2003 March 23 Sunday
On The Plight Of The North Koreans

First we look at aid flowing into North Korea and where it is going. Then we look at the North Koreans who, out of desperation and hunger, try to leave North Korea to get food in China and to get to a country where they are less likely to starve to death or to be killed.

In a 2001 article Fiona Terry of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) explains why Médecins Sans Frontières withdrew from North Korea.

Refugee testimonies corroborate this: some report having carried food from military storage to nurseries before a UN visit, and others speak of being mobilised to dig up areas to exacerbate flood damage in preparation for a UN inspection.

MSF began to understand that the North Korean government categorises its population according to perceived loyalty and usefulness to the regime, and those deemed hostile or useless were expendable. In fact, in 1996, Kim Jong-il publicly declared that only 30% of the population needed to survive to reconstruct a victorious society. With no possibility of directing aid to those most in need, MSF withdrew.

A May 14, 2001 Le Monde article by Philippe Pons shows Kim Dae-Jung's Sunshine Policy has done little to help the North Korean people.

Since the visit of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to Pyongyang, it appears that the prisoners are treated better: "In general, if we are caught going to or coming back from China, we are interrogated, beaten with clubs, and robbed of everything we have. But it seems like Kim Jong-il has said that refugees are harmless and that as a consequence should not be beaten anymore," says the wood carrier. Apart from this he sees no change: "When Kim DJ came, we had great hopes. We thought that all would be fixed. And then nothing changed. Today, we expect nothing. We even wonder whether he really came." Does the population accept this situation? "To revolt? It's unthinkable! If you raise your head, it is chopped. You and your family," he says.

All refugees know that their country receives foreign aid. But few among them claim having received any. The wood carrier heard on South Korean radio (which is forbidden) that tons of rice had arrived from South Korea and the US. "I never saw any of it, and I wonder if the South didn't lie about that," he says. In Chongjin, a youth heard that when a ship carrying aid is unloaded under UN watch, the military dresses as civilians and maneuvers to take everything. Another refugee from Onsong says that several times he carried aid bags in 1997 and 1998 from a hangar where the food was stocked "in case of war" to a kindergarten, in anticipation of a UN inspection.

Has food aid to North Korea simply allowed the North Korean regime to spend less money to import food so that it can spend the money on importing arms and supplies for its military? Had there never been any foreign aid at all would there be any fewer people alive in North Korea today?

Suzanne Scholte, President of Defense Forum Foundation, says the aid is going to the North Korean military.

We hear again and again from defectors that they never saw any humanitarian aid. When Colonel Choi testified in the US in 1997, he said that 100% of the aid was being diverted. He said while the NGOs are present, the aid is distributed to the families, but as soon as the NGO trucks drive out of town, the army goes back in and takes all the food back. Furthermore, when I was in Tokyo in 1999 at the International Forum on North Korean Returnees hosted by Professor Haruhisa Ogawa, I stated that all humanitarian aid should be stopped. It was controversial at the time and not many people would join me in this demand. But after my remarks, two Japanese women secretly approached me. They had recently been to North Korea to see their families. They confirmed exactly what Colonel Choi said. Their families were forced to sign papers stating they had received a certain quantity of rice, but the army took the rice as soon as the NGOs left the area. But the paper signed by the family was shown to the NGOs to convince them the aid had been received by the family.

The North Korean refugees are badly treated by the governments of China and North Korea and the South Koreans are for the most part not happy to see them showing up in South Korea.

North Koreans who manage to make it to South Korea have to spend a year under control of the government before being allowed out into society. One of the reasons cited by the South Korean government for this approach is the understandable fear of spies. However, another reasons is to keep out Korean-Chinese.

But a NIS spokesperson said the reason "might be that you can't do a press conference when you don't even know if they are real refugees or not." They could be Korean-Chinese from China trying to sneak into Korea disguised as defectors to work illegally, or they could be spies, he said. Fair enough, except it is hard to see what the security risk is here. And why would any self-respecting North Korean spy pick such a difficult way to get into porous South Korea?

The reference to Korean-Chinese is meant in the same way that one uses hyphenation of ethnicity and nationality in the United States. There are a large number of ethnic Koreans who have long lived in China as Chinese citizens.

The Northeast of China has a 2 million-strong ethnic Korean minority, is home to some of its worst performing State Owned Enterprises, and its cities "boast" near 40 percent unemployment.

Think about this. There are over 20 million North Koreans living a horrible existence. Some starve to death every day. Others are either outright killed by the government or die from the abuse of torture and from being kept in horrible prisons. As a result there are estimates of North Koreans living in Northeast China that run from 100,000 and up as high as 300,000. In the face of this the South Korean government is not making a large concerted effort to help the North Koreans living in China to make it to South Korea. The South Korean government is more concerned with keeping Korean-Chinese out of South Korea.

