A practical solution to the North Korean refugee problem, inspired by studying maps

The picture on the right is a frame from this disturbing video (right click to download), where a hidden camera caught a human and goods smuggler being executed in DPRK. (Update: SMH/Guardian coverage of the story and long version of the same video (right click to download) via freekorea and Korean Mediator.)

These smugglers are the same people who formed part of the causes for the misery of the women refugee in NE China today, many of them tricked and sold (involuntarily) to Korean Chinese across the border, see this report from antislavery.org (via TPD and the Telegraph, but I advise you to read the case studies in the report to fully understand the situations, as I myself got confused and sort of misled by the simplified paraphrasing. Also the statistics of the report is probably exaggerated, as I have seen many N Koreans working as waitresses in the smaller border towns). I think the smugglers deserve to be punished, harshly, but their guilts do not deserve death penalty, especially if the refugees are voluntary and that there is often lack of proper trial.

Update: an anonymous comment quoted this report by Russian expert on Korea, Andrei Lankov of ANU, which is consistent with my personal observation and experience in China's Jilin province. antislave.org's statistics are very likely exaggerated.

What bothers me is, the Hobson's choice available to these poor women refugees: stay married to old and unattractive Korean or Chinese man, work as prostitute, or be sent back into gulag and starved. The root cause of the misery for these poor women, is that they cannot escape even if no one chained them to their "job", because they will face repatriation immediately as soon as they venture out on the streets.

Many westerners, try to blame the Chinese government for not providing refugee status to the North Koreans (e.g. report by onefreekorea). As ACB pointed out, the motivations are often hypocritical and they also failed to consider the full reperscussion of a refugee surge.

China does have the duty to help its neighbor, as we all do to our own neighbors as another fellow human being. But we should also understand that it needs the help of the West. Unfortunately, among all the nations (and the UN itself) calling for China to grant political refugee status to the North Koreans, none of them is willing to do what they want China to do, except South Korea, which is receiving these refugees. But even South Korea cannot promise to (or realistically) accommodate 100,000's of them if the border is effectively opened. UN now is finally comptemplating granting political refugee status to North Koreans, but I am not optimistic. The First World does not want to deal with the Vietnam refugee problem again, especially when their domestic unemployment is still a major concern.

If we want to close a deal in any business negotiation, we always have to put ourselves into the shoes of our counterparts, and try to find a solution that also, at least partly, addresses their problem.

From China's own perspective, it does have several problems

  1. The UN only recognizes these people as "economic refugee". Therefore it cannot say China is doing anything against UN rule, and force China alone to classify them as political refugees. (They really are economical refugees)
  2. China wants UN to call them political refugee, so that if they come in in millions, the Western world will have to share the burden. China can take a certain number of them, but it is most worried about a mass exodus that follows. Do not forget China itself has worked very hard to control its own population growth (one-child policy)
  3. There is also the concern of Korean minority separatism near the border (green area on the map), and the fact that some Koreans are still alleging border dispute across the Yalu and Yanbian area, among others
  4. China has an agreement with DPRK, to repatriate any refugee they may received. They have to honor such promise.
  5. China could break the agreement unilaterally, but it does not want to piss off Kim Jong-Il. After all, it is the six-country negotiation that has provided China with some limited leverage and respect from the US, amid the China-threat mongering.
  6. A collapse of the DPRK will also lead to an uncontrollable wave of refugee, which China honestly cannot deal with, unless it has received the promise of help from the West to share the burden

So China and UN are playing the waiting game of definition. In the midst the refugees suffer. All the UN needs to do is to declare them as political refugees. But then the first world countries (US/ Europe/ Japan/ Korea/ Australia/ Canada) need to promise to provide home to them (like they did to the Vietnamese in late 1970s).

Is there a solution that can help these refugees? We need to make sure the refugees already in China have a safe destination and not be repatriated, meanwhile address some or part of China's concern, and in particular, making fleeing North Korea not too easy lest that would trigger an avalanche of fleeing. China refuses to allow UN to set up a refugee center on its soil, because that would encourage more refugee coming.

