Archive for the ‘Emigration’ Category

Defectors matter for the North Korean economy

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few days, the North Korean government has staged protests against the defector leaflets that have caused so much rumble lately. Or, perhaps more accurately, have been used as a convenient excuse for the North Korean government to ratchet things up. In any case. It need hardly be mentioned that these so-called protests are not necessarily reflective of any broader sentiments among the general public.

But this Radio Free Asia article highlights an interesting point, namely that for many North Koreans, remittances from family members abroad constitutes a significant source of income. It’s not really just a matter of individual families, either. Sums are high enough that they likely make a not insignificant contribution to the national economy as a whole. Remittances play a significant role for the economy in several impoverished countries, and channeled the right way, they could for economic development in North Korea too.

Some in the North in fact envy families with members in the South because they send cash remittances back home, sources in the country said.

“Even though the party is organizing a series of mass rallies to denounce the defectors, the people are envious of the defectors’ families,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service recently.

“Residents are being made to shout out slogans to condemn the defectors, but after the rally is over it sure is hard to find anyone saying bad things about defectors on their own,” the source said.

“This is because the families around us [with a member who] defected are living well despite the difficulties of the national economy,” the source added.

Most of those who send balloons to the North are called “defectors” in both Koreas, who remain in a formal state of war long after the Cold War ended elsewhere.

But rights groups draw a distinction between defectors, who fled the North as government or military officials, and refugees — ordinary citizens who escaped poverty or hunger in the region’s poorest country.

North Korea’s belligerent turn this month is seen by Pyongyang watchers as calculated to extract diplomatic or economic concessions from Seoul and Washington in a well-established pattern of crisis escalation.

Smuggling cash through China

However the international reaction plays out, inside the country, the government’s break with a longstanding policy of ignoring or playing down discussion of exiles in the South is making more ordinary North Koreans think about them.

“The more the party strengthens class-consciousness education against defectors and denounces them, the more that residents show the exact opposite reaction,” another source, a resident of Ryanggang province who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA.

“They continue to hold rallies against defectors, so there is a growing interest in the freedom enjoyed by the defectors who have settled in South Korea,” the second source said.

The exiles send money to their relatives in the North through intermediaries in China, who take a cut for arranging the smuggling of cash, usually Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars, across the porous Sino-North Korean border.

North Korean refugees in South Korea face social discrimination and many struggle economically as they are less competitive in South Korea’s cutthroat job market. But 62 percent of them sent money to friends and relatives in the North in 2018, according to a survey by a rights group.

The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, which interviewed 414 North Koreans in the South, found most forwarded $500-2,000 a year – significant sums where an official salary is worth about $5 a month.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 32,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea since 1998, including 1,047 last year.

The North Hamgyong source said that residents are complaining about having to attend rallies denouncing defectors.

“The people gripe about fatigue and they are discontent with the authorities’ ongoing rallies.

“They are critical of the authorities for focusing only on promoting the greatness of the Highest Dignity and creating a crisis against South Korea without solving the food problem that has befallen many residents at this difficult time,” the source said.  The Highest Dignity is an honorific term for Kim Jong Un.

(Source: Jieun Kim, Leejin Jun, Eugene Whong, “Official North Korean Fury at Defectors Belies Popular Envy of Remittances From Exiles,” Radio Free Asia, June 19th, 2020.)


Number of defectors up by around 17 percent in 2016

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Yonhap:

The number of North Korean defectors coming to South Korea rose 16.7 percent on-year in the first 11 months of the year, data showed Wednesday, as more elites and overseas workers chose to flee their home country.

A total of 1,268 North Koreans came to South Korea in the January-November period, compared with 1,086 the previous year, according to the Ministry of Unification.

As of end-November, the total number of North Korean defectors reached 30,062, it showed. The ministry said that the number of North Koreans coming to the South would reach around 1,400 this year, if it grows at the current pace.

The number of defectors reaching the South peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but the pace of growth has slowed down since 2011 as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has strengthened border control and surveillance over the country’s population.

