2003 February 01 Saturday
Will North Koreans Flee In Massive Numbers?

In a few years North Korea potentially could become a supplier of nuclear weapons to any government or private group that can pay. At the same time, a direct preemptive military attack against North Korea would cost hundreds of thousands and perhaps even millions of casualties. Therefore one of the most important foreign policy questions currently faced by the United States and its allies is whether and how the North Korean regime can be brought down by means short of a military attack.

Is it reasonable to expect that the North Korean regime will collapse if North Korea experiences another famine? In the comments to a previous post Tom Holsinger argues that massive flight of the population in response to another famine could help bring down the North Korean regime. Go read his responses and think about the plausibility of his argument.

It isn't clear why a massive flight of even a million or two million people would bring down the regime. After all, massive famine killed a similar number of people and the regime survived. But conditions and attitudes of the populace are changing in North Korea. Portions of the population know more about the outside world than they did 10 years ago. Its hard to judge how many have learned how much about the outside world or how their attitudes have changed toward the regime. We can't conduct public opinion polls or hold focus group discussions to find out. We have to look at many clues and try to come up with an intuitive judgement. What follows is a series of links to articles that throw light on the current conditon of the regime, the mindset of the populace, and the obstacles faced by those who try to flee from North Korea.

Human Rights Watch has released an interesting report in November 2002 entitled The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People's Republic of China. Hunger is just one of the motives for flight. Expulsion from Pyongyang with the accompanying loss of status has also played a motive for some that have fled. Others fled because they knew enough about the conditions of family members who already lived outside of North Korea and wanted to live in similar conditions. Frustration over lack of opportunities, political persecution due to family history, and other factors motivate a variety of refugees and make it hard to generalize about why people try to get out.

Over the years, the predominant motivation for North Koreans deciding to cross the border into China has fluctuated somewhat. A political reason, or often a severe personal crisis that may have had a political dimension, has long been common, given that leaving North Korea is considered tantamount to treason. Desperate hunger and extreme poverty became a prime motivation at the height of the food shortages of the mid- to late 1990's. In more recent years, as the routes and costs of leaving became more widely known, the decision to leave may have become more calculated, though still grounded in a complex mix of personal, economic and political factors. The experiences of North Koreans we interviewed reflect this mix.

One member of a military division decided in 1995 that if he could flee to South Korea, he would have the opportunity to clear his name of plotting to implicate his superiors in a theft.12 Two men we interviewed had fled directly from different administrative detention camps in 1998 where they had been held because they were related to people considered to be serious criminals.13

On the other hand, getting food was the simple motivation of a young man who left in 1997 after he had overheard people discussing the situation in China.14 A young woman decided to go to China with her uncle in 1998 in order to aid her father, who had fallen into serious debt after taking a loan to buy medicine for her dying mother.15

Often, economic motivations were intertwined with a background of political discrimination. Two different women fled to China to survive the famine, both in 1998, after each of their families had been expelled from Pyongyang for political reasons.16 One young man and his family left in 1999 because he could not enter medical school or a teaching college because of family background. This young man's family had relatives abroad, who they expected to help and who did help expedite their transit to South Korea.17 An older man, who left in 1998, sought economic help from his relatives in China. But his troubles began in 1977, when his family was exiled from Pyongyang and sent to live in an administrative camp for five years because of his father's perceived disloyalty.

The Chinese government cooperates with the North Korean government to make it hard for North Koreans to flee into China and beyond.

Once across the river, refugees are extremely vulnerable to forced return to North Korea. The Chinese government, pursuant to an agreement with North Korea on repatriation of migrants, arrests and deports North Koreans, and allows North Korean government agents to pursue migrants on Chinese territory. According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, a secret agreement was signed between China and North Korea in the early 1960s; in 1986, another bilateral agreement was signed calling for the return of North Koreans and laying out a protocol for security in the border area.24 It also strives to control migration by posting fines for Chinese residents who shelter North Koreans, and rewards for reporting such migrants to the authorities. North Koreans have no defense against exploitation by either officials or private citizens in China, and most of those we interviewed related to us a life in hiding, characterized by violation of their rights to physical integrity, freedom of movement, access to medical care, and recourse to the legal system.

