Lankov on DPRK/ROK/PRC relations

From the Korea Times:

Elusive Welcome Mat
By Andrei Lankov
It is believed that some 40,000 to 80,000 North Koreans live in Northeast China, earning money through unskilled work, or living with their Chinese partners. Some five years ago, their number was much greater _ perhaps, up to 250,000.

At first sight, defection to South Korea would be the most logical next step for these people. After all, the South Korean Constitution does not recognize the existence of North Korean state, thus every North Korean is, by definition, a citizen of the Republic of Korea (ROK), eligible to special rights and protection. However, such defections are rare _ only a few thousand North Koreans have move to the South over the last few years. Why?

The major reason is the unwillingness of the South Korean government to help refugees gain safe conduct to Korea. When a refugee manages to contact the South Korean embassy or consulate in China, he or she does not find support there. Those who have relatives in the South can use the expensive services of people smugglers (at least, $5,000 up front), but the majority have no chance to get to the South without some official support _ and this support is not forthcoming.

Among those who have been denied assistance there have even been some who would have been seen as god-given propaganda gifts 10 or 15 years ago. In 1996, for example, the South Korean Embassy in Beijing was visited by a family of six whose father, an exemplary “shock worker,’’ was once granted a rare honour _ to have his picture taken with Kim Il-sung himself. The diplomats advised the family that they were unable to do anything for them and wished the would-be defectors good luck. But they had no such luck _ they were arrested, deported back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and severely punished. A 36-year-old military officer from an elite security unit fled to China in 1996. He spent 1996-2002 repeatedly applying for permission to move to the South. He contacted the South Korean Embassy a number of times but every time the diplomats advised him “be patient and wait.’’

A defector once told a South Korean journalist: “When I first fled the North I thought that it would be easy to go to South Korea. With the help of ethnic Koreans I arrived in Qingdao [China] in August 1996. But at the Korean Consulate, on which I had pinned all my hopes, [I] was told: ‘Under the present circumstances, this is difficult.’ [I felt like] the heavens collapsed.’’

Only those who represent an exceptional propaganda value (or have had access to very important intelligence) can count on official assistance these days.

Are you going to have an outburst of righteous disgust about “heartless Seoul bureaucrats?’’ Alas, it is not that easy. There are good reasons why the South Korean officials act in such a way…

First of all, the ROK does not wish to create problems with China, which carefully maintains its neutrality in the Korean conflict and does not wish to become a transition zone for crowds of refugees heading for Seoul. South Korean officials are also wary of ethnic Koreans from China who might try to pass themselves off as North Koreans to get access to ROK citizenship.

Admittedly, those refugees who manage to cross the border again, and reach the South Korean missions in South East Asia might count on better treatment and help. But the way across China is expensive and dangerous, especially since the Chinese police are on the lookout for likely refugees from North Korea.

Nevertheless, it appears that the major reason behind Seoul’s passivity is not a set of diplomatic calculations but a tacit understanding that refugees _ largely uneducated peasants _ have little hope of adjusting to South Korean society. Indeed, the defectors seldom fare well in the South _ in spite of the generous if recently curtailed aid packages. Encouraging defection would entail a great increase in spending on the already large aid programs.

In addition, Seoul does not want to destabilize its ex-enemy. A large-scale exodus of North Koreans to the South would likely cause a serious political crisis in Pyongyang. This is exactly the scenario that South Korean diplomacy strives to prevent: in recent years the notion of “German-type unification’’ is seen as a nightmare, to be avoided at all costs. Economic considerations play a major role, but one should not forget the remote but real chance that a cornered Pyongyang would start a new Korean War as a last resort.

Are these considerations sufficient enough to justify inaction? Frankly, I do not know. Alas, in real life people often have to make difficult choices between two evils, and attempts to present such choices in black-and-white are likely to lead to more tragedies. Seoul’s policy toward the North in the recent decade has been a basket of choices between bad and worse _ even though politicians were wise enough not to call a spade a spade, guarding the feelings of the majority who prefer to comfortably see the world in black and white. But that is another story…


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