Underground Railroad Free Press®
Volume XVI, no. 87. January 2021
News and views on the Underground Railroad. Published bimonthly since 2006, we've brought together people and organizations interested in the historical and the contemporary Underground Railroad. We are the home of Lynx, the central registry of contemporary Underground Railroad organizations; Datebook, the community's event calendar; and the Free Press Prizes awarded annually for leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge, the community's highest honors. Visit urrfreepress.com.
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This issue features New Hampshire’s Black Heritage Freedom Trail, three newly publicized Underground Railroad sites in Calvert County, Maryland, and the third and last installment of a long-form article on the Underground Railroad escape route out of North Korea.
The Black Heritage Trail in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
In its September 2020 issue, Frommer's featured "Great Authors of America" in which well known writers told of their personal favorite "best places" to visit in the United States. Here is Jodie Picoult's top spot. Reprinted with thanks. Picoult is a #1 New York Times bestselling author whose most recent novel is The Book of Two Ways.
New Hampshire is known for its fall leaves, its natural beauty. . . and its whiteness. Yet the third-least diverse state in America has been home, since 1645, to Africans and African Americans, who contributed heartily to the welfare of their community. The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail celebrates the more than 700 Black residents who lived in the port city by the time of the American Revolution, and who—like other Black people who helped build this country—have been left out of previous chronicles of the state. Although many believe that abolitionists abounded in New England, Portsmouth—a sales port—was an entry point for the slave trade in America.
The Black Heritage Trail comprises 24 self-guided stops around town: from the docks where Africans forcibly arrived by ship, to the African Burying Ground, to Stoodley’s Tavern—a place where patriots like Paul Revere gathered pre-Revolution—which a decade earlier was the site of a public slave auction. The Moffatt-Ladd House was home to both General William Whipple—who signed the Declaration of Independence to free the colonies from British rule—and to Prince Whipple—an enslaved African who was eventually freed and who petitioned the state legislature to abolish slavery (a petition that was not granted till 234 years later). Ona Marie Judge, enslaved by George Washington, escaped to Portsmouth in 1796; the Heritage Trail follows the wharf near Prescott Park where she arrived by ship, the church where she got married, and the market where she was spotted—leading to her near-capture.
Sobering and eye-opening, the Black Heritage Trail forces us to question those we have traditionally considered heroes, and to elevate those who have been marginalized instead. It squarely centers Black life in early America, at a time when we as Americans need to be rewriting our history to do so.
Union State but Confederate Sympathies
We thank Kirsti Uunila, Historic Preservation Planner of Calvert County, Maryland, for making us aware of these three Underground Railroad sites in her county. Founded in 1654, rural Calvert County is located on the peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River in what is called Southern Maryland, about 90 minutes south of Washington, DC. The area, though in a Union state during the Civil War, was predominantly pro-slavery.
Jefferson Patterson Park is listed by the National Park Service's Network to Freedom program as a bona fide Underground Railroad site. The park and its museum are situated on 560 scenic acres along the Patuxent River, which freedom seekers crossed heading north after fleeing Virginia 20 miles to the south. The park features more than 65 identified archaeological sites and 9,000 years of documented human occupation. The park is also the home of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, which houses over 8 million artifacts. https://jefpat.maryland.gov/Pages/
The Brooks United Methodist Church cemetery at 5570 Mackall Road near Saint Leonard has many grave markers that memorialize the lives of men who escaped bondage through military service in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War and then returned to build a vibrant community of free Blacks in Calvert County. https://brooksumc.org
The Wharf at Lower Marlboro British Naval forces put ashore there in July of 1814 and at least fourteen enslaved persons from Lower Marlboro took refuge with them. Some of the men served with the British Colonial Marines and received land in Trinidad for their service; most of the others went on to live as free people in Nova Scotia, Canada. Calvert County has celebrated the event since 1976 with an annual observance of Lower Marlboro Freedom Day. https://www.calvertcountymd.gov/1730/Lower-Marlboro-Wharf
The Underground Railroad of North Korea
By Doug Bock Clark
This article has been serialized over three issues of Free Press, this being the third. Readers will find the first installment of the article in our September, 2020, issue in the Free Press archives at http://www.urrfreepress.com/index_files/Sep_2020.pdf, and the second at http://www.urrfreepress.com/index_files/Nov_2020.pdf, The article first appeared in the March 26, 2019, issue of GQ for which Mr. Clark serves as Correspondent. Reprinted with thanks.