The number of refugees living illegally in China is not known with any precision.

There are anywhere from 10,000 to 300,000 North Koreans living in hiding in China, mainly in the province of Jilin, along the border region with North Korea, mixed among Chinese citizens of Korean ethnicity. To reach China, they have defied their government's criminal prohibition on illegal exit and China's rigorous border controls. They are inaccessible except to a handful of intrepid journalists and activists, and barely acknowledged by China, whose policy is immediate expulsion in an effort to maintain good relations with neighboring North Korea and deter further migration. Occasionally, a handful of this largely invisible crowd erupts into world view when a family makes its way into a foreign embassy or office in Beijing, publicly seeking asylum. While China has allowed these diplomatic embarrassments to be resolved by the family's departure to third countries, it has also followed each incident with a renewed border crackdown, repatriating hundreds to deter the thousands waiting to cross.

Those who are in the less favored social classes are most likely to flee. People who have family pasts or personal pasts that mark them to be placed in lower classes in North Korea are most motivated to flee.

According to those interviewed by Human Rights Watch, family background is still a key determinant of life in North Korea.62 Those lucky enough to be considered as "core" supporters of the government, such as party members or families of war martyrs, are given preferences for educational and employment opportunities, allowed to live in better-off areas, and have greater access to food and other material goods. Those considered of ordinary or ambivalent political loyalty lead less entitled, more precarious lives, while those considered to be of a "hostile" or disloyal profile, such as relatives of people who collaborated with the Japanese during the Japanese occupation, landowners, or those who went south during the Korean War, suffer the most, often being assigned to the worst schools, jobs and localities, and sometimes winding up in labor camps.

As discussed in the cases described at pages 9-10, a number of those we interviewed described the events that led to flight from North Korea in terms of their social, and consequent economic, marginalization. In the year 2000, Good Friends conducted surveys with North Korean adults in China on social conditions in North Korea. In the second survey, involving 521 respondents, approximately one quarter said they had experienced discrimination because of their family background. Less educated people claimed to have experienced discrimination in significantly greater proportion than well-educated people.63 When asked to name the prerequisites for tertiary education, a "good" family background was cited by the highest percentage (56.5 percent), slightly more than high test scores or talent (53.8 percent). Young people and people assigned to agricultural work tended to cite family background as a determining factor more often than other groups.64

The importance that the regime places on family background gives North Korea what is essentially a class system. Note that even though the upper classes know the most about what the rest of the world is like those consigned to the lower classes are most likely to flee. Pyongyang is populated by those who are at the top of the North Korean class system. North Koreans can not live in Pyongyang unless they have the right family background and demonstrate intense loyalty to the regime. Therefore it is less likely that the populace in Pyongyang will abandon the regime. The center will hold.

China is a hostile environment for North Korean refugees. The Chinese authorities will send back anyone they capture. China chooses to do this instead of letting the people pass on to South Korea. Due to the illegal nature of the passage thru China the cost of getting thru China to South Korea is quite high and ranges from about $10,000 to $30,000. Unless China changes its treatment of refugees the number of people making it out of North Korea to South Korea via China is going to remain fairly small.

However, the several dozen North Koreans who have gained safe passage after dashing into diplomatic compounds represent only a tiny fraction of those who ultimately leave China. Others purchase false identity papers and passports and fly out, usually with relatives in the South coordinating their quiet transit and alerting the South Korean government. Yet others are guided by brokers out of China via two main routes: either over the Mongolian border, or to Yunnan and there over the border to the Mekong River, usually transiting Cambodia, Vietnam, or Laos and sometimes Burma to eventually reach Thailand and the South Korean embassy in Bangkok.

The cost of transiting through China safely and crossing into another country varies considerably, depending on whether the refugee depends on the largesse of missionary or church groups or whether he or she has relatives who can pay and privately broker the escape. The more recent North Korean asylum seekers we interviewed estimated the total cost of bribes, false papers, and payoffs for shelter and guides to run between U.S.$10,000 to U.S.$30,000, a large enough sum to keep the number of successful departures from China relatively small.

