouraging change there. Information is power.
This information invasion is spearheaded by the exiles, who have created a black market in information. They send in Chinese couriers who deliver oral messages or illegal Chinese cell phones to friends and family members. They have created organizations in Seoul for the purpose of sending information into the North – radio broadcasts, DVDs, flash drives, balloon drops. All this is having the effect of opening up the exiles’ information-starved homeland. Just as the world now knows more about North Korea, North Koreans now know far more about the world.
I am skeptical that Kim Jong Eun is a reformer. He’s good at manipulating international opinion – think of those photographs of his glamorous wife or of him riding on a roller coaster. But there is zero indication that he wants to open up his country or give more freedom to his people.
4) How can people help North Korean escapees/defectors or the “new underground railroad”?
At the back of Escape from North Korea, I have a list of organizations that help North Koreans in China or elsewhere. That list is also posted on my website. People can also put pressure on the Chinese government to live up to its obligations and stop repatriating North Koreans.
Thanks to Melanie Kirkpatrick, and to Lauren Miklos at Encounter Books for her help setting up this interview.