The first installment introduced Faith (a pseudonym) and her dismal life in North Korea, her bad marriage, and increasing questions by local authorities about her loyalty. Weighing her options, Faith decides to escape North Korea but first needs to identify someone she can trust to help her. The second installment found Faith having escaped North Korea to China and challenged with trying to sort out bad actors from honest Underground Railroad activists as she made her way south toward Thailand and safety. Below she safely concludes her harrowing escape, ending in freedom in Seoul, the capital of South Korea
By 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.
But even the brokers were not prepared for when the longtime tyrant of North Korea died in 2011 and power passed to his 20-something son, Kim Jong-un, who made it his priority to destroy the Underground Railroad. One of his first orders was
for guards to shoot anyone caught defecting over the border. Then he boosted the number of border guards and installed tens of thousands of surveillance cameras. He also persuaded China to further crack down on the Underground Railroad within its borders. The year before Jong-un took power, 2,706 refugees made it to freedom. The next year, 2012, only 1,502 did.
Kim and NKHR had gone their separate ways after working together in the early 2000s, but he returned to the NGO in 2010. Soon he had nearly doubled the number of refugees NKHR rescued annually. An NKHR spokesperson confirmed that from 2010 through 2018, Kim rescued about 700 refugees for the organization. (Kim receives funds from a small number of other organizations and spends some of his own money to rescue refugees as well.) Rising pressure finally forced Kim to relocate to Seoul, because, he said, “the police would follow me even to the bathroom” in China. From there, he has become a remote overseer of sorts, using his contacts from his days in China to handle things on the ground. In the fall of 2018, Kim told me that he relied on seven brokers working for him full-time, each with their own team of part- timers, such as taxi drivers and safe-house workers. This was the network that Kim activated to rescue Faith in 2017.
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 So-keel 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. (Experts cautioned that it is impossible to check such figures.) And as brokers have increasingly quit the business during Jong-un's crackdown, the importance of charitable groups has only increased.
“The charitable groups are there through thick and thin,” said Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea. “People who do it for money, once conditions get tough, they disappear.” Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of a book on the subject, said that without the Underground Railroad, the world would lose its best source of information about what goes on inside the secretive regime— escapees. And, she explained, the smuggled cell phones, flash drives, radios, and DVDs that flow back up the Underground Railroad into North Korea are a subversive force, “helping to sow discord and nurture dissent”—which makes it, perhaps, the greatest threat to the regime.
And so it was, in 2017, that Faith fearfully watched her guide hail the Vietnamese soldier barring the group's path, at the same border where many refugees have been detained. But her fear eased when the guard reacted with the easy body language of a man accepting a bribe. A few steps later, she had officially escaped China. From there, they rode buses south through Vietnam, and slipped into Cambodia at night on motorbikes without incident. In Cambodia's capital, a priest led her past intimidating guards, and the moment she set foot in the South Korean embassy, she was recognized as a citizen. After two months of paperwork, she got on a plane to Seoul— the first flight of her life.
Like many defectors, Faith struggled to adapt to South Korea. When I met her at her subsidized apartment in the fall of 2018, she still had the haggard air of someone learning how to use the subway, navigate welfare programs, and raise two children by herself in an alien country. Watching South Koreans throw away lightly used sweatshirts and shoes, she dreamed of giving them to the family she'd left behind in North Korea. Eventually she joined the modest church that Kim pastors. One Sunday, I joined Faith and Kim at the church. To open the service, Kim instructed his parishioners to pass the peace. Worshippers stretched out their hands and sang a greeting to one another, and Faith and her children reached back, glowing with joy. Kim closed his sermon by announcing that with the church's help, eight North Koreans had been rescued that week. After the service, Kim led me to his office, where he showed me a map of North Korea on which were pinned eight crosses—memorials for missionaries who had been caught sneaking back into North Korea.
During the week that I spent with him, his Cheshire smile had rarely faltered, and he had seldom revealed intimate feelings. But now Kim began mournfully cataloging the friends he had lost, in a litany of abductions, stabbings, and other assassinations. When I asked if he feared death, he recalled a recent car crash that put him in the hospital in a neck brace. During it, he had thought, “Wow, this is it, I'm going to die. I'm finally going home”—to heaven. “I'm so happy.”