China's treatment of North Korean refugees and its attempts to capture and return North Koreans attempting to escape from North Korea demonstrates how China's attitude toward North Korea is essential in propping up the North Korean regime. China provides economic aid, technology for North Korea's weapons development programs, and prevents North Koreans from escaping in large numbers.

Because the DMZ separating North and South Korea is a heavily fortified line it is rare for refugees to escape by fleeing south. Large concentrations of North Korean soldiers, mines, and other physical obstacles along the DMZ effectively close off a more direct route into South Korea.

In the July 25, 2002 edition of the Christian Science Monitor staff writer Robert Marquand wrote an excellent report on the growth of doubt and resentment in North Korea toward the North Korean regime. But the system of repression and control is still intact and functioning.

"No one will criticize Kim openly," says defector Kim Hyuk, who left North Korea in 1993 and now counsels refugees in Seoul. "But someone might say to another on the street who seems unhappy, 'What kind of country is this?' Five years ago, no one would dare say it." Mr. Hyuk recalls a childhood in a small town in central North Korea spent reading novels his father had to smuggle from Russia.

Still, few escapees believe a major social implosion is on the way. The binding cords of military and secret police, informers, and guards remain thickly interwoven, they say inside apartment complexes, on the street, in factories. North Koreans still can't travel outside their home district except with passes whose numeric codes change every month

Keep in mind that refugees couldn't reveal their true views to others before they fled and they certainly couldn't ask others what they thought of the regime. Those who hold views critical to the regime have to keep those views to themselves. This makes it very difficult to judge the views of most of the North Korean population. Also, those who decided to become refugees were very likely on average more dissatisfied with the regime and more likely to act on their dissatisfactions than the people who stayed behind.

One reason the development of serious opposition to the North Korean regime still seems unlikely is that political opposition is provided with none of the space it needs to organise and communicate.

When nonviolent uprisings fail, it is often because the governments leave so little political space in which opposition activists can organize without being arrested or worse, says John Crist at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "Nonviolent resistance campaigns work best in places where there is some access to democratic principles such as freedom of communications" he says.

While the trend in beliefs among North Koreans is moving in a favorable direction the effects of decades of propaganda are still strong.

To fight ideological contamination, North Korea's government for years taught citizens that goods from South Korea were laced with cyanide.

"North Koreans are brainwashed to believe that everything from the South has poison on it," Ms. Lee continued, admitting that this legend might prevent people from picking up radios or handbags left scattered over the countryside. But that taboo is wearing down with the influx of foreign aid and goods from China.

What is needed is to provide the North Koreans with more ways to learn about the outside world. Their isolation makes them much more gullible targets for the regime's propaganda.

From a January 15, 2003 AP report written by a South Korean journalist.

North Korea runs a museum south of Pyongyang where teachers take children to watch gory scenes of Korean villagers burned at stakes and other alleged American atrocities during the Korean War. Children emerge vowing to fight Americans, defectors say.

"Isolated as they are from the outside, they can't make independent judgments about what the state tells them," Cho says.

A December 16, 2002 report by a Japanese journalist provides indications that the indoctrination system in North Korea is still fairly strong.

Political indoctrination classes are required for all North Koreans, as are weekly "self-criticism" classes. All citizens are under the constant observation of "guardian-of-the-revolution" units that seek out "anti-socialist" elements. One must even be careful of what is said around family members. Unbending censorship via the official party line, steady brain-washing and ceaseless control is all the communist regime in Pyongyang has been able or willing to offer its citizens.

Here's a brief description from the KoreaScope site describing the pervasiveness of the ideological indoctrination in North Korea.

Under the catch phrase, "All the People Must be Remade into Juche-Oriented Communist Revolutionaries," North Korea has spurred citizens to undergo ideological indoctrination programs from the cradle to the grave. In the meantime, their lives as members of organizations, as well as their economic and social activities, have been under the strict control of the Party.

