Support the news
North Korea remains one of the most isolated and repressive countries in the world.
Each year, though fleeing the country is a capital offense, a brave few attempt an escape to freedom using a secret network of safe houses and routes from North Korea to Southeast Asia.
In her book Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, writer Melanie Kirkpatrick tells the harrowing stories of North Korean defectors who attempt to escape from a place she calls "hell on Earth."
"Sometimes I go to sleep at night thinking about the horrible stories I'd heard about life in North Korea," Kirkpatrick tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But at the same time, it's very positive to think that after six decades of totalitarian repression, there are people who are still longing for freedom and have the courage to go after it."
For those lucky enough to cross the border successfully, the danger doesn't end there. Kirkpatrick says North Koreans stand out in China because they don't speak the language and are often smaller because of decades of malnourishment.
"The first thing the North Korean will do before he actually begins his journey is put on Chinese clothes. His helpers will cut his hair to make him look more Chinese," Kirkpatrick says.
"In the case of women, the rescuers teach the North Korean women how to apply makeup," she says. "They often keep them in a safe house for a couple months so that they can gain weight and ... blend in better when they actually begin their journey across the country."
Sold As A Bride
Kirkpatrick tells the story of a woman she calls Hanna, who was kidnapped from North Korea and taken to China, where she was sold to a Chinese man as a bride.
"After 30 years of a one-child policy and Chinese couples' preference for boys, there is a severe shortage of young women in China today," Kirkpatrick says. "And the one thing many young men want most in life is a bride. So they place an order for one from North Korea."
Hanna escaped with the help of a South Korean pastor who helped her get to Southeast Asia, and she eventually made it to New Jersey.
The Helpers Along The Way
Asia's underground railroad is similar to the system that helped African-American slaves escape to the North in the 19th century. It is operated mostly by Christians; some brokers and human traffickers are involved for the money. Many of the people involved have Korean heritage.
Kirkpatrick's book tells the story of Adrian Hong, a Yale student who founded an organization in the mid-2000s called Liberty in North Korea to help people along the underground railroad.
During one operation, Hong and six North Koreans were arrested in China. He was able to get diplomatic assistance and only spent a week or two in jail. The North Koreans had a more difficult time, but after the U.S. applied pressure, the Chinese government let them go to South Korea.
Between 24,000 and 25,000 people have escaped North Korea, but Kirkpatrick says there are still 25 million in the country. Those who escape serve as conduits of information and have educated the outside world about the reality of life in North Korea.
"The North Koreans who escape have found ways to get information back into North Korea," Kirkpatrick adds. "And in doing so, they're helping to open up that country, which has been sealed for six decades."