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Korea's Underground Railroad

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Korea's Underground Railroad
By Congressman Joe Pitts

April 29, 2005

Our area takes great pride in the role many organizations and residents here played in the Underground Railroad during the years leading up to the Civil War. Thousands of slaves were freed because of the courage of individuals who either housed fugitive slaves or went south to escort them to freedom here in the north. It is a heritage we can be proud of.

Today, there is a similar effort underway. It is happening in a land divided along lines of north and south. Race is a component. Other nations are involved. And the bravery of conductors and engineers on this new Underground Railroad is playing a key, though unsung, role in rescuing people from oppression.

I am talking about North Korea . Much of the talk about this nation focuses on its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. This is certainly our most pressing national security challenge in the region. But national security is not even the most important part of the story. The North Korean regime can best be understood by the efforts to which it goes to torture its citizens.

Widespread famine, torture, imprisonment, and murder define life under Kim Jong Il. In 1998, I met one of the first North Korean escapees to visit the Capitol in Washington , D.C. She shared her story and the wider story of the suffering in North Korea with me.

This described the terrible torture she endured because she was honest and would not embezzle material goods for her boss. As a result, he concocted false allegations which led to her arrest. She was taken to a prison camp and routinely tortured to the point of losing consciousness. For fourteen months she endured this torture, until she was sentenced to thirteen years in prison.

It was deeply humbling to be involved in helping her and to be being honored with her story. Over the years, I have met many others like her who have risked their lives to help their fellow North Koreans by telling the truth about the terrible tyranny in their country.

The North Korean dictator orders his officials to use torture, forced abortion, starvation, and death to ensure that he remains in control. Faced with no choices and even less hope, many North Koreans flee their homeland. To them, even China looks like a paradise and because North Korea 's border with China is the only passable one, they end up living underground there.

A quarter of a million North Korean refugees live in this condition. China has embarked on an effort to hunt down these refugees. Many are caught and sent back or worse. According to testimonies of refuges and media reports, Chinese officials regularly commit infanticide on babies who are conceived or born in China to North Korean mothers as China strives to keep its race "pure." North Korean women are often forced into marriage upon return to their country. Those North Korean women who stay in China frequently end up in forced marriages with Chinese men or sold as wives, sex slaves, or into forced labor.

In Washington this week, I co-hosted a screening of "Seoul Train" for Members of Congress, staff, and others interested in the problem of North Korea . In following several groups of refugees, this documentary captures better than most the complexity and tragedy of this growing problem. The refugees share their very real fear of being captured and the torture surely to follow. It brings us face-to-face with their tormentors.

The film questions China 's policy of hunting down and returning these refugees to North Korea . To cover up its effort in this area, China has blocked the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) from entering its borders to monitor the condition of these refugees. This obstruction means that the international community cannot recognize these desperate people as refugees, a status which affords certain rights and protections. For our part, the United States , under the North Korea Human Rights Act, is prepared to receive refugees from North Korea . But very few make it here, because of China 's obstruction.

Most importantly, though, this documentary tells the story of a modern-day "Underground Railroad," a group of activists from across the world who have set up a network of safe houses and escape routes to help refugees find safe harbor at foreign embassies in Beijing or in another nation altogether.

This film is particularly timely as human rights groups estimate that between two and three million people will flee North Korea into China in the coming years, creating a humanitarian crisis like those seen in recent times experienced in Sudan , Rwanda , and the tsunami-impacted region in Southeast Asia .

Kim Jong Il does not care about these people; he cares only about power. And until we present a united front in opposition to his treachery, it will continue. I hope you will take the time to track down and watch this film to learn the true story of North Korea , China , and this modern-day Underground Railroad.

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