Those Korean-Chinese are in China in part due to the legacy of Japanese colonial rule over North and Manchuria. Some were also sent there (willingly? Its not clear) during the earlier years of Mao's reign in China. North Korean refugees in China attempt to pretend to be Korean-Chinese in order to blend in.

One can find terrible suffering and injustice in many parts of the world. But in terms of lack of freedom and sheer repressiveness North Korea has no peers. Next door to it is a highly advanced and industrialized society populated by people of the same ethnicity. You might expect South Korea to be eager to help the North Koreans who make it to China. After all, in theory at least all North Koreans are eligible for South Korean citizenship.

South Korea has a long-standing policy of accepting North Korean refugees. However, as the number of North Korean refugees increased, procedures for acceptance became longer and the package offered by South Korea to new refugees was reduced. Recently several court rulings were issued which determined that every North Korean was, according to the South Korean constitution also a South Korean. It is not clear yet how these court rulings will influence asylum procedures. North Korean refugees who have been accepted by South Korea appear to have considerable difficulties adjusting to South Korean society.

One comes across accounts of North Koreans who have made it out of China and into other countries who are waiting in those countries to get visas to travel to South Korea.

The number of North Koreans who have made it all the way to South Korea since 1954 is pitifully small.

The US wants neighboring countries to help allow the escape of North Koreans, hoping that emigration can speed up regime change in North Korea, much as it did in Eastern Europe. South Korea's Constitution provides that North Koreans can become citizens of the South, but only about 2,000 North Korean refugees have been accepted since 1954. China asserts that North Koreans are economic migrants, and has since 1999 refused to allow the UNHCR to interview those in China. The US is expected to pressure the new South Korean government to accept more North Koreans, thus encouraging China to establish refugee camps.

There are people who think that the North Korean regime could be brought down by a massive outflux of refugees. Keep that in mind as you read along here.

The incredibly small number of North Koreans who make it to South Korea are already viewed as a problem in South Korea.

The first gathering of international NGOs to discuss North Korean human rights in October 1999 originally placed this issue on the bilateral agenda between Beijing and Seoul (see "Deepening Intimacy and Increased Economic Exchange," Comparative Connections, Vol. 1, No. 3). Estimates of the number of North Korean refugees illegally staying primarily in Jilin and Liaoning Provinces in the PRC range from official estimates of 10,000-30,000 to unofficial estimates of 100,000-300,000. From the mid-1990s, the flow of North Korean defectors has increased exponentially to over 148 in 1999, over 312 in 2000, and over 583 last year. This year, defections are occurring at a slightly higher rate than in 2001, and the adaptation of North Korean defectors to South Korean society is a social strain that is just beginning to emerge in Seoul.

Put these numbers into perspective. South Korea has a total population of 48 million people. They could easily absorb all the North Koreans currently hiding in China. If the South Korean government really cared it would be trying very hard to help the North Koreans in China to reach South Korea. Instead, the work of helping the North Koreans in China is carried out by private groups with no official support. These groups are being cracked down on by the Chinese government and their effectiveness is decreasing.

While the number of North Koreans who have made it to South Korea has risen dramatically in the last few years the total number of refugees who make it to South Korea is still an incredibly small percentage of the total number of refugees who try to leave North Korea.

Some 538 North Koreans resettled in South Korea in 2001, double the number of resettlers or defectors in 2000; a total of 2,000 North Koreans live in the south. Between January and March 2002, 162 North Koreans have reached South Korea. The numbers are expected to climb as more North Koreans flee the chronic food shortages and extraordinary isolation that make life so difficult at home. However, once in the south, many have a hard time integrating - their unemployment rate is very high, and many live entirely on government assistance.

The number who make it from China to South Korea is well less than 1 percent of the number who make it as far as China.

While I haven't been able to find a figure for the total number of North Korean refugees who made it to South Korea in 2002 the 162 number for the first quarter probably translates into a number that is less than 1,000 for the entire year of 2002. That figure might represent a high point because China is cracking down on the North Koreans living in China.

The humanitarian aid workers who attempt to rescue North Korean refugees face the brutal determination of the Chinese authorities, who deem the assistance of North Korean refugees as a criminal offense... Predictably, in this context, support for North Korean refugees in distress is diminishing and assisting them has become a challenge that increasingly few aid organizations, crushed by this sanction policy, are able to undertake.

