Escape from North Korea: An Incremental Review

Nov. 7, 2012.  Early in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, you start to find powerful phrases that stay with you — phrases that make you stop reading and chew on them, to extract the full significance of some aspect of life in another reality.  I couldn’t help quoting two of them.  The first is illuminating:

So accustomed are North Koreans to the lack of light that when I asked a North Korean who had settled in an American city if there was anything she missed from home, she replied, “the darkness.”

The second is ghastly:

“I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the young man told the reporters in Washington. He didn’t want his name used, for fear of retribution against his family in North Korea. But he told us the name of the man he buried, and I record it here: Kim Young-jin.

On a related note, I saw this quote in a link from another review that registered in my comments:

Interestingly, Haggard’s research is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author.

Oh, my.  This is more than just a passive-aggressive blog post; it’s a life lesson:  Just as a reader shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, a reviewer shouldn’t judge a book before he actually reads the last chapter (beginning with its title).  Let the rewrite commence!

Nov. 29, 2012

Another quote I can’t resist giving you, about one of Kirkpatrick’s interviews with an escaped North Korean:

After our own trip to the buffet, we began the interview. The subject of our conversation was starvation.

Further on, there is this passage:

A commonplace observation of North Koreans who reached China was that Chinese dogs ate better than North Korean humans. The hungry refugees marveled at watching dogs devour scraps that were more nutritious than anything they had seen for years. They also marveled at seeing dogs. In North Korea, most of the dogs had been eaten.

One senses that Kirkpatrick longed to write this book not only because she had a story to tell, but because she had the literary impulse in her to tell it well in clear, high-impact prose.

Kirkpatrick’s second chapter is about religion in North Korea, a topic she introduces early because it has two levels of impact on the subject matter.  You already know, of course, that religion motivates most of the underground railroad’s conductors, but the complete ignorance of North Koreans about Christianity means that their first contact with it is a particularly strong shock to their systems.  It must be especially so for people who’ve broken with a lifetime of spiritual indoctrination, and the regime must understand that.

Kirkpatrick closes her chapter with an anecdote about my friend Tim Peters, and it speaks volumes about modern South Korean society:

In Seoul, Peters made his pitch to an assembly of divinity students at Chongshin University. Chongshin’s famous divinity school was founded in Pyongyang in 1901 and relocated south during the Korean War. Today, its graduates disperse to the four corners of the world to preach the Gospel. One would think that the school’s roots in the North would give it a special interest in reaching out to North Koreans. That was not what Peters found.

Peters described his interaction with the students at Chongshin. “Who’s going to India?” he asked the assembled seminarians. Lots of hands shot up. India is a popular spot for missionary work, and the South Korean students clearly were enthusiastic about the prospect of working there.

“Then I asked, ‘Who’s helping North Koreans?’ ” At this point in his story, Peters paused and looked around him. It was if he still had the prospective missionaries in his sight and was waiting to count the raised hands.

Finally, he answered his own question. “Nothing.”

In Chapter 3, we have another anecdote to file under “things we already knew” — in this case, that too many of those who represent us abroad are Nevilles Chamberlain without umbrellas to protect them from the disapproving scowls of the angels.  Listen to Evans Revere tell Kirkpatrick the story of some of the first North Korean defectors to show up at the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and try to find a good reason not to loathe him:  

Revere went to the front entrance. After his questions in Mandarin also failed to elicit a response, something about the two men prompted him to try Korean, which he also spoke. The men responded with big smiles and a torrent of words. “I had a hard time at first placing their accent,” Revere said. “But then it dawned on me. I couldn’t quite believe it, but they were from North Korea.”

If the North Koreans had been soldiers or officials with important information to impart, Revere said, the United States might have been able to figure out a way to extract them from China. But they were just farmers and not worth diplomatic intervention, and they didn’t know enough to ask for political asylum.

Nor, for the sake of two just-farmers, did Evans see that it was “worth” prompting them to ask, although it was mighty sweet of him to give them a ride to the train station.  Do you suppose he stuffed a dollar bill in each of their shirt pockets and wished them the best of luck evading the ChiCom police all the way to Hong Kong?

Interesting observations about music in Chapter 3:

“No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” he said at the time of that Cold War visit. “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.”