The constant exposure to North Koreans' traumas affects Kim more than he publicly lets on. An NGO worker said, “Sometimes he'll call me crying when he hears a really terrible testimony from a North Korean.” But on that day, as if remembering that he was “Superman,” Kim steered the conversation back to his willingness to die for the cause and resumed that mysterious masking smile.
8. The End of the Line
As I said goodbye to Faith and Kim in late 2018, I felt happy that at last Faith had found a home. But despite the evidence I had seen of Stephen Kim's good works, I left Seoul questioning the accuracy of some of his tales.
Doubts have been raised about many escape stories from North Korea, not only because they can be impossible to fully fact-check but also because sources often have an agenda. As journalist Su-ki Kim wrote about the Underground Railroad in Harper's Magazine, “the story was everything in [this] business,” since rescue organizations need to raise money and activists seek to highlight North Korea's human-rights abuses.
Over the next few months, as I cross-checked Stephen Kim's stories, I found that sometimes his version of events tended to be more sensational than what others remembered. For example, he described Kang as being so malnourished when he found him that his hair had turned yellow, although Kang denied this. His numbers often seemed inflated—as with his claim that he has rescued 3,500 refugees. NKHR confirmed that he had rescued about 700 for them, and he has certainly saved more by himself, but experts suggested to me it is improbable that he has succored more than 10 percent of all North Koreans in South Korea.
“Sometimes I felt that Stephen Kim exaggerated to gain credit in the past,” in the early 2000s, said Young-ja Kim, his longtime associate at NKHR, “but he has gotten better about that since we started working together with him again after 2010.” She acknowledged that NKHR had severed its relationship with Kim in the early 2000s. “He disappointed me because he once created a situation that could compromise a defector's anonymity without my approval.” She and Kim later agreed on a system that allowed him to resume rescue work. (Kim maintained that he never endangers refugees.) She added, “Sometimes the details in his stories are messy because he has to hide things from the authorities, but that is common in his line of work.” Kim suggested that others felt he exaggerated because of translation issues.
Ultimately, however, what impressed me was that the foundations of his stories seemed true. Everything I have written above was attested to by at least two sources, and Kim's exaggerations seemed essentially benign: a man embellishing an already incredible tale, perhaps out of pride or to push a cause he fervently believed in. As I prepared to wrap up my reporting in early 2019, I told myself that maybe the myths Kim cultivated were justified because they furthered his important work.
But then I learned that Faith was questioning the trust she placed in him. She was working with Nehemiah Global Initiative (NGI), another NGO that financially supported Kim's rescues, when she realized that the refugees NGI assisted weren't supposed to be paying for their escapes. Faith, however, says that she had been asked to pay $1,000 of the cost of her escape, with Kim and NKHR subsidizing the remainder. At the time, Faith considered herself lucky, as she had never expected such generosity in the first place. But now she wondered if something inappropriate hadn't taken place.
In early 2019, Faith bussed to the demilitarized zone, the heavily guarded no-man's-land that divides the two Koreas. As she stared at the low mountains of North Korea, she could not help thinking about the family she had left behind.
When she informed NGI, the organization checked with over 50 refugees whom it had paid for Kim to rescue, who told NGI they had been charged similar fees, even though NGI had believed they were paying all the expenses. Kenneth Bae, NGI's director, said, “We realized that the amount of money Stephen paid brokers for rescues was less than the amount of money we had given him.”
When I met Kim in Seoul in early 2019, he vehemently denied misappropriating the money. “I am really heartbroken,” said Kim, “and I feel this situation is unfair.” At one point he explained that the conflict resulted from a misunderstanding: NKHR only pays for rescues starting from a specific northern Chinese city, and refugees are responsible for the costs incurred while getting there—which often means being charged for a private car to bring them to the city from outlying villages. At another point he said he had paid Faith's $1,000 fee; Faith denied this. Kim, however, did acknowledge that not all of NGI's money was spent directly on rescuing North Koreans, as the NGO had wanted. Instead, he said, some was used for operational expenses like international telephone calls and bribing Chinese police. Kim insisted that NGI blaming him for this meant the organization “doesn't know anything realistic about rescue operations.” He swore to continue rescuing refugees. “People don't appreciate the sacrifices I make,” he said, “but I have God behind me.”
