Bryan Caplan  

Escape to Mongolia

Will McArdle Rethink Her Endor... Divided on Financial Regulatio...
From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:
Unlike the Chinese, the Mongolians allowed the South Korean embassy in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, to accept North Korea defectors.  In fact, if North Koreans managed to sneak across the Chinese border into Mongolia, they would be arrested by Mongolian border police and turned over to be deported - to South Korea.  Getting arrested in Mongolia was in essence a free plane ticket to Seoul.  As a result, Mongolia had become a major depot on what had become a veritable underground railroad ushering North Koreans to South Korea.
But as you'd expect, this underground railroad can be tragically deadly:
The Gobi Desert temperatures were soaring into the 90s... The six liters of water they'd [a band of North Korean defectors] brought were finished.  Hyuck and the others took turns carrying the three-year-old, but when the ten-year-old started flagging, they couldn't do anything but drag him along.  They finally found an abandoned hut near a small pond.  One of the women stayed with the boy while Hyuck ran off to get water.  As he approached, he heard the woman screaming.  The boy was dead.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Kyle writes:

I thought it was an amazing book; highly recommended. I figured I had an idea how nutty the NK state was, but the reality surprised me.

Foobarista writes:

In the early 1990s, I was studying Chinese at a military-affiliated university in Beijing. There were lots of South Koreans in the same class with me. Near the foreign student dorm was a large compound, with high walls, guards, and a big North Korean flag. It turned out that North Korean students lived in that compound, took classes there (teachers went into the compound to teach) - and weren't allowed to leave.

The South Koreans tried to talk with these kids through the fences and were occasionally successful.

An aside: Beijing also had a large Koreatown in the university district, with many illegal North Korean workers.

PrometheeFeu writes:

It is really heartbreaking to hear of these stories. The North Korean leadership is truly monstrous.

Jim Rose writes:

If I came across a north korean in the circumstance of those students in Beijing, I would not try to talk to them.

Other north koreans would use the opportunity to advance themselves by denouncing them to the secret police as disloyal and a potential spy.

talking to outsiders is illegal in stalinist russia and mao's china. Talking to vistors from dictatorships is risky for them

Craig J. Bolton writes:
The Gobi Desert temperatures were soaring into the 90s...,,

Sounds mild by comparison to the Sonoran Desert, but then no one would ever try to walk across the Sonoran Desert....

[Comment display modified.--Econlib Ed.]

Pat writes:

I agree with Kyle. It is a must-read

Mark Brophy writes:

I learned many things from Nothing to Envy. A couple of examples:

NORTH KOREANS HAVE MULTIPLE WORDS FOR PRISON IN MUCH the same way the Inuit do for snow. Somebody who commits a minor offense—such as skipping work—might be sent to a jibkyulso, a detention center operated by the People’s Safety Agency, a low-level police unit, or maybe a rodong danryeondae, a labor camp, where the offender would be sentenced to a month or two of hard labor, such as paving a road.


When he first arrived, Hyuck was as frightened of the prisoners as the guards. He expected hardened criminals, scary, violent men, sexual predators. In fact, one side effect of starvation was a loss of libido. There was almost no sexual activity at the camp and little fighting. Aside from the man who stole Hyuck’s shoes, the prisoners weren’t nearly as fierce as the children he used to hang out with at the train station. Mostly they were “economic criminals” who’d gotten in trouble at the border or the market. The actual thieves among them had stolen nothing more than food.

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