Well, maybe one day I’ll “get” jazz.  As to Richard Claydermann — I can go no further than, “To each his own.”  (On the other hand, the subversive messages that Prokofiev and Shostakovitch passed under the noses of Stalin’s censors have always been clear enough for me.)  Now this would be a hardship:

The North Korean regime also bans individual composers whose biographies it deems dangerous. Among them is Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote some of the twentieth century’s greatest piano music. Rachmaninoff is verboten because he fled his native Russia after the 1917 Revolution and settled in the United States.

Really?  But then, his music is openly sentimental, and sentiment is a dangerous thing to allow people to feel.  (Irony — I’m listening to Dvorak’s Ninth as I write this, and I don’t know of another classical piece that evokes freedom more.  Maybe I just associate it with the open, sagebrush-scented landscapes between the Black Hills and the Badlands I so often crossed in my childhood, but I doubt that’s all there is to it.)

(Update:  iTunes just shuffled to “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)

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One of the best things about books like “Escape from North Korea” and “Nothing to Envy” is that for a few minutes, they make us think about North Korea as a humanitarian problem, and maybe even think about the diplomatic implications of dealing with people who place no value on human life.  I urge you to watch this extraordinarily powerful ten-minute speech by my good friend, Adrian Hong, in an event about Kirkpatrick’s book (she’s sitting to his right).  The speech struck a chord with The Washington Post‘s Max Fischer, which is itself a victory in a delaying action against those who sell out the North Korean people for a few promises that would surely be broken within a year.

After having had to correct his online review, Adam Cathcart swings at Hong and misses again, this time in the comment thread to Fischer’s post.  Cathcart begins by trying to associate Hong with “an ambitious agenda embracing the Arabic world,” falsely linking Hong to a completely unrelated entity that also happens to have “Pegasus” in its name.  He then twists Hong’s use of the word “preemptively” — in a context that Hong most likely meant in the diplomatic or humanitarian sense — to build a straw man (Cathcart:  “All these nascent rebels need is a small (to use Hong’s word) “preemptive’ push, the Korean Workers’ Party apparatus will tumble faster than you can say ‘nuclear Fuehrerbunker'”).

That’s a stretch.  In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy, which Cathcart links, Hong advocates nothing more aggressive than broadcasting to the North Korean people, along with financial, diplomatic, and humanitarian pressure on the regime.  Hong mentions the possibility of an internal uprising, as plenty of other observers across the political spectrum have, but says, “[I]t is far better to have a coordinated, controlled landing, at the time of one’s choosing, instead of waiting for the worst to happen at any moment.”  If Hong has ever advocated what Cathcart obviously wants the Putinjugend trolls on that comment thread to infer, Cathcart ought to cite stronger evidence.

On the other hand, if Cathcart ever wants to challenge an actual advocate of a Libyan Solution for North Korea, he doesn’t need to imagine one, because I’m right here.  If there’s broad agreement that North Korea’s regime is inherently unstable, then the case of Syria shows what happens when you abdicate your nation’s interest in influencing the course of history.  As recently as 2010, no serious thinker believed a revolution was imminent in Libya or Syria.  Nor did anyone advocate sacrificing “engagement” with either regime to build relations with their disorganized and oppressed populations — populations that would soon produce militias, guerrilla armies, and a number of terrorists (in Syria, a growing number).  I certainly won’t defend the way this administration handled issues like embassy security or public communications in Libya, but its policy of building early alliances with the rebels while avoiding a ground war was sound, and stands a far better chance of producing a good outcome than our passive policy in Syria.

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Dec. 6, 2012.  Here is a review, published in the Christian Science Monitor, and an interview with the author on National Public Radio.

