Slavery in the 21st Century
A new book, Escape From North Korea, says the Korean diaspora should emulate the movement to free Soviet Jewry
Christians take the lead. “The first survival tip a North Korean learns when he reaches China is: Find a Christian,” Kirkpatrick writes. “Churches in northeastern China are meeting grounds for refugees and rescuers. … The sooner a refugee hooks up with the Christian network, the greater his chances of avoiding arrest and repatriation and of finding a way to disappear in Chinese society.”
American pastors and churches aid them and play a major role in facilitating this network, quietly reaching out to those still living in North Korea. Some are brave enough to sneak into North Korea under assumed identities, others liaison with handlers, smuggle money across the border, or run safe-houses in China.
Once free, these defectors also need work, counseling, housing, and supportive communities. Of the 128 North Korean refugees who have received political asylum in the United States between 2006 and early 2012, eight now serve as parishioners at Hana Presbyterian Church in Beltsville, Md. Pastor Phillip Buck, based in Seattle, has led more than 100 North Korean refugees out of China. He runs a network of safe-houses throughout China and raises money to feed refugees and bring them to secure locations. Individuals like Lee Jun Won, who runs a hair salon in Queens, gave $10,000 to rescue a single North Korean family of refugees when his church took up their cause. “The numbers are small,” writes Kirkpatrick, “but they add up.” Meantime, groups such as the Korean-Church Coalition, which consists of more 2,500 Korean-American pastors, serve as force multipliers in the effort to save North Korean refugees.
These Christians are rightly disgusted by North Korea’s systematic attempts to root out any worship that isn’t directed at the ruling family. Those found to be practicing Christianity or possessing a Bible are typically sent to the gulag. But Kirkpatrick points out that the story is more complicated. Some argue that these Christians’ desire to spread their faith puts North Korean lives in danger. But Kirkpatrick writes, “It would be a mistake to dismiss North Korean converts as mere ‘rice Christians,’ the cynical label applied to converts in pre-Mao Zedong China who were presumed to have accepted a strange Western religion solely for the purpose of receiving the benefits provided by the missionaries.” Indeed, religion serves as a great hope to many who have known nothing but the cynical cult of personality of the North Korean dictator.
When I was an undergraduate at UCLA, I went to hear a lecture by Adrian Hong, co-founder of a group called Liberty in North Korea, who later was imprisoned in China for trying to ferry North Korean refugees to safety. I was one of only two non-Asians in the packed hall. It was a great shame, I remembered thinking, that more students—especially on such a political campus—were not fired up about this modern slave state.
Kirkpatrick argues that the Korean community could do much more to draw attention to North Korean refugees and would do well to learn from the Jewish effort to save Soviet dissidents from the former Soviet Union. “There is one lesson in particular from that era that Korean-American activists would be smart to emulate,” she writes. “The movement to free Soviet Jews began as a grassroots effort far removed from the elites of Jewish society. It started in 1963 not with national Jewish leaders of even with rabbis. Instead, it began with a petition organized by two Jewish laymen in Cleveland, Ohio.”
Moreover, “[T]he struggle to help Soviet Jews attracted supporters from every part of Jewish life—religious leaders, politicians [and] businessmen. But the salient fact is that it began with ordinary citizens who were outraged enough to take action. This kind of bottom-up approach will not come naturally to Korean-Americans brought up in a culture that reveres age and experience.”
The movement to free Soviet Jewry galvanized the broader world by putting the fate of individual Jews in the spotlight. Not only were the press and public made aware of the fates of particular men and women, American policy was often oriented around them. One former senior American official told me that he brought up the names of Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, and Yuri Orlov in every bilateral arms negotiation he conducted with the Soviets. This experience can and should be replicated with North Korea.
Kirkpatrick concludes with a glimmer of hope in an otherwise heartbreaking saga. “An invasion of North Korea has already begun,” she writes. “No soldiers of ranks are involved, and not a single bullet will be fired. Rather, the weapons are cellphones, radios, flash drives, DVDs, and videotapes. It is an information invasion, not a military one, and the strategic objectives are far-reaching: Open the country to information from the outside world, nurture dissent, destroy the Kim family regime.”
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