This is a thrilling read about the secret network of NGOs and brokers rescuing thousands of North Korean refugees through hidden and treacherous routes across China and South East Asia into South Korea. Doug Bock Clark, the author of ‘The Last Whalers’, has written this piece with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The piece builds the narrative around two stories – one of a North Korean woman named Faith who crossed over to China with the help of smugglers who in turn sold her off to a Chinese man (millions of Chinese men left willing to buy wives given the gender imbalance from the one-child policy) then escaped to Vietnam and Cambodia where she sought asylum at the South Korean embassy; and the second about a man named Stephen Kim (called by some as the Oskar Schindler of North Korea) who helped Faith and hundreds of other refugees escape the oppressive North Korean regime. At the end of the riveting read, Doug adds a reality check to the stories highlighting the potential sensationalism to Kim’s narratives and likely swindling of funds from desperate refugees and unassuming NGO’s especially given the secretive nature of the whole operation. Yet, the fact there is an effort to take on the ruthless regime and its friendly super power of a neighbour – China, and save thousands of lives is heart warming nonetheless.

“Normally it would be the responsibility of the United Nations to assist the thousands of North Koreans hiding in China. Instead, because China labels North Koreans “economic migrants” rather than refugees at the behest of its ally North Korea, “it is up to the heroic civilians of the Underground Railroad to risk their lives to do what the international community is prevented from doing by China,” said Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation. Over two decades, Underground Railroad activists have built up a network of secret routes and safe houses to transport refugees across Asia and, in doing so, have managed to fill in where some of the world’s most powerful institutions have failed.

…Stephen Kim is a man whose life has been shrouded in legend. For leading the rescue of over 700 North Koreans, he has been called “the Oskar Schindler of North Korea,” a nickname that he shares with several other humanitarians who do similar work. Associates refer to him by the code name Superman, and he has been called “mythical” by human-rights activists, as reported by The Times of London

….“No one has a perfect bird’s-eye view of the history of the Underground Railroad,” said Tim Peters, the founder and director of Helping Hands Korea, a prominent rescue NGO that has saved more than 1,000 people, “as all rescue organizations silo their information,” given the sensitive nature of the work. That said, after talking to 13 people involved in the Underground Railroad, I think that the following seems clear: The individual efforts of several dozen South Korean, American, Japanese, and Chinese activists in the late 1990s coalesced into several formal organizations by the early 2000s. Some sneaked refugees into South Korean and other sympathetic embassies in China until security became too tight. Others favored the Mongolian route, before China sealed it in the mid-2000s. This meant the primary way out was to cross all of China and then much of Southeast Asia. Although North and South Korea are divided only by the impenetrably fortified 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone, the journey between the nations had become one of about 6,000 miles.

….As the Underground Railroad expanded, the number of North Koreans arriving in Seoul skyrocketed. In 2001, Kang was one of just more than 1,000 arrivals. By 2007, that number rose to over 2,500. So much success, however, prompted China to crack down. The missionaries had little experience running clandestine networks, and many began to be jailed or disappeared. Kim kept his cover as a businessman but increasingly found himself harassed by Chinese police.

….As Faith journeyed across Asia, Kim kept close tabs on her group and steered them via encrypted communications with his agents, doling out payments via wire transfers. (An escape costs about $2,000 to $2,500 per person.) During Faith’s escape attempt, security was tight in the Laos-China region, where today’s standard route has refugees hike through jungles into Laos, cross the Mekong River on fishing boats into Thailand, and then claim asylum at the South Korean embassy. So instead, Kim piloted Faith’s group on a relatively new and risky route, toward Vietnam, planning to extract them through the South Korean embassy in Cambodia.

By then, in 2017, the situation had gotten so critical, with widespread arrests and only 1,127 refugees making it to freedom, that some activists worried about the future of the Underground Railroad. “My fear is that we will continue to see a decline in escapees,” explained Sokeel Park, a director for the NGO Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which has rescued over 1,000 refugees, “with escapees possibly diminishing to a few hundred annually in the future.” Other activists worried that if the Thailand route closed, there would be no viable backups to handle large numbers of refugees.

The loss of the Underground Railroad would deprive the world of an essential humanitarian institution. By the end of 2018, the seven public rescue organizations had saved at least 5,000 North Koreans, according to numbers provided by them.”


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