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Jan 2, 2013.  Last fall, the Hands-Off-North-Korea gang called for its smelling salts after the House passed the North Korea Refugee Adoption Act. The bill would have required the State Department to “develop a comprehensive strategy for facilitating the adoption of North Korean children by United States citizens” and, when possible, “assist in the family reunification of … orphaned North Korean children.” Some of these children are kkotjaebi, children who are orphaned and abandoned inside North Korea and managed to flee across the border on their own, but most are the children of North Korean mothers and Chinese men. These kids are conceived in circumstances that vary from consensual marriage to forcible rape, and sometimes in the gray area between the two. Nor do these children fit into either nationality, which is never a good thing in that part of Asia. We already know what North Korea does with racially impure babies. As Kirkpatrick relates:

The South Korean government debriefs every refugee who arrives in Seoul and reports its findings in an annual publication. Many of the refugees have spent time in North Korean prisons, and the section on pregnant women is a parade of horrors. The matter- of-fact, staccato language of the government report only heightens the atrocity:

“Gave birth to a baby . . . but they put vinyl cover [over the baby’s face] and left it to die, accusing the baby of [being] Chinese.”

“Gave birth to a baby on way to hard labor. Baby died.”

“Hospital aborted baby at seven-month pregnancy because she had lived with a Chinese man.”

“The agents forced her to run one hundred laps around a track because she had a Chinese seed in her. She collapsed after sixty laps and the baby was aborted.”

If China had not sent these women back to North Korea, their babies would merely face lifetimes lived in fear and without education, medical care, or a future. Because their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) are in China illegally, and because their fathers may not claim them, many of these kids become orphans. Chapter 5 of Escape from North Korea explains all of the different categories of North Korean and half-North Korean children whose lives and futures are scarred in very different ways by China’s cruelty to them.  I can’t summarize it better here, so I won’t try. Read the book. That one chapter is worth the price.

Kirkpatrick finds interesting subjects to help her tell her story and help you feel it on a human level, but on an academic level, the scale of this problem had already been documented exhaustively.  I’d recommend you begin with this extensive and detailed report from Human Rights WatchThe Christian Science Monitor, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Refugees International, which in 2008 cited a South Korean NGO’s claim that there may be 10,000 “stateless children born to north Korean refugee women and Chinese men” who were born in the preceding decade and in need of assistance.  The evidence for the problem was never seriously in dispute until Congress finally got around to doing something about it this year — thereby causing hurt feelings at the Ministry for People’s Security and Foreign Policy in Focus — by trying to “facilitate the immediate care, family reunification, and, if necessary and appropriate, the adoption of any eligible North Korean children living outside North Korea as de jure or de facto stateless refugees.”

Someone named Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, in this fine representation of FPIF’s typical level of scholarship and class, elegantly translates “necessary and appropriate” as “baby scooping.” Dobbs’s own experience as an adoptee obviously wasn’t favorable, and while I don’t know what she went through as a child, it’s clear that something has driven her toward a bitterness that defies logic. For example, Dobbs thinks allowing Americans to adopt Korean children was “a tool used to expand U.S. neocolonial power under the guise of benevolence during the Cold War,” and that the new bill’s proponents are “naïve Hollywood stars and ambitious neoconservatives.” (It is widely known that these groups often rub elbows at bar mitzvahs and e-meter auditing parties. Presumably, Dobbs believes the European Parliament is also made up of neoconservatives and neocolonialists.) Without citing a single named source who appears to have direct knowledge of the facts, Dobbs denies that there is a problem of stateless orphans of North Korean parents in China, period. Also, we have always been at war with Eastasia. In the end, I’m left with more sorrow for Dobbs than anger.

Christine Hong doesn’t care for the bill, either. Remember her? Back in 2010, she bitterly denounced the visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea. You may also remember that this was pretty much the only U.S. response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship and killing of 46 sailors, for which Hong’s disapproval of which was lost in a cloud of nuance and angst. This can happen to folk who love peace more than you and me.

(Both Dobbs and Hong are members of Christine Ahn’s Korea Policy Institute.  You all remember Christine Ahn, right?)

In this long piece at 38 North, Hong calls the bill “an outdated portrait of on-the-ground conditions and distorted premises” based on “a dangerous fiction,” but later insists that China has solved this non-existent problem. Her sources for this? One unnamed aid worker of unknown affiliation and “[a] Yanji municipal social welfare officer with the People’s Policy Bureau. Seriously. (I also reached out to a well-known aid worker with up-to-date information about North Korean and half-North Korean kids in China. He insists that China most certainly has not solved the problem.)  And 38 North actually published this? Aside from it being disjointed, rambling, intellectually sloppy, poorly researched, and contrary to the overwhelming weight of credible evidence, I’m sure it’s an perfectly fine contribution to our discourse on this topic.

