North-South migration, part 4: After 2011, the stream dries out again?

Mix of increased security, propaganda campaigns appear successful in sharply cutting defections
February 19th, 2014
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The division of Korea also brought about the phenomenon of illegal migration from the North to the South (as well as in the opposite direction). The nature of this migration has changed throughout the 70 years of division, and it seems that in the past 2-3 years we have witnessed another change. This four-part mini series deals with the four distinct periods in the history of this migration: 1945-19531953-1990, 1991-2010 and 2011-present.


This January, South Korea’s ministry of unification published its annual statistics regarding the number of North Korean refugees to reach the South in 2013. According to this data, there were 1,516 new arrivals, 69 percent of whom were women.

This figure is basically the same as the 2012 figure, but remains significantly lower than the number of arrivals in earlier years. In the period of 2006-2010, the number of arrivals fluctuated around the 2,500 mark. This once again demonstrates that Kim Jong Un’s policy of cracking down on defections is succeeding – at least to some extent.

This policy is new. Indeed, since 2010-11, North Korea has changed its policy regarding refugees who have left the country and moved South. Up until then, the North Korean government either ignored the issue all together or perhaps even secretly saw cross-border movement as a safety valve that allowed the most troublesome elements to leave the country. The influx of foreign currency that accompanied the exodus was also probably welcomed.

Kim Jong Un’s emergence as successor, however, led to (or at least coincided with) a dramatic reversal, leading to a large decline in cross-border movement.

While Western media describes virtually all moves by the North Korean government as steeped in the state’s alleged paranoia, many of Pyongyang’s moves result from highly rational calculation.

“While many refugees have serious problems adjusting to South Korean life,  their lifestyle is still beyond the widest dreams of the average North Korean worker or farmer”

 
Indeed, refugees in South Korea have been remarkably unpoliticized and therefore not all that dangerous to Pyongyang. Nonetheless, in the long run their very existence constitutes a serious challenge to North Korean regime’s claims of legitimacy. While many refugees have serious problems adjusting to South Korean life, and while their income is well below the nationwide average, their lifestyle in South Korea is still beyond the widest dreams of the average North Korean worker or farmer.

Nowadays, the majority of refugees stay in touch with their families in the North by way of Chinese mobile phones and also through broker networks that allow them to send money and letters back home. Such money transfers are illegal in both Koreans, but significant and very common nonetheless. According to a popular North Korean joke, a secret police officer lucky enough to have a refugee family in his jurisdiction will never have financial troubles – the implication being that the refugee family is well off and prepared to pay sizable bribes to ensure that they are left alone.

All of this means that the refugee community has become an important (and also trusted) source of politically subversive information about South Korean life – almost regardless of the political interests and inclinations of any particular refugee. The spread of such information is intrinsically dangerous from the regime’s point of view. Obviously therefore, the regime has decided to try and put a stop to this potentially dangerous trend. Admittedly, we cannot be absolutely sure that the new young leader made this decision personally, but it is nonetheless telling that the policy shift started in 2010, at the very same time the supreme leader began his ascent to the apex of power.

TIGHTENING BORDER CONTROLS

From 2010-11, the number of military patrols on the hitherto poorly protected border with China increased dramatically. Military personnel are also frequently rotated to ensure that soldiers do not develop overly cozy relations with the locals, and severe punishments for graft have been introduced.

Additionally, in 2010 Chinese authorities – obviously prompted by the North Koreans – began to build a tall wire fence along the border with North Korea. This fence is not a formidable obstacle, nonetheless it still makes the act of crossing the border more risky. The construction of the fence was completed in 2012, so nowadays the border between two states appears much better protected than ever.

“Now the price [of defecting] increased to the hitherto unthinkable $3,000-5,000″

 
The “defection market” reacted to the new situation in the most certain way. In the past one could cross the border for free or, at worst, would pay the border guards a small bribe of $30-50 (smugglers had to pay a bit more). Now the price increased to the hitherto unthinkable $3,000-5,000 – and one still has to pay an additional $3,000 to a professional guide who will ensure safe transit to a South Korean embassy in Mongolia or Southeast Asia. The steep rise indicates how much more dangerous the defection has become under the new conditions. It also means that that even under the best possible circumstances one needs some $8,000-9,000 to arrange even a simple defection.

