4 Questions: Melanie Kirkpatrick on North Korea


Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, attended the Winter Olympic games this week as part of a “charm offensive” for her family’s brutal regime. Yo-jong formerly served as the vice-director of the propaganda and agitation department, which may explain why she received such fawning coverage by the Western media.

“Kim Yo-jong mesmerised South Korean audiences,” the BBC claimed. And a CNN headline swooned, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics.”

Kim Yo Jong is the smiling face of one of the most brutal and repressive governments on the planet. Her diplomatic mission—which seems to be succeeding, at least with the media—is to normalize horrors in the totalitarian state.

I recently asked Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and the author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, to tell us the real story about what is going on in Kim’s country.

What distinguishes North Korea from other countries ruled by dictators?

The most comprehensive account of the depredations of life in North Korea is a 2014 United Nations human-rights report by a special Commission of Inquiry. The commission concludes, “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations [committed by the Kim family regime] reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

Let me mention two lesser-known examples among the lengthy list of “unspeakable atrocities” that the commission identified.

One is guilt by association. That is, a North Korean who is sent to prison for committing a political crime won’t go alone. His family will be condemned with him. Most of the North Koreans I interviewed for my book Escape from North Korea did not want their pictures taken or their real names used. They rightly feared that doing so would put their families in North Korea at grave risk. The guilt-by-association policy is also an effective deterrent for diplomats or other North Korean officials who are thinking of defecting to the West. They know that if they defect, the cost of their betrayal will be the lives of their loved ones back home.

Another atrocity is North Korea’s apartheid system known as songbun. Under songbun, every citizen is assigned a status based on his perceived loyalty to the Kim regime. A person’s songbun determines his station in life, including where he lives, how much education he will receive, where he will work, and most cruelly of all, his access to food. The capital city of Pyongyang, for example, is a closed city. Only North Koreans of high songbun are allowed to live there.

How are Christians treated in North Korea?

As I’ve written before, to be a Christian in North Korea—to practice any faith there—requires courage.

In a 2012 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom describes “the arrest, torture and possible execution” of Christians, Buddhists, and others conducting clandestine religious activity in the North. It cites several widely reported cases of persecution of Christians, including the public execution in 2009 of Ri Hyon Ok for the crime of distributing Bibles. In keeping with the regime’s policy of punishing wrongdoers’ families, Ri’s husband and three children reportedly were dispatched to a political prison.

The commission report also describes how 23 Christians were arrested in 2010 for belonging to an underground Protestant church. Three were executed, and the rest were jailed. The commission estimates there are thousands of Christians among the 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans incarcerated in the regime’s infamous political prison camps.

North Korean Christians necessarily worship in secret. Many of the congregations are small family units consisting of just a husband and wife and, when they are old enough to keep a secret, their children. Other times a handful of Christians form a kind of congregation in motion. A worker for the nonprofit organization Open Doors explains how it works:

A Christian goes and sits on a bench in the park. Another Christian comes and sits next to him. Sometimes it is dangerous even to speak to one another, but they know they are both Christians, and at such a time, this is enough.

Why does the regime fear Christianity? Eom Myong-hui, a North Korean refugee I interviewed for my book, says the regime fears Christianity because it points the way to freedom: “In my view,” she told me, “Christianity is about the individual, about accepting responsibility.” That is anathema to Pyongyang, which wants to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Ms. Eom, who escaped from North Korea 10 or so years ago, became a pastor in South Korea and is now living in the United States.

Why is it so difficult for people to flee the country?

Unlike Kim Jong Un’s sister, who flew to the South for the Olympics, it is next to impossible for an ordinary citizen to depart from North Korea. It’s a crime to leave the country without official permission. Still, many North Koreans are desperate enough to try. Some 25,000 North Koreans have reached freedom in the South. How do they do it?

To escape from North Korea, it is impossible to go south across the Demilitarized Zone to reach South Korea. Despite its name, the Demilitarized Zone—the DMZ—is the world’s most fortified border. More than 1 million mines prevent ordinary North Koreans from crossing there. A North Korean soldier occasionally makes it across the DMZ to the South—as one did in December—but that is rare.

Rather, North Koreans who want to reach the South must first go to China, which shares an 800-mile border with North Korea. From there, if they are determined, and lucky, they will find their way across China to Southeast Asia and on to South Korea. The Sino-Korean border is heavily fortified on both sides. Many of the escapees I interviewed swam across the Yalu or Tumen river or walked across the frozen river in winter. Again and again, I heard escapees say that they were terrified of being shot in the back as they fled.

It wasn’t an idle fear. When Kim Jong Un came to power at the end of 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, there were credible reports that the dictator issued a shoot-to-kill order. According to exile organizations with contacts inside North Korea, Kim has boosted the number of guards along with border and installed surveillance cameras. He has also dispatched agents to China to kidnap or blackmail escapees and force them to return to the North. Reports from North Korea say that Kim Jong Un has even closed whole villages along the border and moved residents to the interior of the country. The purpose is twofold: to make it harder for North Koreans to escape by restricting access to the borderlands and to limit the inflow of information from China.

China is North Korea’s ally in all this. It does not recognize the North Koreans who flee to China as refugees—as it should under the international convention on refugees, which it has signed. Rather, its inhumane policy is to track down and arrest North Koreans hiding in China and repatriate them to North Korea, where they are severely punished for the crime of having left. Pregnant returnees are forced to abort their babies. North Korea doesn’t want children of “impure blood”—that is, with Chinese fathers—to survive.

What is being done to help the refugees and the people still trapped in the country?

No one can provide direct assistance to either group of people. Neither China nor North Korea will permit it. That said, Christian missionaries—mostly South Korean but also American—are trying hard to help. They enter China posing as students or teachers or businessmen or tourists and head to northeast China, where they set up safe houses for North Koreans and/or help them find their way to the South along an Underground Railway. The Underground Railroad is a secret network that helps North Koreans find their way across China to Southeast Asia and on to South Korea. Some of these brave Christians have spent time in Chinese prisons for the crime of helping North Koreans.

The most positive development in recent years is what I call the “information invasion” of North Korea. Once they reach safety in the South, North Korean fugitives send news back into the country they left behind—via DVDs of South Korea soap operas, radio news broadcasts, and Chinese cellphones that allow families to speak to relatives who have escaped. So, too, the U.S. broadcasts news into North Korea on Radio Free Asia. It’s a serious crime for North Koreans to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, but many people do so nonetheless. In a country where only an estimated 1,000 people have access to the internet, this inflow of information has the potential to be transformational. At the very least, it is having the effect of making some North Koreans skeptical of the Kim regime’s propaganda. If a North Korean knows about the prosperous South, the regime’s pronouncements that North Korea is “paradise on Earth” is hard to believe.