Borderline Issues

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

The recent refugee crisis in China attracted much attention to the situation around the border between the two countries. Indeed, in recent decades the porous border with China has provided the major exit opportunities for both would-be defectors to the South and refugees escaping the food shortages and poverty of the North.

Most Communist countries guarded their borders against both intruders who tried to get in, and against defectors who wanted to run away from the not-so-perfect Communist paradises. From this point of view, the border with China constitutes a serious challenge. It follows two rivers _ the Amnok and the Tuman (Chinese read the same characters as Yalu and Tumen). Both are shallow in the upper streams, and completely freeze every winter. Thus, a determined defector or smuggler can always find his or her way across the border. At least until the late 1950s _ despite of the persistent efforts of both Korean and Chinese security agencies _ smugglers systematically crossed into China and back.

In the 1950s it was not only smugglers who moved across the border. Some of that human traffic included a number of North Korean dignitaries who chose to run away to China instead of being purged. One of the most famous incidents of this kind took place in early September 1956. On August 31 of that year a group of prominent North Korean leaders openly challenged Kim Il-sung’s policy at the plenary meeting of the KWP Central Committee. They wanted to replace him with a more moderate leader, but their proposal was voted down and they were immediately put under house arrest. They appeared to be doomed, but their ingenuity helped them to find a way out (they were former underground activists, after all!). In the middle of the night the rebels managed to secretly leave the house and then drove away in a car provided by a sympathetic friend. They easily reached the border and then proceeded to China where they were eventually granted asylum. Their example was later followed by other dissenting officials.

There was a movement from China as well. At the end of the 1960s, when the “cultural revolution” was at its height, some ethnic Koreans from China fled to the DPRK which in those years was a more stable and prosperous society. Since the relations with China were quite bad in the late 1960s, these refugees were not extradited and stayed in the North.

The ethnic composition of the region is favourable for those who, for whatever reason, want to make a clandestine border crossing. There are two million ethnic Koreans in China, and most of them live close to the border. Many ethnic Koreans have relatives in North Korea, and a small number of them are even technically DPRK citizens _ the so-called chogyo (in 1997 the number of chogyo was estimated at 6,000 or some 0.3 percent of the Korean population in the region).

On the other hand, in the DPRK there are a small number of ethnic Chinese or huaqiao. The ethnic Chinese from the DPRK and ethnic Koreans from the People’s Republic were allowed to visit their relatives throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when the governments of both countries tried to minimize the foreign contacts of their citizens. Their status was unique _ and widely used for commercial purposes. This trade, however, seldom if ever required illegal border crossings. In most cases, the traders arrived with proper visitor’s visas and large sacks of merchandise.

Generally speaking, the border with China was never protected well, especially when compared with the DMZ, arguably the world’s most heavily protected border. This was deemed unnecessary. The North Korean authorities believed that the runaways would be, in all probability, apprehended by the Chinese police and then extradited back to the North. Of course, occasionally the Chinese might have made a political decision about granting asylum to a disgruntled cadre, but it was too unusual a circumstance to warrant an expensive upgrade of the border protection system. In essence, the Chinese police served as a better deterrent to those with defection in mind than North Korean guards.

And there was not much incentive to run away _ at least for commoners. North-East China was one of the poorest parts of the PRC, and until the late 1980s North Koreans enjoyed much higher standards of living than their brethren across the border.

Things changed dramatically in the early 1990s. From that time, the movement across the border _ both legal and illegal _ began to increase until it developed into a full-scale refugee crisis soon after 1995.


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