An examination of the map provides us with a plausible solution.

  • Most of the border crossing (according to the antislave report) occurs in the green area of the first map. It is where Korean Chinese resides on the north side, and also where the boundary river (upper stream of Tumen River) is narrow and shallow, and the mountain is high and guard stations sparse (2nd map).
  • The anti-slave report alleged the pattern is due to the famine in this poor area. Not true. (1) Many interviewed in the report are from Pyongyang area. (2) Examine the third map, this NE area is full of forest and scrub, local people probably rely on hunting more than agriculture for food. It is sparsely populated, and least affected by famine.
  • The crucial observation is the relatively low refugee flow in the NW near Sinuijiu/Dandong, and NE tip from Tumen to Russia border. The river was too wide and the banks easier to guard there. There are also less ethic Koreans on the opposite side who speak the language.

    Noticing Russia's Far East, we find the last piece of the puzzle. We need to

    1. Ask China and Russia to turn a blind eye on refugee passage across the China/Russia border
    2. International agencies and UN can set up a welcome center on the Russian side of the border, and transfer the refugee to S Korea or other countries, on their discretion
    3. UN does not have to declare them as political refugee. No pressure on the hypocrites in the First World. China can continue its current policy, without fear of jeopardizing the delicate relationship with Kim Jong-il, or trigger an avalanche of refugees (because such indirect passage involves a much higher 'transaction cost')
    4. For Russia, it does not even need to accept these refugees. All they need to do is to turn the illegal immigrants to UN before repatriating to China, and allow UN to ship the qualified refugees away. Its border with N Korea remains close. Russia can also retain the discretion to close the border with China if the situation gets worse. China is the buffer zone.
    5. Kim Jong-il cannot blame Russia for what they do with "Chinese refugees", nor can they blame China for failing to control its long border with Russia.

    The trick is, by bringing in a third party, the relationship between N Korea and its northern neighbors is maintained. Meanwhile, the cost and difficulty to flee N Korea remains high so that large scale exodus is not encouraged. But UN is able to achieve its objectives to rescue the refugees. Even the abused women hiding in China will have less to fear, this is exactly what they need in order to break away from serfdom as asserted by antislave.org.


    Sun Bin said...

    Infidel thinks my proposal does not solve the problem.

    He is right. "regime change" would solve the problem at its source. But I was only trying to address the pressing needs for these people. This is not meant to be a long term solution.

    Before the 'regime change' in who knows when, people suffer. The UN and other NGO have been trying to set up a station in China but in vain. I think an alternative in Russia would at least help a little. When the number is small, UN still has the ability to accomodate them, as it does today.
    More importantly, it provides an alternative for the refugees, that would weaken the 'threat' that deter them from fleeing from their abusers. Such arrangement does not require PYongyang's agreeing to anything.

    He is also right that Pyongyang would protest. But as I said, Pyongyang has no one to complain to, neither China or Russia can be held accountable. As long as the refugees are kept in relatively small number (due to the detour/difficulty), Kim Jong-il sees not much difference from today's scenario.

    Anonymous said...

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    Sun Bin said...

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    james said...

    nice travel commentary from a visitor to north korea.


    Sun Bin said...

    thanks. will link that in my post

    preetamrai said...

    South Korea is fine accepting the refugees at this point because the numbers are not that large. Once the numbers become large and the newly arriving NKoreans start taking away jobs and bringing wages down then you will see the resentment. Which other country will accept the refugees?

    Also why China does not want to piss off KJI. Is it because China wants NK to be around so that Japan and SK have always something to worry about.?

    Though must salute the Chinese people who help out the NKoreans in Jilin and Liaoning.

    Sun Bin said...

    i guess it should be the west, us/australia/canada/europe....like what happened to the vietnamese in 1975-85.

    china vs KJI: that is one of the reasons. also afraid of instability across the border, pop pressure due to refugee, ethnic conflict, and SK's claim to China's Yanbian/Kando.