Award winning journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick spent 10 years working at The Wall Street Journal Asia and while there, learned a great deal about the suffering of the North Koreans. She used her reporting skills and gift for storytelling to bring the issue to light in her book, "Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad." This book is a must read as it is important to educate ourselves about the oppression of these people. Buy her book here.
What is your name?
Describe your book, "Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad" to our readers.
"Escape from North Korea" offers the only glimmer of hope from that totalitarian country: Some North Koreans are escaping to free countries. In my book, I tell their stories and the stories of their courageous rescuers, many of whom are Christians. As I write in "Escape from North Korea," 60 years of oppression haven’t killed North Koreans’ desire for freedom. Their escape stories are very compelling --- and as i was writing the book sometimes I felt like i was writing an international thriller instead of a work of nonfiction. The stories are also inspiring and they portend a more hopeful future for North Korea. Their stories captured my heart, and I believed they deserved a wider audience.
You spent 10 years in Asia working for the Wall Street Journal Asia and a division of Time Life Books. How did this time period shape you as a person?
When I first went to Asia, in 1974, China was still a closed, totalitarian country. In Tokyo and, more so, in Hong Kong, I had a partial window on that unfree country. It was eye-opening to me. Then, in the early 1980s when I was working for The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, I edited an article about North Korea. That article introduced me to the special horrors of that country. Back then, it reminded me of "1984." Today I think of "The Hunger Games," only worse. The citizens are enslaved by the Kim regime, which controls every aspect of their lives. If a person commits a political crime--say, he spoke disapprovingly of Kim Jong Un--he and his parents and children, three generations of his family, are shipped off to a prison camp from which they are unlikely to return.
What do you think will need to happen to drastically change the oppression of the North Koreans?
China is key. China's food and fuel aid help to keep the Kim family regime afloat. The collapse of the Kim regime and a unified Korea under the South Korean model of democracy and capitalism is in the national interest of China – which, needless to say, doesn’t to see it that way. The U.S., South Korea and Japan need to do more to persuade the Chinese leadership that a Korea unified under South Korea’s system of economic and political freedom would be a boon, not a threat, to China. Ideally, all three countries would work together to gain control of North Korea's nuclear weapons and reunify the country.
Your coverage of the underground railroad is so thorough. What was the interview process like with the escaped North Koreans? How do the Christians helping them handle the stress?
I interviewed dozens of escapees. It was very hard for many North Koreans to speak to me and relive their terrible experiences in North Korea and then, in hiding in China. My toughest interviews were with the women who had been sold as brides to Chinese. Many of those women have children that they left behind in North Korea AND China. But the North Koreans usually wanted to tell their stories--what they often called their "testimonies." They wanted more Americans know the awful truth about North Korea. It was interesting to me that many North Korean escapees become Christian. That's because of the Christian message of freedom and respect for every individual. It's also because of the example set by Chinese Christians and Christian missionaries in China; the Christians are the only ones who help North Koreans. China's official policy is to arrest them and send them back to North Korea, where they are jailed or executed for the "crime" of having left North korea.
What can the average American do to help the plight of the North Koreans?
At the simplest level: tell your friends. i've given many talks since "Escape from North Korea" was published, and I'm always surprised at how little Americans know about North Korea. They rarely understand the cruelty of the regime or the closed nature of the country, where making an international phone call or using the Internet is a crime. At the end of my book as well as on my Web site, www.MelanieKirkpatrick.com, I list organizations that help North Koreans. Please see that list if you wish to make a donation. [Click here to view the list.]
Have you kept in touch with any of the North Koreans you interviewed and if so, how are they doing?
Learning to be free is very, very difficult for someone who has grown up in North Korea. Many escapees have a tough time, especially since very few have any family support. That said, others, especially young people, succeed. Joseph Kim, the brave teen-ager I write about in Chapters 1 and 2 of "Escape from North Korea," is doing extraordinarily well. He's one of my heroes. His father died of starvation in North Korea; his mother disappeared; his sister was sold as a bride in China. Yet Joseph is now living in America and is in college! Amazing.
What are your goals for the upcoming year?
I hope to help call further attention to the plight of North Koreans who escape and also to the Christians and other humanitarians who help them. At the same time, I'm beginning to do research for two other books -- one on North Korea and the other on a domestic U.S. topic.
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"Escape from North Korea" has been welcomed by many in the Evangelical Christian community in the U.S. WORLD Magazine, a Christian bi-weekly with a circulation of 100,000, named "Escape from North Korea" as its book of the year. I was honored. Thanks for inviting me to do this interview! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.
by MRH, CMO