Lankov on North Korean defection numbers

Lankov writes in the Asia Times:

First, large-scale movement from North Korea is a recent phenomenon. In 2001, merely 1,200 North Koreans resided in the South (the population of South Korea was slightly below 50 million). This number included all former residents of North Korea who had managed to flee to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

One should not be surprised by such low numbers: Until the late 1990s, North Korea remained a hyper-Stalinist society, and escape was next to impossible to all but members of few privileged groups (diplomats and students overseas, soldiers from the front-line units, sailors and fishermen). So until the early 1990s, in the average year merely four of five North Koreans fled to the South. In the early 1990s, the numbers began to be counted in dozens, but the real growth began around 2000 when the number of arrivals came to be counted in hundreds and then thousands.

By December 2011, there were 23,000 ex-Northerners residing in Seoul. In recent few years, the average annual number of arriving refugees has fluctuated around the 2,700-2,900 mark.

This dramatic increase has been brought about by a number of interconnected factors. First, one should mention the quiet but quite dramatic disintegration of North Korea’s “National Stalinism”. Nowadays the state is less able (and, perhaps, less willing) to control its subjects and therefore it has become much easier to reach the poorly guarded Chinese border, especially if you live in the northern part of the country. Border controls have been intensified of late and the number of border crossers has therefore declined since 2008, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, the border was in essence unguarded.

Changes in China have played a role as well. Before the 1990s, few North Koreans would consider an escape to China an attractive option – and even if they did, they still would have hard time surviving there. Now the illegal migrants can find (poorly paid) jobs and (bad) accommodation with little difficulty.

In the late 1990s when North Koreans fled famine at home and moved to China in large numbers, there might have been a quarter of a million refugees hiding in China, but nowadays the numbers are much smaller (even though old figures are often cited). No reliable statistics are available, but 10,000-40,000 North Koreans are estimated to be hiding in China, usually in the northeast where there is a large – and often sympathetic – ethnic-Korean minority.

Second, the decision to leave the North is seldom motivated by politics. North Korean refugees are often described as “defectors”, but this term is misleading. I have been doing research involving refugees for 10 years, and have met hundreds of them; only a tiny fraction of them left because of their political disagreements with the regime.

This constitutes the major difference between North Korean refugees and those defectors who left the Communist Bloc countries during the Cold War. Defectors of that era tended to be well educated, and politics played at least some role in their decision to flee. North Korean refugees are different.

Most refugees did not even plan to go to South Korea in the first place – not least because, being poor farmers or semi-skilled workers, they had no clue about the actual situation in the South. Most of them first moved to China in search of better living conditions and higher incomes.

In the late 1990s, refugees fled starvation at home, but over the past 10 years they have been attracted by the money to be made in China – an unskilled worker in the borderland provinces makes US$50-$75 a month, plus free accommodation and as much rice as he or she can eat. For North Koreans, whose formal monthly salary seldom exceeds $2, this is an exorbitant sum.

When in China, North Korean refugees therefore take badly paid (by Chinese standards, that is), dangerous and unskilled jobs in construction, the timber industry and the service sector. Some of them were involved in smuggling while many women became a kind of mail-order bride, having married those farmers who would otherwise have little chance to succeed at the competitive Chinese marriage markets (divorcees, widowers with children, drug abusers or just really poor people).

Nowadays, women constitute a majority of the refugees – largely because it is much easier for them to evade official surveillance in North Korea, but also because in China they have less trouble blending in.

The Chinese government refuses to recognize North Koreans as refugees and grant them protection under the relevant international conventions. They are instead seen as illegal economic migrants and if caught they are likely to be sent back to North Korea.

Once back in his or her homeland, a refugee is investigated (which for men implies a lot of beating). If found guilty of contacting foreigners, South Koreans or Christian activists, he or she might be sent to prison for years. However, such treatment is an exception rather than norm. Most stay in a prison camp for some months (if unlucky, up to a year).

Until recently, the Chinese authorities have not gone out of their way to locate North Korean refugees. Nonetheless, the police do investigate reports about businesses that employ illegal North Koreans and occasionally check the documents of suspicious-looking pedestrians. Therefore the chances of being apprehended and sent back are quite real, albeit relatively low.

Most refugees were low down in the hierarchy back in the heyday of North Korea’s National Stalinism and they remain downtrodden now, even as the economy is dominated by black-market activities. Having moved to China, many discover that the real South Korea is very different from the country that is described by Pyongyang propaganda. They talk to Chinese-Koreans, they watch South Korean programs on Chinese TV and quickly learn that South Korea is one of the most advanced and affluent societies of East Asia. It seems only natural therefore that many of them would come to prefer the South over insecure and hard living in China.