PROPAGANDA POWER

To give them their due, the North Korean authorities have taken a multifaceted approach to the problem of refugees. They have not limited themselves to simple administrative measures, but also rely on propaganda and persuasion.

In the summer of 2012 the North Korean media began a campaign to discourage would-be refugees from making a “fateful mistake.” The small number of refugees who, upon becoming disillusioned by their plight in the South, decided to return to the North, have played a major role in the campaign. Such people began to appear on North Korean state TV and in newspapers, telling tearful stories about the suffering and abuse that they experienced in the South. Some of their stories are undoubtedly true, while others are surely false. The message was that while South Korea might be quite affluent, North Koreans should not expect a luxurious lifestyle if they go there. Instead, they should expect to be discriminated against and abused to such an extent that they will soon long for their lost socialist paradise. This marks a remarkable about-face for the regime. Until recently, the very existence of refugees was not even mentioned in the open access North Korean media.

“Until recently, the very existence of refugees was not even mentioned in the open access North Korean media”

 
REIGN OF TERROR, OR COMPLICATING FACTORS?

It would appear all too logical had the North Korean government decided to rely on terror as a means by which to punish refugees and their families. Indeed, over the past couple of years there have been waves of rumors about an impending campaign against refugees’ families. Refugees’ remaining family members were said to be about to be exiled or sent to prison. However, thus far such campaigns have yet to materialize. Therefore, the government has seemingly limited itself to verbal threats alone.

Concurrently, the government staged a relatively successful crackdown on the usage of Chinese mobile phones in borderland areas. Officially such mobiles, which connect to Chinese networks (not to the North Korean network, which does not give one the option to call overseas), are considered espionage equipment. Therefore, owners of such mobiles have always faced the prospect of quite severe penalties. In the last couple of years, North Korea’s police have begun to use modern equipment designed to locate users of such phones and immediately arrest them. As a result, risks have increased considerably and many North Korean refugees now have problems with contacting their families by phone.

“In the last few years the North Korean authorities began to issue passports to individuals who expressed their wish to go to China for private reasons”

 
Finally, the government made legal overseas trips much easier. In the last few years the North Korean authorities began to issue passports to individuals who expressed their wish to go to China for private reasons. Ostensibly, they go there to meet their relatives, but the real goal of the trip is often to find some unskilled or semi-skilled work and make some money.

So far, at least, this new policy has worked: the annual number of refugees arriving in South has nearly halved since 2011 (from 2,706 in 2011 to 1,516 in 2013). Of course, a certain role is played also by a significant improvement in the economic situation inside North Korea, as well as some hopes that many have pinned on the new leader (he is still seemingly living through his political honeymoon).

The recent decline in refugee arrivals in the South is important because it can teach us two things.

First, the North Korean government might be more capable of restoring control within the country than many North Korean watchers (including the present author) tend to assume. Many said that the North Korean government was not capable reigning in private trade, for instance, or rampant corruption. It seems, however, that if the requisite decision is made, the North Korean bureaucracy is still able to get certain things, at least, under control.

Second, the growth in the number of refugees, which seemed unstoppable for over a decade, was halted and then reversed. If this downward trend continues, this will have serious consequences for the future of the North Korean state. Kim Jong Un may be right to fear the refugee community in South Korea as a potential political threat, and with less refugees adding to the number of this community, this threat might diminish to some extent.

Picture: Eric Lafforgue

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About the Author

Andrei Lankov

Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in 1986 and 1989, respectively; He also attended Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung University in 1985. Following his graduate studies, he taught Korean history and language at his alma mater, and in 1992 went to South Korea for work; he moved to Australia in 1996 to take up a post at the Australian National University, and moved back to Seoul to teach at Kookmin University in 2004. Dr. Lankov has a DPRK-themed Livejournal blog in Russian with occasional English posts, where he documents aspects of life in North (and South) Korea, together with his musings and links to his publications. He also writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times.

Join the discussion

  • Xavier

    Interesting article, Prof. Lankov.

    I’m really surprised, and quite perplexed, by the DPRK’s government to issue passports to individuals to go to China. Given the importance of limiting their contact with the outside world, I don’t understand why the regime would allow that.

    Surely, they must only allow individuals that are part of the elite, or the core group, right? Surely, they wouldn’t allow, say, a farmer, to just to China for a private visit?

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