Asia's Underground Railroad

Helping refugees escape totalitarian North Korea.


Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, by Melanie Kirkpatrick, Encounter Books, 376 pages, $25.99

"What's a church?" the beggar asks. He has just clawed his way out of Kim Jong-il's nightmare state, across the freezing Tumen River to China, in a new book by former Wall Street Journal editor Melanie Kirkpatrick. "Look for a building with a cross on it," he is told. The guy doesn't even realize he should be looking for a cross on top of the building. Nor does he know that he has escaped from North Korea only to show up in a Gods Must Be Crazy–type incident in a book by a neoconservative journalist who delights in these touching but occasionally underdeveloped conversion narratives.

The book is Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, an account of the brave Christian activists who smuggle families out of the madness of North Korea and into China. Here China is depicted as a kind of Arizona of the East, a place where the escaped must evade the enforcers of what Mark Lagon, a Bush State Department official, describes as "an insensitive and arguably cruel immigration policy." (But families "who are sent back to Mexico from the United States," Kirkpatrick takes pains to write, "are not jailed, starved, tortured or executed.")

Kirkpatrick, who interviewed hundreds of defectors, rescuers, and Republicans, expands the existing literature on North Korea's ongoing human rights catastrophe and the cruel hypocrisies of its dictator. Kim Jong-il, who reigned from 1994 to 2011, treated himself to NBA games, Friday the 13th, and a multi-tiered squad of Pleasure Girls while restricting his people to two meals a day, imposing the death penalty for "immorality," and prohibiting a wide spectrum of music. The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, for example, had fled to the U.S. following a Communist revolution, and party officials feared that their subjects might get ideas. So they banned his work and instead limited North Koreans' listening to the likes of "The Song of the Coast Artillery Women."

Kirkpatrick writes affectingly of how music floating from another room reached suspicious ears when Kim Cheol-Woong, a piano player from the Pyongyang Philharmonic, made the mistake of practicing the pretty French standard "Les Feulles Mortes" for his girlfriend. He was subsequently forced to pen a 10-page letter to the party confessing his disloyalty. The incident prompted the pianist to pay a broker $2,000 to help him escape to China, suffering for two years as a migrant logger before he regained access to a piano and was hailed in the South Korean media as a jazz hero.

Readers hoping to spend more time in the company of such well-drawn North Koreans may be bewildered when the text forces us instead to listen to the likes of the neoconservative Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz was—would you believe?—an Asia expert at the State Department in the early '80s. But the neocon stuff here, including rather repetitive get-tough-on-China polemics, takes up valuable page space that could have been put to better use humanizing the people of Pyongyang or giving us a better sense of Christianity in Korea.

There's also the sense here that Kirkpatrick, who after 9/11 searched in her work for evidence of a religious awakening at work in New York City, is sometimes fitting her escaped subjects into a divine scheme first and asking questions second. There's a heavy emphasis on souls being led to salvation in secret church basements but not always on people as people. (The chapter epigrams are quotes from participants in the original Underground Railroad. You know you have a problem when your epigrams are more evocative than your interview subjects.)

And in a book where Asians are twice presented to the reader in terms of their accents ("the little kids running over, saying 'hello,' the Ls sounding like Rs"), you may cringe and wish for an approach that dives further into the hearts of the North Korean characters as individual human beings. Such depth can be found in more nuanced books on the subject, such as the detail-rich Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by the L.A. Times scribe Barbara Demick, and Escaping North Korea, by the gutsy American evangelical Mike Kim. Kim's gripping book tells how he gave up the good life as a hotshot Georgetown MBA to save North Koreans while posing as a Taekwondo black belt. He appears in Kirkpatrick's tome too, but here his exciting story is breezed over in a surprisingly non-action-packed overview of his group, Crossing Borders.

The most enigmatic presence in Escape From North Korea is that of the American humanitarian Tim Peters, who has worked extensively to ship food to North Koreans during the ongoing famine and to shelter refugees from trouble in China. (They each receive a Bible.) Here his faith journey is generically described, belying a more controversial and interesting tale that could have been told. You would not know from his vague presence here that Peters—according to coverage in Stars and Stripes and elsewhere—found religion not in a typical evangelical setting but in something called the Children of God, a controversial Huntington Beach sect that also calls itself The Family (not to be confused with the Washington schemers chronicled in Jeff Sharlet's The Family). Peters' relationship to this church is cloudy. He long maintained an active missionary status in it, and he now refuses to speak ill of it. He has insisted that Helping Hands Korea is separate from The Family, though former members of the Children of God insist that Peters's secretive new group is working in tandem with his old one.

The man at the center of this bizarre church was David Berg, a bearded presence whose personality cult may not have reached Kim Jong-il-esque dimensions, but not for want of trying. Among other notorious activities, Berg prostituted female members on the beaches to lure in male recruits. One of the unstated ironies here is that there was a time when The Family was seen as such a threat to young people in speed-freak-era L.A. that its self-proclaimed enemies—"deprogrammers"—modeled themselves after the Underground Railroad, too. Berg's most famous enemy, the kidnapper Ted Patrick, even titled his 1976 life story Let Our Children Go!

Belief is not always simple. Actor River Phoenix, who was sexually abused in The Family and likely driven by this toward his drug death, said what Berg did was "destroying people's lives." But here on the North Korean border we meet a minister who emerged from the same church and is saving an untold number of lives. These are the moral contradictions that elevate great journalism, and it's disappointing when the political book industry smoothes out these wrinkles for easy consumption by interest groups. Still, sociological and literary complaints aside, the sheer scale of human suffering that Kirkpatrick illuminates makes any book like this a worthy endeavor—even with Paul Wolfowitz in it.