That said, it is easier to talk about moving from northeastern China to South Korea than actually to do so. South Korean missions in China seldom provide Northern refugees any assistance. To warrant the attention of South Korea’s diplomats, one has to be somebody like an air force colonel or district party secretary. Lesser beings are ignored – mainly because Seoul does not want to deal with too many refugees, but also because China would be unhappy about a large-scale exodus of North Koreans through its territory. South Korean diplomats do their best not to anger China, and they ignore most refugees. And here we come to another important – and often misunderstood – third point about the refugees.

Escape from North Korea has long been commercialized. Since an individual escape is prohibitively difficult and risky for the average refugee, she can take chances only when assisted and escorted by professional escape guides, known as brokers. Currently there are some 40-50 people who are active in this risky but profitable business. Most of the brokers are South Koreans, but some of them are Chinese, and successful ex-refugees are also present in the profession.

To get to the South, an aspiring refugee first has to leave China somehow. For the average refugee, a poorly educated middle-aged woman, this is a daunting task indeed. One has to navigate the whole Chinese mainland (usually with little or no command of Mandarin) and then cross into one of the countries where there is a supposedly friendly South Korean embassy. By far the most popular destination is Thailand, but some travel to Mongolia, Vietnam or Laos. There the refugees enter the embassy and/or surrender to the local authorities and wait for their travel documents and tickets to Seoul.

In the past, some brokers were motivated by religious or ideological convictions, but now such idealism has disappeared almost completely. Over the past decade or so, nearly all brokers work for money, pure and simple.

And prices have gone up recently, because of tightened border security on the North Korean side and more intense Chinese crackdowns. The price varies in accordance with the service level provided.

The average “no-frills defection” used to cost $2,500-$3,000; now brokers would charge few hundred dollars extra. For this money, a broker would escort a refugee from a borderland area of China to a safe house, then travel with a group of refugees across the country, arrange the border crossing and, finally, ensure her or his safe arrival to the gates of a South Korean embassy, usually in Bangkok or Hanoi.

A “VIP defection” would cost substantially more, somewhere in the region of $10,000-$15,000. But this would include a comfortable trip to Seoul on a commercial jet, using a forged passport, and the would-be refugee can be contacted within North Korean territory (the price includes a safe trip across the border).

In most cases this Sino-Korean version of the “underground railroad” works reasonably well, but sometimes things can take an ugly turn. Some aspiring refugees have died in the Mongolian desert or swamps in Southeast Asia.

And of course a ride on this underground railroad does not come cheaply. Even a “moderate” fee of $3,000 is an exorbitant sum for every North Korean who is not a corrupt party official or a successful black-market operator (and such people seldom defect). Even in China, a refugee would probably never earn enough to save that much – or, at best, it would take a decade or so.

In most cases nowadays, we see what can be described as “chain defections”. A North Korean gets herself to the South first. Once there, using social-security payments and doing some unskilled work, she saves enough money to pay a broker to bring her spouse or child to the South. Then the reunited family members work together to get funds for the safe passage of the rest of the family, so within a couple of years the whole family has moved to Seoul. I know of one family where this entire process took seven years (there are four people in the family).

That said, though, this system has to a very large degree been the result of China’s willingness to remain relatively lax and not crack down on this cross-border trafficking too frequently. The relaxed attitude of North Korea’s border guards is the other crucial ingredient, since their willingness to accept bribes or turn a blind eye out of sympathy is very important.

Alas, it seems of late the situation has begun to deteriorate, as the recent crackdown on refugees in China may indicate. After all, refugees are indeed a grave security concern for the North Korean regime, whose continued stability serves China’s strategic interests quite well.

Since 2008, the North Korean authorities have concurrently stepped up border security. Admittedly the border remains porous, but an aspiring border crosser must now pay more than ever before: A crossing might now cost the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, not the $20-$30 which was the rate in 2006.

So one should not be too surprised if the number of refugees starts either to decline or stagnate at current levels. But it seems unlikely that the North Korean government will be able to decrease their number dramatically or stop people leaving completely. The yawning gap in the living standards and the level of individual freedoms means that the South will remain attractive for a significant – and, in all probability, growing – number of North Koreans.

Read the full story here:
Underground railroad faces barriers
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov


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