I should have also said “moot,” because this week, the Senate passed a version that bypasses Hong’s semantic argument that these children are “not North Korean, not refugees, and not orphans.” The Senate bill now includes “North Korean-origin children residing in other countries or children of one North Korean parent residing outside North Korea who are fleeing persecution or are living as de jure or de facto stateless persons.”  Happy now, Christine? Somehow, I doubt it.  Really, her biggest problem with this bill seems to be the way its advocates paint a “hellish picture” of North Korea’s expendable people and their children.

Naturally, Hong ends up arguing that the answer is more food aid to North Korea, or rather, to the regime that would have us believe hat droughts and floods have ruined 19 consecutive harvests, exclusively in North Korea, except in Pyongyang. (Hong blames North Korea’s hunger on politicians and activists supporting this bill, and of course, sanctions.) But deciding to give North Korea aid is one thing; getting North Korea to accept it is another. It rejected one offer of food aid in 2009, possibly over U.S. demands to monitor the distribution of the aid, and then expelled most American aid workers from private NGOs.  Although the U.S. government has regularly expressed that it was ready to resume food aid to North Korea, it took until last year to get North Korea to agree to take it, only to renege on an agreement that would have provided food aid in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. The U.S. also demanded essential requirements for monitoring to make sure it got to those who needed it most. The conditions were less restrictive than what the U.N. might have demanded in, say, Sudan or anywhere else, but Hong criticizes even those minimal safeguards as heavy-handed U.S. demands for “unprecedented access.”

Regardless of the terms on which North Korea would accept it free of charge, food is far below the nose cone of the Kim Dynasty’s hierarchy of fiscal priorities; the regime spent enough on just its latest one rocket launch to feed the entire country for a year.  It’s pretty difficult to escape the conclusion that the regime had decided to keep its people hungry (or rather, certain classes of them). Yet however inadvertently, Hong stumbles over a part of the truth — North Korean orphans in China are a small part of the humanitarian problem here. After all, very few North Korean orphans will ever make it that far. North Korean orphans are in China are just the biggest humanitarian problem we can begin to solve now, in some small way.

Of course, this lame duck session of Congress ends Thursday, which means that this bill could still die in a conference committee or on the President’s desk.  That means that the likes of Dobbs and Hong can go right back to paving other peoples’ road to Hell with their own intentions, which I’ll let you characterize as you see fit.  If you’re having difficulty making those judgments, then Escape from North Korea is a book you have to read.

6 comments

  1. Touché! Thanks for the link and the advice — correction posted!

    I got lazy and went straight to the book’s index, where there is less “Shenyang” and “Stanton” than there ought to be. (I was also hoping for a little Chris Green and Andrew Nastios, no satisfaction there.)

    It seems a two-part review that is put out in more or less “real time” (in the middle of a trans-Atlantic move, kneedeep in cubits of paper, blah blah blah) is more half-baked than the intended two cakes. Anyway, thanks for being subtle with my mistake: I have learned a great deal from the book and your site thus far and am going to keep learning from them. Hopefully that doesn’t come off as “passive-aggressive,” whatever that means. Most of the questions that Kirkpatrick’s text has helped me to answer originated with your writing on One Free Korea (the case of Reverend Kim Dong-shik, for example). So, Forward! (Oh shit…)

    — Adam Cathcart

  2. [...] is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author [through the first 180 pages - ed.]. This is yet more proof — if any were needed — that one has to publish books to [...]

  3. Josh Notstanton says:

    You don’t have to be from North Korea to miss the darkness. I grew up in a fairly rural area of the United States, but now live in a city of a few hundred thousand people, and the light pollution drives me crazy. I hate not being able to see the stars at night.

  4. Glans says:

    I’ve seen the Milky Way two or three times in my life. It’s really pretty.

  5. Joshua says:

    I have to admit, that quote made me remember how much I miss the stars in the night sky in South Dakota. Along with clean, dry air that smells like sagebrush in the summer and wood smoke in the winter. But those are the conditions you expect in rural place, not a city, and certainly not indoors.

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