Long Walk to Freedom

article by: Bill Powell
review by: Me – Keelee

I have just finished reading Long Walk to Freedom (hereafter, LWTF) by Bill Powell. This article was the cover story of the Asia edition of TIME magazine last April 23, 2006. And I certainly believed that I had the good fortune of having been given a task of making a review of the article as a requirement for SSP2 (Asia and the World).

LWTF is a fascinating article mainly because it tells of one moving tale. Reading the article is like watching a television documentary – it brims with big names, drama, spectacular effects and of course, the trademark chest thumping. The article does tell how North Koreans risk their lives to reach freedom, with the aid of American Christians. It is also an expose into the life and death of North Koreans as they try to escape their homeland and China. The inside tale of one escape.
LWTF is a story that fills in a lot of gaps and sheds a lot of unanswered questions about what happens when a North Korean goes out of his or her borders. Kim Myong Suk was one of them.

Why do these people want to escape from their country and what happens if they are caught?

My motivation was hunger, and also there is no freedom in North Korea. It is a closed society. Even though we were out of the (labor) camp, we fwlt we were locked up in that countryKim says.

Here is Kim’s story.

February 1998 – Kim Myong Suk 9an alias she uses to protect herself and her relatives) was twenty years old when she fled from North Korea to China. She was immediately “sold off” into marriage. Her husband was a Chinese peasant from Heilongjiang, and it took time for Kim to grow her affection for him. Then she became pregnant. Unfortunately, on October of the same year, the Chinese police conducted their periodic raids in search of refugees from North Korea. Kim was one of those who were arrested. She was immediately sent back to North Korea and was sentenced to three years in labor camp. There, she was treated inhumanely and eventually lost her unborn child. But she was released under a special amnesty decree after one and a half year. Again, on March 2002, she escaped and was on China for a second time. Together with her sister and mother in the city of Mudanjiang, she met an ethnic Korean-Chinese man and got maried again. In China, there is a threat for them to get caught again, so Kim’s mom and sister decided to go to Seoul. Kim stayed in China. But her mother kept on worrying about Kim and said that she would do everything to get Kim out of North Korea and Chinese border. Finally, on October 2005, Kim’s case was brought to Rev. Tim Peters (an evangelical Christian pastor from Michigan) who runs the Seoul-based charity Helping Hands Korea – an organization aiming to assist North Koreans in crisis. Then they did the so called “underground operation”, the Seoul Train.

Having said that, let me share what struck me the most in the article: The very long process and the amount of money one should have in order to go through the secret route. The operation is different from any other rescue operations. It needs money, a meticulous plan and reliable people. There is no magic formula to know how many people and how much money is needed, hence, it varies in time and situation.

Today, there are an estimated 250,000 North Korean refugees living underground in China. They escaped a food crisis and other persecutions at home that have claimed the lives approxiamtely 3 million in the past ten years. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stands idly by, the Chinese Government – in direct violation of international laws to which it is a party – systematically arrests and forcibly sends back hundreds of these refugees each month. Defecting from North Korea is a capital offense, and sent back refugees face human rights abuses ranging from concentration camps and torture to forcedabortion and summary executions.

For a lucky few refugees, however, there is hope. A group of multinational activists has taken it upon themselves to create an Underground Railroad. Via a network of safe houses and escape routes, the activists – at great perconal risk – help the refugees on daring escapes to freedom over hundreds 9and sometimes thousands) of miles of Chinese territory. This is an odyssey where betrayal and deceit lurk around every corner, and the price of getting caught likely means death. It is an epic tale involving years on the lam living in the underground shelters, North Korean and Chinese agents, double-crossings, covert border crossings, and the terror of what happens if they get caught.

In order to capture the essence and urgency of the current crisis, a story of one refugee (Kim) is told through interviews – and I will go on record to say that the article is very well written because of that. I tip my hat off to Bill Powell for thw wonderful manner in which he was able to weave the refugee’s story, the secret route and the North korean politicsinto one seamless tapestry. You follow the refuge from her arrival in China – before she begin her escape attempts – as she recount the horror she left behind. You also hear her fears of being caught and sent back to North Korea, where she knows her doomed fate.

In Seoul Train, you meet the activists on the front line, learn of the risks they take for their refugees and for themselves, and see firsthand the toll their work takes on them.

Their system of government is to blame for this situation surely.

North Korea is a classic example of the “rule of man.” Overall, political management is highly personalized and is based on loyalty to Kim Il Sung and the Korean Worker’s Party. The cult of personality, the nepotism of the Kim family and the strong influence of former anti-Japanese partisan veterans and military leaders are unique features of North Korean politics.


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