This messy conflict partly results from the fact that most rescue organizations have essentially outsourced rescue activities to about half a dozen brokers living in Seoul, who in turn outsource the on-the-ground work to Korean-Chinese in China. Kim, it seems, may be one of these middlemen. Faith came to believe that the broker who had asked her for money did so because Kim had not given him the full funds to cover his costs. In 2018, Kim had told me that he relied on his own network of full-time brokers, but when I asked him again in early 2019, he seemed to rely heavily on other networks, too. One broker said that they had pretty much taken over running Kim's network. A second broker described Kim as a “middleman.”
The difficulty of charitable organizations overseeing brokers has created problems. Four sources on the Underground Railroad say that since 2017, disputes between refugees and brokers have risen. Male brokers have been known to rape female refugees. Scams to bilk North Koreans out of their resettlement funds are common. Several sources on the Underground Railroad, however, pointed out that without brokers, no rescue can be successful.
Ultimately, the bootstrapped nature of the Underground Railroad—which has been justly celebrated in its creation— has also limited its effectiveness in the long run. Few rescue organizations seem to know what their peers are doing, and each has a separate handshake agreement with brokers. Few NGOs follow up with refugees once they reach South Korea. Though most organizations insist that they exercise oversight of brokers, that control seems limited in practice, and the brokers themselves said they were able to act with impunity. Rules or even just clearer expectations between brokers and charitable organizations might help to avoid conflicts. “If we had government support to do this legally, many of these problems would vanish,” said one broker. And the goals of the two groups are not so dissimilar that they can't find a mutually advantageous solution. Two brokers described being attracted to the work for similar reasons as activists, though they acknowledged they also needed to make a basic living. “I feel like I'm saving individuals from hell,” said one. Activists and brokers agreed that the brokers weren't getting rich off the work, earning only a few hundred dollars for each rescue.
As I left Seoul early this year, I was uncertain whether Kim had misused any of NGI's funds. But in the lawless Underground Railroad, what was justified to save lives often depended on who was making the call. “I have seen the sacrifices Kim has made for 20 years,” said Young-ja Kim, who explained that NKHR had found no financial improprieties with Kim and would continue working with him.
On the other hand, NGI is now employing new brokers. “We could no longer trust Stephen after he was not clear with us in the beginning about where the money went,” said Bae, who was never satisfied with Kim's accounting of NGI's funds. Bae added, “We feel that it is not fair to ask North Korean refugees to pay for their own escapes.” Bae was working to make sure that the refugees who had paid brokers were being reimbursed.
When Faith was contacted for a final round of fact-checking, about a month after making her original accusations, her anger against Kim had softened, and she now believed that he had probably used the disputed money for his ministry, not for himself. “I think it was all done with good intentions,” she said, “but his way could be misleading to others.” Ultimately, the mystery that shrouds the Underground Railroad makes it difficult for even the people in it to tell what happened, let alone an outsider like me. The best I could do was to report everyone's story and let the world judge what had occurred.
The last time I met Stephen Kim, in a café in Seoul, his exhausted face betrayed the toll that the scandal had taken on him. The mythic aura, the mysterious smile, had vanished. There was much that I would never know about him, but he seemed freshly human to me now: a man both heroic and flawed.
In the end, the times that I most doubted Kim was when he had tried to build up the myth of “Superman.” The tragedy, of course, was that his story didn't need embellishment. In fact, everything that he had achieved was all the more incredible for the fact that he is an ordinary man. It was the human imperfection of all the activists I met that helped make what they achieved so extraordinary. For what mattered most, at the end of the line, was that Faith and thousands of other North Koreans were now on the right side of freedom.
In early 2019, Faith bused to the demilitarized zone, the heavily guarded no-man's-land that divides the two Koreas, just 35 miles north of Seoul. As foreigners and South Koreans gawked and snapped photos from a tourist overlook, she stared at the low mountains of North Korea. She could not help thinking about the family she had left behind there, though she had little chance of ever seeing them again. Unless they, too, escaped through the Underground Railroad.
We hope you have enjoyed this issue.
Underground Railroad Free Press®
Independent Reporting on Today’s Underground Railroad
Peter H. Michael, Publisher
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