But this year, the pace has picked up, helped by a rise in defections by North Korean elites and workers toiling overseas, the ministry said.

North Korea is pressing its diplomats and overseas workers to send hard currency earnings home as it is squeezed by tough sanctions handed down by the U.N. Security Council.

Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said that the imposition of international sanctions has promoted more North Korean elites to escape the regime.

“North Korea is showing a sensitive response to the U.N. sanctions and is being stifled (under the sanctions regime),” Hong said at a forum earlier in the day.

I wonder if there is actual quantitative evidence to back up the claim that the increase is caused by elite defections. The proportion shouldn’t be too hard to count, though I’m currently not aware of statistics on this.

Full article:
Number of N.K. defectors up 16.7 pct on-year in first 11 months
Yonhap News


Chinese companies requesting more North Korea guest workers

Friday, February 5th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Demand is increasing for North Korean guest workers among Chinese companies in the Sino-Korean border region, reports Joongang Ilbo. The Chinese labor force increasingly migrates to other regions for better wages and working conditions, and one company looking to recruit North Korean employees says one third of their Chinese workers left last year to find better-paying jobs elsewhere:

Companies in three northeastern Chinese provinces are vying to recruit as many North Korean workers as they can to capitalize on cheap labor costs – moves that run counter to the international community’s efforts to impose further economic sanctions on North Korea following the country’s fourth nuclear test early this month.

Chunwoo Textile, a company based in Dandong, Liaoning Province, lost 100 of some 300 workers last year to factories operating in other provinces because wages were much higher there.

China’s northernmost provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang reputedly offer much cheaper wages for labor-intensive workers compared to other regions.

In Dandong, the average monthly wage stands at 2,843 Chinese yuan ($431.90), much less than the 5,313 yuan offered in Guangdong Province.

In 2012, North Korea and China agreed that 40,000 North Korean workers would come to China on industrial training visas.

Full article:
China seeks more workers from north
Ko Soo-suk and Kang Jin-kyu
Joongang Ilbo


Number of N.K. defectors halves in Kim Jong-un era

Monday, January 4th, 2016

According to Yonhap:

The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has halved since the launch of the Kim Jong-un regime, apparently attributable to the communist nation’s tougher border control, the Unification Ministry said Monday.

A total of 1,277 North Koreans entered South Korea via China and other countries in 2015, down 52.8 percent from 2,706 recorded in 2011.

Kim took the helm of the North in late 2011 soon after the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

The number of North Korean defectors settling in the South first topped 1,000 in 2001, and it had steadily increased to 2,914 in 2009.

But it has rapidly declined to 1,502 in 2012, 1,514 in 2014, and 1,397 in 2014, according to the ministry amid North Korea’s intensified crackdown on those attempting to flee the country.

The ratio of women has soared. More than 80 percent of the North Korean defectors who came to the South in 2015 were female.

Women, especially those working at markets, seem to be less subject to surveillance than men with regular jobs. It’s also easier for women to get jobs, like housekeeping, in China and to make money needed for coming to the South.

Read the full story here:
Number of N.K. defectors halves after Kim Jong-un assumes power


DPRK Defectors down in 2015

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

According to the Korea Times:

The number of North Koreans who defected to South Korea this year fell below the monthly average of 100 for the first time in 12 years, the Ministry of Unification said.

Ministry officials attributed the decline to sharply tightened security along the Sino-Korean border and to an improved economic situation in the North by reinvigorated private markets, among other things, which they said are some of the biggest changes since Kim Jong-un took office four years ago.

According to the ministry tally, the number of North Koreans who were officially tagged with the defector status in the first 10 months of this year totaled 978, for a monthly average of about 98. It is the first time the figure has fallen below 100 since 2003. A ministry official estimated the total would not exceed 1,200 this year, less than half that of 2009 when the number of defectors peaked at 2,914.

