At the book launch of Escaping North Korea last week, author Mike Kim explained that he wanted the book to be “inspirational”. Having seen the huge obstacles faced by North Korean escapees, he found hope in each of their stories: “If the North Koreans can overcome their mountains, I can overcome my hill”, is the message of hope he tries to convey in his book.
The route followed by many escapees is a 6,000 mile “underground” railway from North East China down to Thailand, with a small number of helpers along the way, many of whom are Korean Christians. The objective for the escapees is to enter a friendly embassy in Bangkok, who will then send the escapees to Seoul. There, they face an extensive debrief to weed out potential DPRK spies and would-be economic migrants from the Chinese Korean community. After this debrief, the North Koreans face prejudice from their Southern brethren, and struggle to compete in such an alien world. In fact the difficulties facing North Koreans settling in the South prompted one audience member to ask whether escapees who make it to Europe and are then sent to Seoul by the European immigration authorities should have their lawyers argue that they would be better off in the West rather than in South Korea. Mike Kim dodged that particular question.
The success of such migrants is not guaranteed – only 60-70% of the escapees following the South East Asian route end up at their desired destination – the remainder being returned to the DPRK. The route via Mongolia has a lower success rate. Kim himself managed to escort several escapees to safety: he got four children into the British Consulate in Shanghai, and accompanied two women – one of whom was severely ill with tuberculosis – over the mountains into Laos.
Kim (above left), a former mutual fund salesman in a small financial advisory operation, got caught up in the refugees’ cause during a whistlestop holiday in China. He later returned without any particular plans, adopting the cover story of wanting to train in the North Korean variant of Taekwondo, of which their are many masters in North East China. During his involvement in helping North Korean escapees he encountered individual tales of horror and heroism.
In his book, Kim seeks to emphasise the human element of the refugees’ stories. If the book is as enthralling as his presentational style, it will be well worth a read.