Nautilus Special Report:

North Korean Defectors and Inter-Korean Reconciliation and Cooperation

Suh Dong-man, Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, South Korea, May 7, 2002.

North Korean defectors and their refugee status

The government of China swiftly resolved the recent incident where a group of 25 North Korean asylum seekers rushed into the grounds of the Spanish Embassy in Beijing -- apparently out of concern that the defection might have a spillover effect, creating a much more serious situation. Reaching South Korea via a third country seems to have become a common method of defection by North Koreans, as in the case involving the Jang Gil-suh family last year. The issue of North Korean defectors is a political minefield, affecting the trilateral relationship between the two Koreas and China. And the latest defection is likely to trigger NGOs that support North Korean defectors to pressure the Seoul government to double its diplomatic efforts to grant them refuges status.

Among other things, this issue is basically of a humanitarian nature in the sense that these North Korean defectors are entitled to protection under universal human rights. Requesting refugee status for them in the context of international law is therefore palpable. The ROK government has recognized the importance of the issue of the North Korean defectors and has thus continuously urged the Chinese government to resolve it. In this process, the ROK government has avoided making this issue a diplomatic problem, striving instead to secure an amicable settlement to ensure that the North Korean defectors get tangible benefits. The Chinese government's concession to allow the latest North Korean defectors to travel to a third country rather than return to North Korea, is partly attributable to the active behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by the ROK government.

Nonetheless, the matter requires a far more complex and lasting solution than this. North Korean defectors in China are basically under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government. In reality, China cannot afford to deal with the issue unilaterally, ignoring its relations with North Korea, because of their traditionally close bilateral relations. To recognize them as refugees could possibly have a significant impact on the domestic policies of North Korea. Furthermore, China has to deal with the question of the minorities in Xinjian, Uighur, and Tibet. If Beijing grants refugee status to North Korean defectors, then it has to give it to all minorities. This will also possibly allow the United States and other countries to intervene in the internal affairs of China, placing further strains on its already tense relations with Washington, which China wants to avoid. So at this point in time, sending the North Korean defectors to a third country seems to have been the only viable option for China.

North Korean defectors and the North Korean regime

The recent defection of North Koreans raised the question about what should be done for North Korean defectors living in the Northeastern region of China. On humanitarian grounds, measures to help them must be worked out as soon as possible. But it would be a huge exaggeration to interpret the latest massive defection as an indication of a crisis in the North Korean regime or as a sign of its imminent collapse.

North Korean defectors crossed the border into China to get food when a severe food crisis hit North Korea from 1995 to 1997. North Korean authorities regarded them as "food refugees," and even allowed them to come back into the country without any punishment. Nevertheless, some of the returning defectors were indeed punished, not necessarily for political reasons, but rather as a warning signal to other North Koreans who might be considering defection. According to some estimates there are more than 300,000 North Korean defectors in China, but the number is quite possibly blown out of proportion. Almost all of them who are residing in China on a long-term basis depend on ethnic Korean Chinese for a living, as they do not speak the language.

It is estimated that there are more than 2 million Korean Chinese living in China. Yet, due to migration to cities and to other countries including South Korea looking for jobs, the number is most likely to be about 1.5 million. Most of them live together in a community. If there are in fact 300,000 North Korean defectors living in China, the number of Korean Chinese to whom they could turn for assistance is considerably lacking. If there are that many North Korean defectors, it would have already created a serious social problem in the northeastern part of China. So it would be more accurate to say that there must be approximately 100,000 North Korean defectors in China. In addition, many of the North Korean defectors, including the recent ones, did so not because of the North Korean regime's crisis. They are rather merely victims of the North Korean economic crisis that began over 5 years ago.

The North Korean regime is on high alert with its capability to mobilize a massive army, and due to tensions between North Korea and Japan as well as the hiatus between the two Koreas, this situation is likely to remain unchanged, or at least for the time being. In addition, North Korea has deep-rooted national pride and strong solidarity among its residents firmly supporting the regime. It should therefore be clear that Pyongyang is basically different from East Germany, which was subject to the control of the Soviet Union. East Germany lacked nationalism and was politically dependent on the Soviet Union. Furthermore its military, relatively smaller than that of North Korea's, was also in the hands of the Soviet Union. And that was why the change in the Soviet Union led directly to the collapse of East Germany.

Naturally, it could very well be that the North Korean people are greatly dissatisfied with the Kim Jong-il regime due to their economic hardship. But this dissatisfaction has yet to translate into a political movement and neither does there exist any collective resistance to the regime. The reality is that without significant improvement in U.S.- North Korea relations and between North Korea and Japan, as well as inter-Korean relations -- coupled with the need for significant reforms and opening efforts by North Korea -- any change to the current status is hard to imagine.

