Perilous Journeys: The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond
Perilous Journeys: The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Perilous Journeys: The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond

Scores of thousands of North Koreans have been risking their lives to escape their country’s hardships in search of a better life, contributing to a humanitarian challenge that is playing out almost invisibly as the world focuses on North Korea’s nuclear program.

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Executive Summary

Scores of thousands of North Koreans have been risking their lives to escape their country’s hardships in search of a better life, contributing to a humanitarian challenge that is playing out almost invisibly as the world focuses on North Korea’s nuclear program. Only a little over 9,000 have made it to safety, mostly in South Korea but also in Japan, Europe and the U.S. Many more live in hiding from crackdowns and forcible repatriations by China and neighbouring countries, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. If repatriated to the North, they face harsh punishment, possibly execution. China and South Korea have held back, even during the Security Council debate over post-test sanctions, from applying as much pressure as they might to persuade Pyongyang to reverse its dangerous nuclear policy, in part because they fear that the steady stream of North Koreans flowing into China and beyond would become a torrent if the North’s economy were to collapse under the weight of tough measures. While there is marginally more hope Beijing will change its ways than Pyongyang, concerned governments can and must do far more to improve the situation of the border crossers.

Even without a strong response to the 9 October 2006 nuclear test that targets the North’s economy, the internal situation could soon get much worse. The perfect storm may be brewing for a return to famine in the North. Last year, Pyongyang reintroduced the same public distribution system for food that collapsed in the 1990s and rejected international humanitarian assistance, demanding instead unmonitored development help. Funding for remaining aid programs is difficult to secure, and summer floods have damaged crops and infrastructure.

Hunger and the lack of economic opportunity, rather than political oppression, are the most important factors in shaping a North Korean’s decision to leave “the worker’s paradise”. A lack of information, the fear of being caught by Chinese or North Korean security agents and financial limitations are more significant barriers than any actual wall or tight security at the border. China compensates for the virtual absence of border guards with a relentless search for North Koreans in hiding. In October 2006, Chinese authorities began to build a fence along the frontier and conduct neighbourhood sweeps to find and arrest the border crossers.

Despite these formidable obstacles, the willingness among North Koreans to risk their lives to escape is growing stronger, and arrivals in the South are likely to hit a record this year. The most important pull factor shaping the decision to leave is the presence of family members in China and, increasingly, South Korea. The nearly 9,000 defectors in the South are able to send cash and information to help their loved ones escape. To a lesser but significant extent, information is beginning to spread in the North through smuggled South Korean videos, American and South Korean radio broadcasts, and word of mouth – all exposing North Koreans to new ideas and aspirations.

Most North Koreans do not arrive in China with the intention of seeking official asylum, but because Beijing is making it ever more difficult for them to stay, a growing number are forced to travel thousands of kilometres and undertake dangerous border crossings in search of refuge in Mongolia or South East Asia. The mass arrests of 175 asylum seekers in Bangkok in August 2006 and a further 86 on 24 October provide vivid examples of host country hospitality being stretched to the limits.

The vast majority of North Koreans who have made it to safety resettle in South Korea. In most instances, this is a choice motivated by language, culture and the promise of being reunited with family members. In a growing number of cases, the overly burdensome procedures for being granted asylum anywhere else is the deciding factor. With the exception of Germany, the governments that have pressed most vigorously for improving North Korean human rights, namely the U.S., the European Union member states and Japan, have taken in only a handful of asylum seekers.

A loose network of makeshift shelters focused on humanitarian aid has evolved into a politically-charged but fragile underground railroad on which some North Koreans can buy safe passage to Seoul in a matter of days, while others suffer years of violence and exploitation. If they are to minimise the exploitation of the most vulnerable and enhance the much-needed aid this network delivers, concerned governments must commit to a sustainable solution.

None of the policies proposed in this report would create unmanageable burdens for any government. Unless North Korea’s economy collapses completely, the numbers of its citizens crossing international borders will continue to be restricted by many factors, not least Pyongyang’s tight controls on internal movement and the financial cost of securing an escape route. However, it is time to back up strong words and resolutions about the plight of North Koreans with actions, both because humanity demands it and because if the international community cannot quickly get a handle on this situation, it will find it harder to forge an operational consensus on the nuclear issue.

Seoul/Brussels, 26 October 2006

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