In late 2002 China launched a massive effort to hunt down the North Koreans living in China to return them to North Korea.

Within the past three years, China has arrested and forcibly repatriated thousands of North Koreans in flight from their own country in search of asylum and assistance. Since early December 2002, as a way to definitively eliminate the embarrassing question of North Korean refugees, China has launched a new manhunt in collusion with North Korean security services. As of mid-January 2003, 3200 North Korean civilians in China have already been repatriated as a result of this so-called "100 day campaign". 1300 others are awaiting their repatriation in the detention centers of Tumen and Longjing. The systematic and organized dragnet taking place in China leaves North Korean refugees no other alternative than a desperate flight to a third country, at the risk of their very lives.

It is difficult to know how successful this campaign has been. Some sources claim that the number of North Korean refugees in China has dropped by a full order of magnitude. However, without access to secret Chinese and North Korean figures about the rate of deportation of people back into North Korea it's hard to know how credible those estimates are.

South Korea says it can't do much about the refugees but it really doesn't want to anyway.

South Korea feels that it must tread lightly, given the geopolitical realities. Foreign Minister Soon Young Hong took some heat for his cautious attitude.[13] Although some NGOs have called attention to the refugees' plight,[14] The South Korean media have been discouraged from reporting on the problem. In 1999, only 149 North Koreans were accepted as immigrants. True, that was more than double the number of defectors allowed to immigrate to the South during the previous five years. However, the number is small in comparison with how many would like to come. The government is ill-equipped to handle incoming refugees, and there is little support among the South Korean population for a large influx of Northerners.

This "tread lightly" comment is nonsense. The Chinese government wants South Korean investment, know-how and trade. South Korea has levers it could use with China if South Korea really cared about the North Korean refugees.

So let's summarize. China sees North Korean refugees as a nuisance and as competitors for jobs in an economically depressed region. Plus, China doesn't want a large outflux of refugees from North Korea to bring down the North Korean regime because China wants North Korea as a buffer against bad democratic and American influences. Also, China doesn't want its own people to see a nearby regime be overthrown since such an event might give Chinese people ideas.

South Korea wants to keep their poor ethnic distant relatives north of the border. South Korea also wants to do business with China without having the refugees complicating business relations.

Let's be clear about this. The policies of the South Korean and Chinese governments toward the North Korean people are morally reprehensible. The South Koreans (with exception of some Christian South Korean private groups and perhaps some other private groups) only care about themselves in South Korea. The Chinese leaders mainly care about their maintaining their control of their own regime. These folks are not exactly overwhelmed with compassion for their fellow man.

In light of all of this it is not surprising that these countries are similarly not being incredibly helpful in response to US attempts to prevent North Korea from becoming a Nuclear KMart to the world. After all, if they are not going to care about about 20 million people close by who live on the brink of starvation (or who pass over the brink daily) why are they going to care about the fate of people living in distant cities who might get nuked by terrorists who may some day acquire nuclear weapons from the North Korean regime?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 March 23 04:28 PM  Korea

Michael said at March 23, 2003 7:20 PM:

Then it seems that crafting a balance of power system there is our only real option.No one seems to have any real interest in changing the staus quo.What we can do without substantial support is severly limited.So,slowly(or not so slowly) disengage and let China,SK and Japan deal with it.Our contemplation of leaving SK certainly prompted a quick change in tone there and I suspect that if the choice for China is NK or a nuclear armed Japan,they might suddenly discover that NK isn't that important to them after all.

Randall Parker said at March 23, 2003 9:56 PM:

As I've previously discussed, if Haesook Chae is correct then China may be willing to accept Japan as a nuclear power.

We have a problem: North Korea as a nuclear power is North Korea as Nuclear KMart. Withdrawal from the scene may lead to disaster for our cities.

razib said at March 24, 2003 2:52 AM:

great article randall! the "sunshine policy" will probably seem as moronic in hindsight as ostpolitik. the problem with democracies with a liberal inclination is that they are just too liberal with despotisms in giving them the benefit of the doubt.

as far the north korean regime goes-from all i've read, it seems that they have revived the ancient egyptian god-king polity.

Shelly said at May 20, 2004 1:22 AM:

Reuters reporter that Juliana Liu has a report from Dandong, China on the North Korean refugee situation from the perspective of Chinese people who have close ties with North Koreans on the other side of the border.

She quotes a laid-off Chinese factory worker:

"North Korean women make good wives. They are beautiful and hard-working," he said, echoing an oft-repeated view. "It doesn't cost much to buy a North Korean girl for a wife and just a few thousand kwai (hundreds of dollars) to get them a residency permit."

What a Shame !

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