Difficulties for Defectors in the Era of Rapprochement with North Korea
November 6, 2018
During the last two and a half decades, one of the key North Korean humanitarian and human rights issues has been citizens of the North who choose to leave and flee to China. Those who are not forcibly returned generally go elsewhere. By far the largest number go to South Korea, and since the 1990s almost 32,000 of these “defectors” have resettled there. Slightly more than 200 have come to the United States, and several hundred have resettled in Europe, with the largest number locating in the United Kingdom.
The term most often used for these refugees from the North is “defectors,” a term which generally is considered negative. When it is applied to those fleeing North Korea, however, it assumes a more positive association, because they are leaving the country with one of the world’s worst human rights records. As knowledge of the wretched humanitarian and political conditions in North Korea has become better known over the last two decades, sympathy for and interest in North Korean defectors has grown.
Impact on Refugees of Rapprochement with North Korea
South Korea has given generous support to defectors, aided and supported them to build new lives in the South, and, when conservative governments were in power, used the defector issue to tarnish the North and highlight its human rights abuses.
As President Moon Jae-in’s policy of engagement with the North moves forward, however, it may well prove to be inconsistent with past official support for defectors. The North clearly would like to see an end to Seoul’s support for defectors. It undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the Kim regime. At the same time, if the South abandons its support for defectors, it would undermine the principle that all Koreans, North and South, are entitled to political, economic, and cultural freedoms that make the South attractive to its brothers and sisters in the North.
Another complication is that most of the defectors in the South who are politically active are on the conservative side of the political spectrum. They want to continue their past efforts to launch balloons into the North with brochures and USB flash drives containing news and information. They are among the most critical of the Kim regime and the most credible when they speak out.
In South Korea, the latest government budget reflects the significant shift in priorities—inter-Korean cooperation receives a boost while aid for defectors and for human rights efforts are slashed.
U.S. President Donald Trump likewise will face some of the same issues if there is a continuing effort to move forward on engagement between the United States and North Korea focused on denuclearization. In his State of the Union Speech nine months ago, President Trump devoted 10 percent of his text to North Korea, with a strong focus on human rights and centered on the presence of defectors from the North sitting with the First Lady in the House Chamber for that occasion. Just a few days later, the President met with a group of eight defectors in the Oval Office to express respect for their courage and show support for their efforts. Since last February, however, we have heard little or nothing from the White House about defectors or human rights in North Korea.
Defectors in South Korea
In the 1990s many North Koreans fled to China as a result of famine and the desperate need to find food. The Chinese government did not welcome the North Koreans, and those found by police authorities in China were returned to the North. The government in Pyongyang also sought to prevent the outflow of persons, but conditions were desperate in the North.
South Korean and other international humanitarian organizations sought to aid North Korean refugees in Northeast China. Initially, with the help of Christian missionaries and others, North Koreans were able to reach South Korea. Most defectors left by way of Mongolia, but as Chinese authorities closed off that option by 2008, they since have left through Southeast Asia. Most receive help to make the complicated trip from discrete non-government organizations and brokers who are paid by family members.
South Korea is the principal destination for a number of reasons. The language and culture are much the same, although there are differences. Most of the organizations involved in helping the defectors are South Korean, and the South Korean people feel a sense of obligation and responsibility for the Northern refugees. The South Korean government has a well-developed program to assist defectors.
Furthermore, many South Koreans have family from the North from whom they were separated during the Korean War (1950-1953) or family who came to the South in recent decades. Although the North prohibits international phone calls by its citizens and there is no mail or other communication service, people have been able to communicate and keep in touch with family members across the border.
Once North Koreans have been vetted, they are eligible to become full citizens of South Korea. With other countries, including the United States, initial asylum status is more limited and citizenship takes longer. South Korea is also generous in aiding new refugee arrivals. (See reports on foreign journalists allowed to visit a refugee resettlement center. The Los Angeles Times and the BBC published reports about the South Korean process.)
Refugees in the United States and Europe
Few defectors choose to go to the United States. The number of North Koreans who came to the United States between 2006 and mid-2018 was 214. The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 included provisions for special attention to North Korean defectors, but despite the expectation that large numbers would choose the United States, that number is a tiny fraction of the number who have gone to South Korea.
The language and cultural differences in coming to the United States are significant, but refugees are also bombarded by anti-American rhetoric and propaganda throughout their lives in the North. The anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, when North Korean troops invaded the South in 1950, is a celebration of anti-Americanism. One journalist described it: “Fist-pumping, flag-waving and slogan-shouting masses of Pyongyang residents normally assemble each year for the rally to kick off a month of anti-U.S. Korean War-focused events designed to strengthen nationalism and unity.” North Koreans, who have gone through this all their lives, generally do not have positive feelings about the United States.
In addition to the North Korean defectors who have gone to South Korea and the United States, a number have also chosen to go to Europe. The largest number go to the United Kingdom. As of March 2018, the Home Office had granted asylum in Britain to 544 North Koreans. That is two-and-a-half times the number who have come to the United States, but still a tiny fraction of the number who have gone to South Korea.