The biggest reason for the decline of escapees is sharply enhanced border security by toughening the punishment of negligent or corrupt guards while more handsomely rewarding guards who arrest would-be defectors. This pushed up the amount of the bribes escapees must pay the guards to cross the Tumen River from about 5 million South Korean won to as high as 17 million won in some areas, officials said.

Other analysts find the reason in the gradual improvement of economic conditions in the isolationist state. “There are more than 400 markets in North Korea,” said one researcher at a state think tank. “As residents began to make their own money, they feel it far less necessary to risk their lives to get out of North Korea.”

Some North Korea watchers also ascribe the recent surge in the defection of the North Korea elite, including party cadre and diplomats, to revitalized markets in the North. “As the North Korean markets expanded, the fights among the power elite have also intensified to take larger shares of financial gains,” said Prof. Cho Dong-ho of Ehwa University in an interview with Chosun Ilbo daily. “Those who lose in these battles or are found to be involved in corruption have increasingly deserted their country.”

During a parliamentary audit last month, Lee Byung-ho, chief of the National Intelligence Service, also said, “Up to 46 North Korean diplomats have left the North and entered South Korea over the past three years.” Some ranking officials of the Workers’ Party escaped to the South along with their entire families based on elaborate plans they had set up over several years. There are even defectors who have several billions of South Korean won, bought apartments in southern Seoul and drive imported cars.

Read the full story here:
Number of N. Korean defectors on steady decline
Korea Times
Choi Sung-jin


20 DPRK officials defected in 2015

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

According to the Choson Ilbo:

Twenty North Korean officials have defected to South Korea so far this year, the National Intelligence Service told a National Assembly audit Tuesday.

They were mostly diplomats but also include a high-ranking officer from the powerful Army politburo.

NIS chief Lee Byung-ho told lawmakers the number of North Korean officials defecting from overseas is steadily increasing. Lee added that all 20 who defected this year now live in South Korea.

Although they rank lower than the late Hwang Jang-yop, a senior Workers Party secretary, some are from the elite class, Lee said.

A North Korea source said the Army politburo member defected in April, when he was sent to Beijing for a trading company operated by the politburo.

The Army politburo is in charge of monitoring the activities of all North Korean soldiers and is considered a central part of leader Kim Jong-un regime. Its leader, Hwang Pyong-so, is the second-most powerful man in the state.

Early this year, a mid-level diplomat based at the Hong Kong office of Room 39, the Workers Party office that handles Kim’s slush funds, defected with his family.

Presumably these individuals did not go to Hanawon so their numbers will need to be added to the official numbers released by the Ministry of Unification.

Read the full story here:
20 N.Korean Officials Defected to S.Korea This Year
Choson Ilbo


North Korean defectors in the USA

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

According to UPI:

North Koreans, 186 in total, have resettled in the United States since 2006, two years after the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Radio Free Asia reported on Monday the refugees now live in 18 states, and 26 of the 186 settled in Kentucky.

Next, California is home to 25 recent arrivals, followed by New York at 19, Colorado, 17, with Arizona, Virginia, each home to 15 new North Korean defectors. The remaining population is divided among Washington, Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Maryland and Massachusetts, each state home to less than 10 North Koreans. In 2014, the United States granted asylum to 15 North Koreans, and five resettled in California and three in Utah. Others have taken up residence in Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky and Georgia.

Read the full story here:
More North Korean refugees in the U.S. calling the ‘Bluegrass State’ home
Elizabeth Shim


ROK loses track of 688 DPRK defectors

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on Sunday said almost 700 North Korean defectors’ whereabouts are unknown, casting concerns over the country’s settlement support system.

The ministry said it has failed to locate 688 North Korean defectors, which accounts for 2.6 percent of the 26,000 defectors in South Korea, with 664 of them currently presumed to be overseas.

The ministry’s data also showed the number of North Korean defectors seeking to resettle in another country came to 22 this year, up from 15 last year.

There are also 22 imprisoned defectors, while 14 others are dead or defected back to the North.

“South Korea needs to provide customized support and social integration programs for North Korean defectors who crossed the border for freedom and abundance,” Rep. Won Hye-young of the main opposition party said.

