Escaping North Korea

Categories: current events

In 2001, Mike Kim was a successful financial planner living in Chicago. An American of Korean descent, he for the most part had only American-family connections with his homeland. He took a vacation to China, something he'd always wanted to do. What he saw there stunned him: North Korean refugees, nearly dead from starvation and illness, risking terrible odds to cross a deadly border and inhospitable terrain, only to live in secrecy—or be exploited—in a nation that didn't want them.

After returning to the U.S., he prayed and asked for guidance as to what to do next. Unlike the case with the vast majority of us, he felt his calling was unmistakable: to sacrifice the luxury of what he had to live in China, along the North Korean border, to aid refugees, sneak into a deeply dangerous country and help to smuggle human beings through several others. And unlike an even greater majority of us, he did just that, with certainty. This is the story of Escaping North Korea. Mike and his fellow Christian workers rescue people from one of the worst countries in the world. 


Although Mike and his group's religious mission underpins most of the book, it's very easy to read and enjoy it without focusing on the religious aspect. It's understandable: he's working with Christian missionaries and charities, so of course most of his narrative is told through the lens of interacting with the people in that group. Regardless, his topic is too overwhelming to be divided so easily into spiritual and personal interpretations.

The people of North Korea have suffered famine conditions for nearly two decades. Rice is impossibly expensive, and meat is practically a fantasy. People boil grasses, barks and wild roots to make a soup—assuming they can get wood for fuel, which in most cases is illegal. The United States and other countries can offer the diplomatic "carrot" of aid, but they have no means of assuring that these supplies won't be appropriated by DPRK leaders. Worse, the international community lacks an effective "stick" deterrent, as North Korea has: burrowed countless tunnels under the South Korean capital, Seoul; targeted it with long-range artillery; nuclear weapons capability; and the chance to escape an attack in the North by flooding through those tunnels with over one million soldiers.

Mike and his group of aid workers and volunteers face terrible odds, which are dwarfed by the odds facing North Korean citizens. Even assuming someone knows that they can sneak through the border into China, they may be too weak or ill to survive the journey. Or they may be shot by snipers. They may be told of a way to escape the country by someone who is spying for the regime and who will send them—and their family, as a means of collective punishment—to prison to be tortured, beaten, and starved. Or they may be lured to China by the Chinese mafia (or North Koreans paid by the mafia), who will sell them into sex slavery in a country where their existence is not legally recognized and they have no recourse to an authority. In cases such as these, you need every reliable network you can find, and discreet cells of Christian North Koreans provide a greater security and lines of communication.

Still, one can feel a little ambivalent about the book. Mike relates a lot of stories through hearsay: we learn about shocking things from a person who escaped and who witnessed X or had Y happen to someone. We hear about how ranking officers don't like the regime, from escaped ranking officers. These sources can be troubling, because émigrés historically tend to inflate the sympathies of people "back home" for what they believe, while simultaneously downplaying the number of people "back home" supporting the system. This is not to say that they're lying or that anything they're describing isn't true. The problem is, we just can't know.

The book has a couple of other issues, but neither should be considered deal breakers. First, Mike seems to get overwhelmed in his narrative at times. Each chapter is meant to tackle a subject, but he drifts into anecdotes that reflect on others, trying to add context or relate an interesting story—sometimes losing the thread. The famine conditions in North Korea are so pervasive and germane to every other topic that, despite there being a chapter on famine, virtually every chapter is in some way about it.

Second, Mike's evangelism might be trying for some readers, who want to know more about conditions in North Korea and ways of helping people without so many affirmations of a particular faith. That said, there is an immediate upside to his message: humility. In many cases, with books like these, the conditions of others take a back seat to the heroism of the crusader, who risks odds that he paints as far more grievous than the ones faced by those he's rescuing. Though Mike gets into scary and dangerous scrapes, he effaces these dangers and always keeps the spotlight on those he's helping. It's winning, generous, and evidence that whatever preaching he does is met by practice.

The book is factually not as rich as others on North Korea, but that's because it focuses on people on the ground and away from the center of power, relying on oral histories. It still supplies a welcome perspective on the problems facing that nation. Mike and his group's sincere dedication to helping others is especially heartwarming (and I imagine that Christian readers will find it a very affirming narrative) and provides a great, short human interest story. However, while it has much to offer, it should serve as a starting point for more reading about North Korea.

Mike concludes his book by asking several experts what they think is the best course for moving forward. That open seeking says a lot about the intent of the book. It's here to tell a story, not provide the answer. What the story does is ask us, "What can we do about North Korea? How can we move forward?"


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