North Korean Efforts to Halt Defections
The number of defectors who have chosen to leave North Korea is impressive, particularly since the difficulty of leaving the North makes it extremely dangerous. The North has undertaken an aggressive two-pronged effort to discourage defection.
First, border security in North Korea has been tightened under Kim Jong-un. Areas immediately adjacent to the border with China are off-limits to anyone who does not live in the immediate border zone. The only border that defectors cross to leave illegally is the China-North Korea border. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the North and South is so heavily fortified and guarded that it is virtually impossible to cross. On the few occasions when a soldier on duty in that area has attempted to cross the DMZ, he has been shot. On the frontier with China, North Korean border guards are trained and instructed to be tough on attempting defectors. Soldiers have been replaced, punished, and even executed when they fail to detect and stop a defection. There are frequent reports of border guards killing would-be defectors. Family members who remain in the North when relatives defect are routinely punished and even executed, even though they generally have little idea that their defecting relatives are leaving.
The second element of North Korean policy to stem the refugee exodus is a campaign to make the South appear a less attractive place for people from the North. Manipulation of information and control of the news media makes this relatively easy. The Kim regime engaged in a major media effort in 2012 and 2013 to discourage defections with seven major media events. These events featured defectors who had returned to the North after they became disillusioned with life in the South. These “re-defectors” gave extended reports about how difficult conditions were in the South and they were obsequiously grateful that the new leader Kim Jong-un welcomed them back. There is little concrete information to judge how accurate these reports were or whether they were based on coercion and coaching by the Pyongyang media manipulators.
There is no question that some North Koreans who went to the South have a sincere and uncoerced desire to return to the North, but it is also true that defectors have been blackmailed and manipulated into returning. The number who would like to return to the North is likely quite small. Raising questions about life in the South makes those in the North more cautious about making the tough choice to abandon friends and family in the North for an uncertain life in the South.
The Role of China
The Chinese have made defections difficult. They are anxious to protect and control their own borders and the border area, as any country seeks to do. Chinese authorities take tough action to eliminate illegal border crossings by North Koreans, even if the defectors are motivated to take drastic measures to find food or help their families and even if their ultimate aim is to quickly leave China and go to South Korea or elsewhere. The default Chinese position is to return defectors to the North where they are severely punished. For China, there seems to be little humanitarian concern in this default position.
The Chinese, however, temper their policy toward North Korean refugees not for humanitarian reasons but for broader foreign policy considerations. When relations with Pyongyang are good, the Chinese return to North Korea any defectors they capture illegally entering China. But there are also times when the Chinese seek to curry favor with Seoul or to show displeasure toward Pyongyang. In such cases, defectors will be handed over to the South Koreans, usually quietly. In April 2016, for example, when the Chinese were not happy with Kim Jong-un’s nuclear testing, 12 North Korean waitresses and their North Korean manager flew directly from China to Seoul—something that rarely if ever happens, and something that could not happen unless the Chinese knowingly permitted it. (This subsequently proved to be controversial when charges were made that the waitresses were tricked into defecting.) The one thing that is clear, however, is that Chinese action in a particular case has little to do with humanitarian concern for the victims involved.
Reunification, Security Policy, and Human Rights
Neither South Korea’s search for reconciliation and reunification with North Korea nor the United States’ quest for denuclearization of the North are good bedfellows with the pursuit of human rights in North Korea. And it appears that the human rights concerns of defectors are quietly overlooked as Washington and Seoul seek reunification and security goals.
The irony is that ignoring the human rights issues will ultimately doom the search for unification and security. Democratic values, respect for human rights, and the rule of law have become a part of South Korea’s culture. It seems highly unlikely that South Koreans will surrender their freedoms and material well-being for reunification, and the leadership of the North Korean regime is unlikely to cede its political control and privileges for the goal of reunification. If the North Korean regime can be pressed to make greater concessions on human rights for its own people, the possibility of reunification is certainly greater.
Likewise, Washington’s demands for security and stability in Northeast Asia are unlikely to be satisfied by Pyongyang, no matter how much U.S. leaders ignore North Korea’s horrific human rights abuses. On the other hand, if there is a free flow of information available to North Koreans and if there is greater engagement between North Koreans and Americans, reduction in hostility and tensions would likely lead to greater success in achieving security and stability.
The Kim regime needs to feel pressure from its own people for access to consumer goods, for a voice in choosing their future, for the right to view South Korean soap operas, for the ability to live and travel where they choose, and to devote fewer national resources to forces of military coercion and more to their quality of life. If the regime does not feel such pressures, there is little incentive to make progress on security or reunification with the United States and South Korea. Ignoring human rights does not make the abuses go away, nor does ignoring abuses increase the desire or will of the Kim regime to reach an agreement on security issues in the long run, pressing on human rights is the necessary requirement for progress on security and reunification.
Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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