“You have to get through the gate. If you get through the gate, you will be safe. Inside is sovereign ground.”
Humanitarian Mike Kim was preparing four teenagers to break into the British consulate in Shanghai, but the kids were distracted. They’d never been to a McDonald’s restaurant before.
One of the kids was playing a game on Kim’s phone. He couldn’t put it down.
“Are you listening to me?” The four North Koreans looked up at him, one with a straw still in her mouth.
“That’s when it hit me,” said Kim, speaking in front of a packed audience at the Communities Foundation of Texas on Thursday, November 17, “these were just kids. They didn’t understand how dangerous it was to gain their freedom.”
Kim, a human trafficking expert and award-winning author, was the Museum’s Upstander Speaker for November—an event sponsored by The Dallas Morning News.
Kim’s story began on New Year’s Day, 2003, when he arrived in China after giving up his successful financial planning business in Chicago. A graduate of Georgetown and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kim had decided to forego a promising future in business and instead do the unthinkable: smuggle North Koreans out of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world.
While living near the China-North Korea border, Kim operated undercover as a North Korean taekwondo student training under two well-known masters from Pyongyang. From there, he used a 6,000-mile underground railroad to lead many North Korean refugees and sex trafficking victims to safety in Southeast Asia.
“The underground railroad used during American slavery was an inspiration,” said Kim. Centuries later and half-way across the globe, the methods for a traveler to skirt authority and travel discreetly remained the same.
And of course, danger lurked wherever he went. “Getting caught by Chinese authorities was one thing,” said Kim, “but if North Korean authorities found out what you were doing, they would send assassins to China to kill you.”
Avoiding human traffickers and drug smugglers was daunting. Kim used the same paths the criminals used, and there were many close calls, but he took comfort knowing that he would be reclaiming the underground system for righteous purposes.
When Kim and the four North Korean kids left McDonald’s that day and arrived just outside the British consulate, they saw Chinese guards milling around the front gate. “When I give you the word,” he told them, “I want you to run through the gate as fast as you can. If the guards come across the line and try to pull you back, you’re allowed to kick and scream. Do whatever you can to stay on sovereign the ground.”
The guards turned away for a moment, and Kim gave the kids the signal. They sprinted for the gate. Three of them had made it through the gates when the guards heard the commotion and ran back to their posts. They crossed the line illegally and grabbed the fourth kid as she passed onto the sovereign ground. The guards yanked on her, but she shook free and got away just before they could pull her back over the line.
They had made it to freedom.
Years later, after the kids had resettled in South Korea, Kim got a call. They wanted to meet up with him. “Where do you want to meet?” he asked. They didn’t hesitate.
Mike Kim’s memoir, Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country, describes his harrowing experiences at the China-North Korea border. Kim is also the founder of Crossing Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees. Crossing Borders organizers have testified before Congress on the issue of counteracting human trafficking in China, and the organization regularly contributes to the U.S. State Department’s “Annual Trafficking in Persons Report.”
Be sure to join us on December 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum for the film screening, The Long Way Home, the 1997 Academy Award-winning documentary directed by Mark Jonathan Harris that focuses on the post-war period from 1945-1948 and the plight of tens of thousands of Jewish survivors and refugees as they reclaimed their place in the world. Rare archival footage—stills, newsreels, and interviews—was used to complete the film. The screening is free but an RSVP is required through Eventbrite.
-McGuire Boles for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance