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Stephen Haggard on North Korean refugees: the Chinese "underground railroad," integration into South Korea, and the future of U.S. policy

Headshot of Stephan HaggardStephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, director of the Korea-Pacific Program, and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy & Strategy. He is a go-to expert on current developments in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly the Korean peninsula, and on the politics of economic reform and globalization.

Haggard has written extensively on the political economy of North Korea with Marcus Noland, including “Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform” (2007) and “Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea” (2011) and co-authors the “North Korea: Witness to Transformation” blog at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Haggard is the current editor of the Journal of East Asian Studies and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke with Bryn Miller CMC '19 on January 26, 2017.

Photo and biography courtesy of Professor Stephan Haggard and the School of Global Policy & Strategy.

Could you briefly describe the outflow of refugees from North Korea in recent years in terms of their number, demographic characteristics, and eventual settlement? Are there any observable patterns to the outflow?

It’s hard to know exactly, but I would take the South Korean estimates from the Ministry of Unification regarding the number that have entered South Korea as a starting point. These probably account for about 90% of all the refugees. According to the Ministry, more that 26,000 refugees entered the South between 1999 and 2014. Of these refugees, 70% were female. The largest number came between 2007 and 2011, with well over 2,000 entering South Korea each year. Since 2011, the number has dropped to about 1,500 per year. 

The only concrete numbers we have are about those who get to South Korea, with a sprinkling that get asylum in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. There are about one to two hundred in the U.S. and maybe a thousand in Europe. However, there’s no data on the number of refugees that might still be in China and that number is significant, perhaps even larger than the total that have entered South Korea.

Virtually no one crosses the South Korean border — everyone passes through China. The South Korean border is mined and is completely militarized across the 38th parallel. Almost all the exit points are along the Yalu and particularly Tumen rivers on the eastern end of the border between China and North Korea. The river is fairly shallow and not very wide there and refugees can basically walk across in the winter when it’s frozen. 

China is a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Is Chinese behavior relating to North Korean refugees in compliance with its obligations?

China doesn’t treat the refugees as refugees. Treatment of refugees is governed by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as an individual vulnerable to persecution on return to their home country. The Chinese have denied that the North Koreans are refugees, rather labeling them as economic migrants. Since they’re economic migrants, they’re vulnerable to the violation of a core principle in the refugee convention, which is non-refoulement. This principle requires that if a refugee susceptible to persecution crosses a border, the receiving state cannot turn the refugee back to where he or she came from. 

Once refugees get across the border, they have to get to a third country because the Chinese authorities will turn people back if they’re discovered. If these North Koreans stay in China, they’re usually working in the underground economy, mostly in the Chinese-Korean areas of the country along the border, where there are a significant number of Chinese nationals with Korean heritage. Female refugees in these areas are often trafficked into marriage markets or prostitution, while the men generally work in underground occupations.

To get out of China to third countries, usually by way of Mongolia or Southeast Asia, refugees go through an underground railroad network in China. 

How does this Chinese underground railroad operate?

We don’t know the number of people that leave by each of the following mechanisms, but there are some common strategies to get out of North Korea. First, there are coyotes who operate much like the coyotes on the Mexican-American border. You pay a fee, someone’s there on the other side, they facilitate your exit and hide you. Those relationships are often quite exploitative. There are also some NGOs that have been working in the border as well, and the Chinese have cracked down on them periodically. These include organizations like Liberty in North Korea and South Korean churches. These organizations help create these underground railroads in China to move people out. 

When they get to these safer countries, the refugee determination process typically involves them moving to South Korea, where they are immediately granted citizenship after a period of intelligence debriefing and socialization. Because the South Korean government gives citizenship automatically to all Koreans on the peninsula, there’s been a tendency for refugees to be funneled back to South Korea rather than to other countries.

What are the challenges facing South Korea in settling these refugees? How do these refugees adjust to life in South Korea?

When they first land in South Korea, refugees are initially debriefed by the national intelligence service because there is, of course, the concern that they’re spies — undoubtedly, there are a handful of refugees that are North Korean plants. They then go through a socialization process at an institute called Hanawon, which essentially trains them for modern life: how to use an ATM, how to get a job, and how to generally adjust to a capitalist economy. 

The stories of refugee experiences are mixed. The government makes a serious effort to resettle them, giving them some funding and an apartment initially. But they need to make the transition to a capitalist economy in terms of finding work, going to school, or getting a fellowship for higher education. There is a network of North Koreans in South Korea that help out, and there are South Korean NGOs that have also helped. Some refugees are successful and integrate reasonably well, but others don’t do as well. Older refugees have limited skills and their language is a little different. It’s hard to draw a simple picture of the story.

Successful integration also depends on the age at which they come. People in their forties and fifties have an extremely difficult time adjusting. Many refugees are older from working-class or farming backgrounds. They move into the service economy, find relatively unskilled employment, and try to make a living there. With younger people who are more flexible and open, there are more success stories.

What is the general attitude in South Korea towards these refugees?

It’s mixed. Although most are welcoming, there’s a certain amount of stigma, and some are treated as bumpkins. 

What is the United States policy towards these refugees?

When a refugee seeks to apply for asylum somewhere, there’s a tendency for them to be funneled to a refugee determination process that involves the South Korean consulate or embassy in the intermediate country in question due to South Korea’s offer of citizenship to all North Koreans. However, refugees do have the right to have some say in where they settle, and some have increasingly sought out asylum in other places, including the U.S.. 

For North Koreans hoping to enter America, they enter an asylum review process — which is quite strict — and after that process is complete they can enter the United States. The one hundred to two hundred North Korean refugees in the United States have entered through this process. 

A 2016 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed higher levels of discontent in North Korea and a greater willingness to criticize the Kim regime privately than ever before. What impact will this discontent have on potential defectors? 

It’s hard to draw conclusions from the limited data in the CSIS report. Marcus Noland and I have somewhat larger samples in our book Witness to Transformation, and we do think that there’s the possibility that those exposed to outside media might be more willing to talk about the regime in unfavorable ways. But a big question is raised by looking at the history of Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. People live with bifurcated lives. In scenarios like Cold War-era Eastern Europe and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, they have private views of the regime and know that propaganda is somewhat farcical. They understand that the system doesn’t work and are opposed to it, but life is life and people have to live under a repressive regime. 

Communist systems have a great history of underground humor making light of circumstances that are absurd, but this humor and criticism don’t necessarily mean they’ll move to protest. A crucial issue is distinguishing between what people think and say on surveys and how that may be related to their behavior. Some think that the regime is vulnerable and that the increasing amounts of outside information will make people restive, inclined to protest and leave. There’s a contrary story that says that these people will adjust, and those who see access to foreign media as a luxury good may see their life improving since they can watch a South Korean DVD. This narrative holds that more information and more openness won’t make them more oppositional or more critical of the regime. It’s very difficult to draw inferences and generalize whether wider disaffection would lead to concrete political action. 

With North Korea continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal and make progress toward acquiring long-range missiles, the security situation on the Korean peninsular is expected to deteriorate. Will this lead to an increase of refugees? 

Actually, when you look at the South Korean Ministry of Unification data, there’s been a considerable decline on the number of refugees entering South Korea under Kim Jong Un. It looks like there’s been a crackdown in the last four years. Numbers dropped from nearly 3,000 on average annually between 2008 and 2011 to about 1,500 between 2012 and 2014. A variety of technologies could have been involved in this, including tracking of cell phones, use of photo technology along the border, and cracking down on bribery networks. People are still getting out, but the general perception is that there’s been an effort on the part of the Kim Jong-un regime to crack down on people crossing the border on permanent basis. 

What are the most realistic options for the Trump administration in dealing with North Korea?

For background, the status quo is a policy under the Obama administration known as strategic patience. This strategy involves the United States being willing to return to the Six Party talks, which collapsed in 2008, and considering quid pro quos in the context of negotiations over denuclearization, although it remains unwilling to have negotiations that don’t directly address denuclearization. In the absence of the North Koreans returning to the talks, America would pursue a sanctions-based strategy multilaterally and bilaterally to the extent that it could. The ability of the U.S. to sanction North Korea is dramatically reduced by the fact that North Korea is economically very dependent on China, which will not directly impose such sanctions except in limited ways defined through the U.N..

Looking ahead, the big debate is whether the U.S. should do one of three things. First, it could be more aggressive with sanctions or perhaps even military pressures, like responding to a future missile test by shooting down a missile that’s flying over international waters. This hawkish stance would involve trying to pressure the Chinese into imposing tougher sanctions or imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese firms that deal with North Korea. The second would be to stick to the policy status quo, which I think is unlikely because the Obama policy was seen as a failure. The third policy, which isn’t completely unlikely since Trump made some comments about sitting down with Kim Jong-un, is that Trump would offer some sort of olive branch in the form of a negotiation or bilateral meeting at a lower level to explore possibilities. 

The way the administration is approaching other issues, it seems hawkish in orientation. It’s likely that at some point Trump will take a hawkish line, but it depends what the North Koreans do. 

Some expected that the North Korean would test a nuclear weapon or missile around the inauguration, since almost every incoming American administration usually gets poked fairly early in the term by the North Koreans. The question is really less about thought-out foreign policy strategies and more how the Trump administration will respond to a crisis, probably one in the form of another missile or even another nuclear test. 

There’s also the question of how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis might approach this problem, as opposed to the President himself. There’ve been Tweets about the nuclear issue from the President, but a lot of that is really just white noise at this point. At the end of the day, we just don’t know what the new administration is going to do until a review of North Korea policy is completed. 

In December, an article in Foreign Policy posited that a key strategy for the new administration could be to take in more defectors to help increase information flow, raise dissent, and increase the pressure on the North Korean government. What do you think of this strategy and do you see the Trump administration following this advice?

I’m for it. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t pursue a strategy like it. The North Koreans might see it as provocative, but I don’t have any problem with information strategies. I suspect that it will not be a priority of the Trump administration, however. (Post-interview note: the Trump administration’s recent executive order on immigration banned all refugees to the United States for a period of 120 days. This includes North Korean refugees.)

There are several arguments about the role of defectors: one is to facilitate information strategies, but the other is trying to encourage a larger immigration outflow to precipitate a kind of crisis in the regime. 

The model here is the infamous “hole in the fence” between Hungary and Austria toward the end of the Communist period in Eastern Europe in 1989. When this opening occurred, Eastern Europeans could get through Hungary into Austria, and there was a huge outflow. 

Encouraging such a refugee outflow from North Korea is not only a humanitarian issue, but is seen by some, like Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, as a larger strategy of destabilizing the regime. 

I’m skeptical of this, not because I have a problem with destabilizing the North Korean regime — it’s horrible — but because China is not going to cooperate with a strategy that includes mass numbers of refugees coming across its border. I think it’s a good idea, but you have to be realistic about what it could achieve because of the limitations posed by lack of Chinese cooperation.

Author: 
Bryn Miller