North Korean citizens are obliged to become members of relevant organizations from birth. Until age 6, children must attend nursery schools where they learn how to worship Kim Il- sung or Kim Jong-il, children ages 7 to 13 are members of the Juvenile Corps, from 14 to 30 they must be members of the Socialist Youth League, and from 31 to 65 they must join trade unions in relevant workshops, such as the Agricultural Union or the Democratic Women's Union.

From a November 2002 visit by Australian journalist Philip Williams:

Over the years I had read so much about the imminent fall of the DPRK empire, but after this brief visit, I'm not convinced the regime is anywhere near finished.

I say that because the entire population is swamped with Kim Il Sung propaganda from birth and on the surface at least, there doesn't appear to be any resistance.

The people have to feel life is better elsewhere if they are to demand change, and from what I heard, they really do believe that life in the North is as close to heaven on earth as they will get.

And with no foreign media polluting their minds, why would they ever believe otherwise?

Which makes the prospect of reunification with the South a tricky proposition.

From a UK government site this is entitled North Korea Bulletin 1/2002.

4.20. A major part of everyday surveillance is by the use of informants. They, along with all other secret police and espionage activities are organised by the State Security Agency, but specifically under the Counterintelligence Division. Informants are grouped into units of 50, with a security officer as handler. Each informant watches over 20 people. In total, there may be as many as 20,000 security officers and 1 million informants in North Korea. "About half of the entire North Korean population may have experienced working as an informant at one time or another." [7s]

US and allied intelligence services should find more avenues by which to get radios into North Korea. One approach would be to place rechargeable and rewindable radios in floating plastic bags off of North Korea's coasts. Another approach might be to try small balloons that could float the radios into North Korea. If corruption in the regime has advanced far enough it might be possible to bribe army officers and other members of the regime to smuggle radios in for distribution. Though it would be difficult to verify the proper distribution of the smuggled goods.

If you want to read more the North Korea's Tangled Web website specialises in linking to relevant articles about life in North Korea.

Update: Another reason that the Chinese border is where the bulk of refugees exit North Korea is the relative sizes of the border areas. From the CIA World Factbook on the lengths of North Korea's land boundaries:

border countries: China 1,416 km, South Korea 238 km, Russia 19 km

Update: There are important differences between East Germany in the 1980s and North Korea today. The biggest is historical. Before the Soviet Red Army overran the eastern part of Germany and set up an occupation the Germans were industrialized, highly literate, and had a lot of knowledge of other cultures. Located in Europe they were influenced by Christianity and classical Greek and Roman culture. They were worldly. Before the communist regime was established in North Korea the Japanese held Korea as a colonial possession. Their style of colonial rule did not (someone correct me if I'm wrong) encourage the development of literacy or the general intellectual development of the peoples they ruled. British rule in India was positively enlightened by comparison. The North Koreans do not have a memory of a more enlightened age that they could have learned from their parents and grandparents. Many cultural memes that might oppose communist doctrine are missing as compared to East Germany under communist rule. The North Koreans are historically and currently more isolated from the rest of the world than the East Germans ever were.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 01 11:22 PM  Korea

John Moore said at February 2, 2003 8:57 AM:

Totalitarian regimes seem to be immune from popular uprisings. The extremely fine grained security apparatus, backed up by special military units is enough to stop any change in its tracks. The USSR only fell because of actions of the apparachiks themselves, not the common populace. Its satellite nations fell for the same reason, or because of the tidal wave of action resulting from a relaxation of KGB control.

The Bolshevik-induced famines under Lenin and Stalin show that even large numbers of starving people can be contained by a relatively small but ruthless suppression force. The suppression forces are kept in line by rewards, ideology, implicit threats to their families, and often ethnic differences from those they suppress (Tthe forces putting down the Tiananmen Square uprising were from the provinces, and the Special Republican Guard is composed of Sunnis from Tikrit, not Shias from Baghdad).

The North Korean answer to the problem of millions of refugees is simple: machine guns.

There will continue to be refugees from North Korea, but I doubt their numbers will be enough to threaten the regime.