In this sense, arguing that the Kim Jong-il regime and North Korean defectors should be addressed as separate issues precludes any improvement in relations with North Korea. A government and a regime can hardly be considered as one. However, in North Korea there seems to be no separation between the two -- at least on the surface. At this juncture therefore, the issue of North Korean defectors cannot be resolved without taking into consideration the relationship between the North Korean government and defectors.

North Korean defectors and Inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation

The issue of North Korean defectors is directly related to inter-Korean relations. In dealing with this, the first question we are confronted with is whether we want the number of defectors to increase. If the answer is positive then it might mean that we ultimately seek the collapse of the North Korean regime. In the light of the importance of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation, however, there should be a decrease in the number of defectors. Considering the likelihood of a possible large surge in the number of defectors in the future, there is no alternative to the continued pursuit of reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea that also includes assistance to restore the North Korean economy. In a related announcement to the recent defection, the ROK government said that it would continue to pursue its sunshine policy to fundamentally address the defector issue while assisting North Korea to revive its economy. In truth, we are already having much difficulty in helping North Korean defectors to adapt to living in South Korean society. It is necessary to help North Korea to grant its people basic human rights with enough food so that no more North Koreans choose to defect to South Korea.

In this regard, it goes without saying that the cooperation of the North Korean authorities is essential in deterring North Koreans from attempting to defect. In other words, North Korea should guarantee their right to survival and introduce some opening up and reform measures while implementing new policies to prevent its residents from fleeing the nation. The ROK government and related bodies should continue food and economic assistance to North Korea to justify calling on North Korea and China to resolve the defection issue. If the Seoul government gives assistance to North Korea, enough to receive international recognition for its efforts, but the number still increases, then the ROK government should directly urge North Korea to deal with the defection issue. Likewise, whether Seoul can provide more assistance to Pyongyang than Beijing is important from a nationalistic perspective in securing Chinese support when needed.

Free from the diplomatic constraints facing the Seoul government in its relations with China and North Korea, NGOs can play a rather significant role. As a matter of fact, NGOs have greatly contributed to stimulating public interest in the North Korean defections, both at home and abroad. However, in proportion to their increasingly important roles, domestic and overseas NGOs that are helping North Korean defectors should display more balance in their viewpoints and muster wisdom to keep pace with inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation in the course of dealing with the issue. This process should take place within the framework of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation and the abolition of the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula in order to work out a fundamental solution of the North Korean human rights question, including the defection issue. NGOs should not be obsessed with scoring points in resolving one defection case after another, while undermining inter-Korean reconciliation. It is vitally important that they recognize the fact that the resolution of North Korea's human rights issue can be achieved only through the process of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation.

Furthermore, it is also important to see what position North Korea will take toward reconciliation and cooperation with South Korea and toward its relations with the United States and Japan. Allegedly a Japanese group helping North Korean defectors under a detailed action plan orchestrated the latest defection. Consequently, it is important to verify whether Japanese human rights groups, including the ones that backed the Jang family's defection, and the recent group of defectors, really want Japan to open official relations with North Korea. Regrettably, however, the organizations are strongly opposed to the establishment of official relations between Japan and North Korea citing as a reason the dire human rights situation in North Korea. The absence of official relations between North Korea and the United States and between North Korea and Japan practically ensures the continuation of the hostility existing between them. The problem is that some are capitalizing on the human rights records of North Korea to oppose any effort to ease the hostile relations. When the EU nations with Spain currently assuming the presidency, speak about the North Korean human rights situation, people pay attention because -- unlike the United States and Japan -- the EU has official ties with North Korea and has offered them economic assistance. Understandably, North Korea has adopted a rather flexible position, even indicating that it was prepared to discuss the human rights issue with the EU.

Recently, South Korean special envoy Dong-won Lim visited North Korea and held discussions with Chairman Kim Jong-il, hence placing the strained inter-Korean relations back on track. The recent breakthrough in inter-Korean relations has significantly lessened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, especially coming at a time when Washington-Pyongyang relations are in a stalemate, with another round of rumors circulating of a crisis in their bilateral relationship. Moreover, the term of the Kim Dae-Jung government is nearing an end and the next presidential elections are coming up. Against this backdrop, there is relatively little room for maneuver for South Korea to pursue inter-Korean talks. Nevertheless, the Kim government is maintaining consistency in its policy of reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea, showing its determination to continue talks with North Korea, thus raising a fresh opportunity for another round of dialogue between the two Koreas. The government deserves due credit in this regard. The North Korean side is flexibly responding to the uncertainties created by the Bush administration's policy toward it, which is also a highly positive sign. Creating an environment conducive to an improvement in the inter-Korean relations is clearly a key to resolving the North Korean defection issue.