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The Carletonian

Mike Kim: Escaping North Korea

<under of Crossing Borders, an NGO providing aid to North Koreans, opened the final convocation of the term by reading an excerpt from his book “Escaping North Korea,” which details the dangerous challenge of smuggling North Korean refugees to political asylum via an underground railroad connecting northeast China to Laos. In describing his encounter with suspicious border patrol units towards the end of his journey, Kim recalled the start of the journey during July 2001, when he traveled for two weeks in mainland China and encountered a refugee. After learning of the mass exodus escaping from the oppression and famine in North Korea, along with the rampant sex-trafficking of women, Kim sold his financial planning business in Chicago and returned to China in 2003, posing as a student of North Korean taekwondo to avoid arousing suspicion.

He explained that in China there existed a zero-tolerance policy for helping North Korean refugees, because of its treaty with North Korea and its pledge to return any refugees caught on its territory. In addition, “they don’t want to encourage further immigrants” crossing the border into the country, Kim said.  Such conditions created a huge underground railroad of six thousand miles, starting in northeast China and ending in Bangkok. In telling a story of four malnourished teenagers seeking freedom, Kim emphasized the importance of finding a foreign embassy that could protect these refugees. He recalled the terrifying pressure these young adults faced in deciding to risk their lives to reach political asylum: that they “were just kids and wanted someone else to decide for them.” Kim constantly referred to them as “child warriors”, braving such danger for “the dream of freedom” in South Korea. In successfully smuggling them into the British consulate in Shanghai, Kim granted them their safety, attracting international attention to the situation that contributed to the passing of the North Korean asylum pact in the United States.

Kim told a second story of smuggling adult women to Bangkok, a more comfortable trip “because they were adults” and accustomed to making their own decisions, especially those concerning their lives. In using illegal drug-trafficking routes in Laos, Kim expressed his relief that they were “redeeming these routes by smuggling refugees to safety.” After successfully transporting the women to safety, he expressed his discomfort regarding expressions of gratitude such as “We owe you our lives,” and said that such words are something he cannot quite yet accept or deal with.

Kim’s NGO, Crossing Borders, started with fellow college peers, has recently undergone a policy change: they no longer smuggle North Korean refugees to South Korea, but instead help them to live safely in mainland China, or to return to North Korea to help their families. Kim concluded by emphasizing the issue of sex trafficking and the ongoing business of abducting female refugees at the border.  Regarding the rampant abuse and medical challenges currently affecting the situation, he stated that “NGOs do not have the budget to deal with huge issues such as refugees with cancer.” In light of all the media focused upon the issue of nuclear weapons and Kim Jong-il, Kim stressed his wish to raise awareness on human rights violations in North Korea through his work, for not enough is known about the atrocities committed there.

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