This year can be described as the “year of defections” in North Korea. This is not to say, however, that the overall number of defections from the country have increased significantly this year. As a matter of fact, the figures are still well below the maximum level reached around 2009/2010.
Yet not since at least the late 1950s has the world seen such a high number of senior North Korean officials and diplomats choosing to defect. The most recent incident of this kind is the defection of the North Korean minister in London, confirmed last week by Seoul. But as far as we know, there have actually been quite a few other such high-level defections this year.
Consequently, many observers are beginning to say that this significant increase in high-level defections is another sign that hard-line policies are working, that sanctions which are targeting the North Korean elite are beginning to bear fruit. However, it’s difficult to agree with such an opinion. The growth in the number of high-level defections is an important phenomenon, possibly having far-reaching consequences, but it’s probably in no way related to the economic sanctions.
Indeed, how can sanctions possibly influence the North Korean elite, including North Korean diplomats and other expats officially overseas? Presumably, sanctions have created an acute shortage of hard currency and, therefore, elite North Koreans overseas are now living significantly tougher lives than used to be the case. This, according to the sanctions supporters’ logic, makes them more likely to consider defection.
The growth in the number of high-level defections is an important phenomenon…but it’s probably in no way related to the economic sanctions
However, did such prominent defectors really feel that much economic pressure? Among them, for example, was a high-level official from Bureau 39 who defected (presumably somewhere in South East Asia) in July, having taken a significant amount of money – reportedly several million dollars. People who are dealing with such amounts of money are not going to be upset by restrictions. The same, albeit on a smaller scale, is applicable to North Korean diplomats as well.
What, then, are the major factors behind this dramatic hike in the number of high-level defectors? As a matter of fact, such an increase was predicted and expected from 2013.
Above all, these defections are a result of Kim Jong Un’s ongoing purges, which began in earnest in late 2012 and have continued up to this day. Indeed, the style of Kim Jong Un’s repressive leadership has shown itself to be remarkably different from what North Korea experienced in the days of his father, between 1994-2011, as well as in the later period of his grandfather’s rule, i.e. after the late 1960s.
By this group of dictators’ standards, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were remarkably reluctant to kill their top officials. Under their reign, many officials were demoted or sent to the countryside where they were expected to do low-level clerical work or in some cases, physical labor.
(In comparison to Kim Jong Un), both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were remarkably reluctant to kill their top officials
In Kim Il Sung’s North Korea there was a major difference with the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin’s time. While under Stalin an official who suddenly disappeared from view could safely be presumed to dead, in North Korea many – if not most – such officials made a comeback a few years later. Having served their time in exile – or perhaps having worked in a coal mine or a state-run farm – they were reverently recalled to the capital and restored to their high positions.
This means that for those North Korean officials who knew that their political standing was getting precarious, the most rational decision in those days would be to prepare for the inevitable and try to endure whatever the Great Leader, in his wisdom, would correspondingly bestow. And if an official did not show any sign of dissent and professed his unwavering loyalty to the Great Leader and the Kim family even when in exile or prison, he had remarkably high chances of being pardoned, eventually.
However, this game changed completely under Kim Jong Un.
Today, officials accused of wrongdoing are frequently executed and there is little chance that their close associates and family members will emerge from the prison camps before the regime collapses (an event which might be merely months ahead, but also might not happen for decades to come).
For a North Korean official who today knows that he is running into trouble with the Supreme Leader, it makes perfect sense to seriously consider defection
In this new situation, for a North Korean official who knows that he is running into trouble with the Supreme Leader, it makes perfect sense to seriously consider defection – if such an option is open to him. Of course, only a minority have this option, since we have so far seen no reports of high-level defectors coming from inside North Korea, illegally crossing the border from China.
Access to overseas trips, which are not easy even for many members of the North Korean elite, therefore seems to be a decisive requirement for any would-be defector. However, those people who have such access, due to the reasons explained above, are far more likely to defect nowadays.
This is especially applicable to minor and mid-ranking officials whose patrons have fallen victims to the new purge campaigns. If your sponsor and protector – and the majority of the North Korean officials have their sponsors and protectors – is executed, there are very high chances that you will follow him to the execution ground or, if you are lucky, to a prison camp. Therefore, escape is the best rational option – of course, once again, if a person is even in a position which allows such a solution.
There are other reasons which also encourage such cases of defection. One should recall the slow-motion death of belief and commitment which has been described so perfectly in regard to the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (see for example the books and articles by Paul Hollander).
The first generation of the communist revolutionaries – both in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but also in North Korea – were people of great determination and willpower. They were quite brutal, ready to die and kill for the cause, but they were also people of conviction, believers in Leninist utopia. They were not necessarily free from personal ambitions, but many of them, until the very end of their lives, maintained some residual belief in the future paradise they were going to build through a generous application of violence and cohesion.
However, such beliefs are usually alien to second and especially third generation members of the elite – and in North Korea it is the second and third generations who are now in charge. As such, these people are perfectly aware that their grandfathers’ attempts to build a paradise have ended disastrously.
These people are perfectly aware that their grandfathers’ attempts to build a paradise have ended disastrously
Societies built according to the blueprints of the radical left have proven themselves far less economically viable and far more politically repressive than the capitalist societies the Marxists used to despise so vehemently. Admittedly, in few countries is this failure as easy to see as in North Korea.
The northern part of the Korean peninsula was once the most advanced industrial area in East Asia outside Japan, but it is now a basket case, by far the poorest country in the region. On the other hand, the southern half made an economic breakthrough which has few, if any, precedents in world history, and now enjoys the lifestyle of a modern developed nation.
This incongruence means that the younger generation has far less commitment to the state in comparison to their fathers, and especially grandfathers. In the case of Korea, their commitment is further strengthened by the inability to use nationalist rationalization for their choice. In spite of all their disappointments, communist bureaucrats in the latter years of the Soviet Union or Bulgaria could at least say, “communist or not, successful or not, my country”. Such nationalistic logic is significantly less persuasive in the northern half of divided Korea.
There may be another reason as well. Many of the North Korean officials who chose to defect might actually feel desperate about the situation in their country and also depressed that no changes are likely to happen in the foreseeable future. If they see the current situation as hopeless – and if they don’t see much of a future for themselves in spite of all their privileges and high income – they are likely to jump ship. Especially if, rightly or wrongly, they believe that the ship is going to continue along its doomed route for years and years to come.
All these factors are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Kim Jong Un’s purges will continue and, presumably, last for a few more years at the very least. Disappointment about the system and a loss of commitment is likely to grow in the foreseeable future, as well. Therefore, one can only expect that the number of high-level defectors to remain remarkably high.
It’s an open question as to whether such an increase in elite defections will have a serious impact on the domestic situation inside North Korea. But there is little doubt that that in the long run, such defections are indeed destabilizing – not least because many of the elite defectors are likely to continue political activity in exile. This means that alternative political forces will start to emerge with the potential to challenge the Kim family regime at some point in the future.
But these changes can hardly be attributed to an increase in sanctions and pressure. Probably, the number of defections would be even higher had the outside world taken a significantly softer stance on North Korea.
Main image: Rodong Sinmun
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1694 words of this article.