Read the full story here:
Almost 700 N. Korean defectors’ whereabouts unknown


A new defector survey about market trade in North Korea, and what it says (maybe) about Kim Jong-un

Friday, August 28th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

In Wall Street Journal, Jeyup Kwaak reports on a new defector survey by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (08-26-2015) (added emphasis):

The Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies annually surveys more than 100 North Koreans who defected in the prior calendar year. The results provide firsthand insight into developments in the isolated state, though its researchers said they shouldn’t be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.


The latest survey, of 146 North Koreans who escaped in 2014, shows significant growth from the previous year in the number of people saying they conducted private business activities and paid bribes to enable them. A little more than half said they received no money from the state, down from last year’s survey but up from the one released in 2013.

Experts say between half and three-quarters of North Koreans’ income comes from quasi-illegal market activities, such as trade of basic goods smuggled in from China, but sporadic crackdowns by national or regional security officials lead to irregular business and bribery. Defectors say officials often collect fees when they set up a booth at a market.

The results themselves do not present a new trend. Several previous defector studies indicate that markets are perhaps the most important source of income and sustenance for many (if not most) North Koreans. However, a few things are interesting to note.

The links may not be entirely clear, but it is at least symbolic that the current survey, albeit with a very small number of interviewees, suggests that support for Kim Jong-un and the leadership may not be waning, at the same time as market activity continues unabated. This at least calls into question an assumption that sometimes occurs that market trade would lead people to become more critical of the regime.

Again, too much shouldn’t be read too much into a small study with participants that probably are not geographically or socially representative of North Korea as a whole. Defectors as a group rarely are. But perhaps one could imagine that market trade being so institutionalized and regulated by the regime would make it more synonymous with the regime itself. I.e., if market trading is seen as something positive, maybe this reflects positively on the regime as well — perhaps the market has been co-opted.

The article also reminds us of the rather peculiar combination of dynamics seen under Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, market trade seems to continue unabated domestically, and initiatives like the new special economic zones and the agricultural reforms show that there is at the very minimum some new thinking going on.

But on the other hand, border controls have been tightened to a degree rarely seen since the mid-1990s, according to defector reports. Just today, DailyNK reports (in Korean) that resident in the Sino-Korean borderlands have seen their access to the Amnok river, often used for laundry by locals, increasingly restricted as of late. As the WSJ writes,

Just 614 North Koreans made it to the South in the first half of this year, compared with 2,706 in the 2011 calendar year, according to the most recent ministry data.

The drop in North Koreans who visited China on legal visas so far this year should perhaps also be seen in this context.

Taken together, the tightened border controls on the one hand, and the seemingly changing (one could say “progressive”) rhetoric on economic matters on the other, paint a mixed picture.

In the early days of Kim Jong-un, the question was whether he was a reformer or a hardliner. A few years into his rule, it seems he might be neither and both at the same time.


DPRK visitors to China drops in H1 2015

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

According to the Daily NK:

The number of North Koreans who visited China through legal means has dipped this year.

Data on the number of foreigners who went to China in the first half of this year indicate roughly 89,700 North Koreans crossed into the country, according to figures from China’s National Tourist Office cited by the Voice of America [VOA] on Wednesday.

This a 2.2 percent drop from the 91,800 visitors who were there during the same period last year, indicating the numbers are heading toward a two-year decline, it reported.

The figures from this report are only limited to those who visit through legal means and do not reflect illicit trips or defectors who enter the country.

Roughly 52 percent of North Koreans traveling to China reportedly went looking for jobs at restaurants or factories. The number of job-seekers inched up by 3,300 on-year, according to the VOA.

Men outweighed the number of women from the North, making up roughly 85 percent at 76,500. Only 13,200 were female visitors.

The total number of foreigners who went to China in the first six months of the year was at roughly 12.3 million. The greatest number of travelers came from South Korea at slightly over 2.1 million, while North Korea placed 20th on the list.

Read the full story here:
N. Koreans on visas to China drops
Lee Dong Hyuk