Randall Parker said at February 2, 2003 10:59 PM:

John, Thats exactly my point: The USSR fell apart. But the regimes in China and North Korea watched and learned from that result. They are not letting the sorts of trends to start developing that could lead to that outcome. Kim Jong-il is running a regime that might be locking up as much as 5% of its population. Corruption in the elite is matched by equal or greater elite corruption in China.

Someone can argue that some day China's regime will fall apart due to all its corruption. But there are lots of corrupt regimes in the world. So in what decade will each fall? If North Korea's regime hangs on for 10 years it will probably have already sold nukes. I don't see that North Korea is fated to fall apart in the next few years.

Jeff Brokaw said at February 3, 2003 4:21 AM:

That was very interesting - thanks! I agree this NK problem is a very thorny one. A pre-emptive strike may be the least bad of an array of bad choices, I hate to say.

Trent Telenko said at February 3, 2003 5:36 AM:

>Totalitarian regimes seem to be immune from popular

Ahem, please see Romania.

As for North Korea not falling if there is a mass bug out of people, I have two words: East Germany.

Western Reporters are prone to eating up disinformation from their Communist minders. That is why I posted what North Korean Defectors actually said about the regime over on Winds of Change.

This bias of the western media in favor of Communist totalitarians is nothing new. Does anyone remember what the New York Times polling predicted regards how the Sandanista's would do in their first free election?

And what the actual result were?

Randall Parker said at February 3, 2003 10:20 AM:


Romania's system of indoctrination and internal monitoring was weak as compared to North Korea's. Also, we are not the only ones who saw what happened in Romania. The NK regime saw it too and learned lessons. So did the regime in China. Also, the NK regime still has China as its patron.

North Korean defectors and reporters: Not all of my links were to articles written by visiting reporters. Be sure to read the Christian Science Monitor article about defectors. It is better on the subject than the more recent NY Times article that I also linked to. The biases of the western media do not make the NK regime any more unstable.

East Germany was different than North Korea in crucial ways. The East German public knew more about the outside world. East Germany was under occupation by Soviet troops when the Soviet Union fell apart. The East Germans didn't have anywhere near the level of concentration camp system. When the East Germans wanted to flee they could start fleeing thru Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovakian government wasn't making it hard for them to flee thru to West Germany. You can find other differences just off the top of your head. There had to be differences or else the NK regime would have fallen years ago.

Successful popular uprisings are rare events. Differences in circumstances matter.

Michael Lonie said at February 3, 2003 9:11 PM:

The key seems to be China. If China can be brought to see the insane NorK government as a bad thing for them, and to encourage rather than repel refugees, the deed might be accomplished. Religious groups, human rights groups, and the US can offer to pick up the tab for caring for the refugees and moving them to South Korea.

The best lever I can think of right now is "Do you want to see a nuclear armed Japan? If not, help get rid of NorK and reunify the peninsula. When that happens the US troops will leave, having completed their task." A reunified Korea, without nukes, would probably be much more comfortable for China than several nuclear armed states around there, including Japan. And a reunified Korea is likely to be friendlier to China than to Japan, so long as the memory of the Japanese colonial rule lasts and there is no actual threat to Korean independence from China.

Chris said at April 1, 2003 3:46 PM:

Michael, good point. Basically, the North Korean situation is intolerable, but less so for the US and more because her own people are the ones who are suffering. The situation has some similarities to Iraq, except that North Koreans are far poorer and also North Koreans have far less access to news about the outside world.

In fact, there is a good deal of evidence pointing to the strong possibility that if North Korea's people were somehow deluged with a diversity of information on the outside world that Kim Jong Il's regime would collapse. There is a group of people promoting the idea of dropping thousands or millions of tunable radios on NK, I think that this is a good idea. We should also send all food aid in by parachute instead of allowing the government to take and sell it.

A war would be terrible.. millions would die, so the Bush administration should avoid that option, even if they say that they are reserving it. I hope that both sides can show restraint. a war would be a bloodbath..

For an example of what North Korean prisons are like, read
this story:


Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Web parapundit.com
Go Read More Posts On ParaPundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright