Tag Archive | "defectors"

The Inherent Limitation of a Pro-Engagement Posture

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On September 22, a 47-year-old fisheries official was shot dead by North Korean troops along the Yellow Sea coast.
  • The Korean Coast Guard later reported that the victim was likely looking to defect to North Korea.
  • The administration was criticized for its “soft” response as 68.6% believe that the government is mishandling the case.

Implications: A South Korean government that approaches North Korea with an explicitly pro-engagement posture runs the risk of facing political pushback when Pyongyang engages in provocative behavior. Although his pro-engagement policy helped bolster public confidence in the government during rapprochement with Pyongyang in 2018, Moon Jae-in now faces a more skeptical public in the face of a more hostile North Korea. Reflecting these shifting views, the government’s efforts to explain the situation have been interpreted by some as “defending” North Korea’s position.

Context: Despite these risks, South Korean administrations that take office without an explicitly pro-engagement policy have not succeeded in making headway with the North Korean regime. For instance, President Park Geun-hye approached engagement with Pyongyang with a much softer tone than her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, focusing on “mutually binding expectations based on global norms.” Even though Seoul during this time maintained a moderate position that was neither too hawkish or dovish, Pyongyang remained visibly skeptical and no major diplomacy breakthroughs took place.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sophie Joo, Sonia Kim, and Chris Lee.

Picture from the flickr account of the Republic of Korea

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What Is Behind North Korea’s Latest Broadside Against Balloons?

By Robert R. King

In a tough statement, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, issued a particularly vicious attack on North Korean defectors, particularly those who send leaflets across the border from the South. She referred to the refugees in the South as “human scum, hardly worth their value as human beings” and “human scum, little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland, are engrossed in such unbecoming acts to imitate men. They are sure to be called mongrel dogs as they bark in where they should not.” [The quoted text is from the official English translation of the statement; the Republic of Korea is always referred to as “south Korea” without a capital “S”.]

The statement also includes a threat: “Now that the mongrel dogs are doing others harm, it is time to bring their owners to account. I would like to ask the south Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the ruggish-like mongrel dogs who took no scrupple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”

The repetition of vicious phrases such as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” seems to go beyond the usual vituperation and venom that is reserved by the North for defectors who have illegally fled the paradise that is North Korea in order to live in the South.

Why has one of the most senior North Korean officials, the sister of the Supreme Leader, issued such a blistering denunciation of refugees from the North now in the South?

Are Leaflets Really Having an Impact in North Korea?

The statement begins with reference to sending “hundreds of thousands of anti-DPRK leaflets into the areas of our side from the frontline area.” Sending leaflets across the DMZ via balloons or other means of physically delivering the papers has been done for decades. In recent years this has been a publicized effort of some human rights and defector organizations in the South for publicity and fund-raising. The effort is visible and photo-worthy. It irritates officials in the North, and the media blasts from the North are used by human rights groups in the South as evidence of their effectiveness. (See, for example, the North Korean threats against the South in 2016 when tens of thousands of leaflets were sent across the border by balloon.)

Leaflets sent by balloon, however, have limited impact. They usually land not far from the DMZ border and seldom if ever reach Pyongyang, and soldiers are ordered to pick up and destroy such propaganda materials. Far more significant information is reaching North Korea via radio—government-sponsored and religious broadcasts from South Korea, U.S. radio from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in Korean, and Korean-language broadcasts from Chinese border areas intended for the Korean population in Northeast China, but with a significant listenership in North Korea. In Cold War Europe in the 1950s, the United States conducted major sophisticated balloon drops of leaflets directed toward Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other countries in Central Europe, but such efforts were abandoned in 1956 in large part because they were less effective than radio in reaching these areas.

Uncertainty in the North and Defector Influence in the South

Another factor that may have motivated Kim Yo-jong to release her broadside against North Korean defectors in South Korea is because there is growing uncertainty in the North. Kim Jong-un was missing from the public eye for three weeks before he made a public appearance for the grand opening of a fertilizer factory, then he was out of sight again for a notable period of time. The Supreme Leader smokes too much, is overweight, and he had health problems—not a healthy prognosis for someone in his 30s. The recent promotion of the Supreme Leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong to alternate membership in the Politburo and her recent prominence in making important public statements, such as this recent blast against defector leaflets, may be a further indication of uncertainty about the future.

Another factor that may be raising concerns in the North is what appears to be the growing influence of defectors in South Korea. In elections six weeks ago, two prominent defectors were elected to the National Assembly. Although both are members of the minority party in the Assembly, it shows the growing credibility, acceptability, and influence of defectors in the South. Defectors traditionally have taken the toughest position against the North in South Korea’s political discourse. In the past defectors have been on the margins of South Korean society, but now two prominent defectors sit in the National Assembly.

Pressing South Korea for Progress on Rapprochement

Another explanation for the “nastygram” from Kim Yo-jong is that Pyongyang is getting impatient with the slow progress by President Moon Jae-in for improving relations between the North and South. Moon just marked the third full year of his five-year term in office, and under the South Korean constitution, a president can serve only a single term. Time is running out to redefine the relationship with the North under Moon Jae-in. Furthermore, Moon’s Democratic Party just won some 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. If he wants to make progress with the North, he now has the votes in the Assembly to get it done. Mme. Kim’s blast may be intended to encourage President Moon to move more quickly.

The threats in the tough message from Pyongyang target initiatives that President Moon supports in the search for better relations with the North. Kim Yo-Jong referenced the upcoming 20th anniversary of the June 15, 2000 summit between leaders of the North and South, and their declaration marking the beginning of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” Policy which led to improved relations, divided family visits, and economic cooperation.

Kim Yo-jong’s warning to the South Korean president followed another blast of vicious invective: “The south Korean authorities must be aware of the articles of the Panmunjom Declaration and the agreement in the military field in which both sides agreed to ban all hostile acts including leaflet-scattering in areas along the Military Demarcation Line. . . . It is hard to understand how such sordid and wicked act of hostility is tolerated in the south at a time as now.”

Mme. Kim then spelled out the threats: “south Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses.” If Seoul does not take steps Pyongyang is demanding “they had better get themselves ready for possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tour of Mt. Kumgang, or shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.”

Considering the modest impact of the leaflet balloons and the vicious voice in which they are attacked, it seems quite clear that the North is simply trying to move Seoul into making important concessions now. Political uncertainty, the possible strain on the North Korean economy from United Nations sanctions, and the worldwide Covid-19 economic downturn are likely the most important factors behind the vehemence of the statement, which indicates its urgency.

Denouncing U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Defending China

Another interesting and probably related media missive was a statement released by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. The statement said that Secretary of State Pompeo “reeled off rubbish” that the U.S. would work with its partners in the West to ensure that “liberal democracy” rules in this century. It continued to note that Pompeo “said nonsense about China over the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights and trade disputes,” and “he slandered the leadership of the Communist Party of China over socialism.” The statement then included another malicious comment about the Secretary of State: “Pompeo, who has been deeply engrossed in espionage and plot-breeding against other countries, has become too ignorant to discern where the sun rises and where it sets.”

The last phrase is probably the key to the blast at Pompeo. North Korea clearly has cast its lot with China and wants to make sure that Beijing will have no doubt that Pyongyang sees its future with its socialist neighbor China as relations deteriorate between the U.S. and China.

Increasingly dependent on China as its economy worsens, thanks to UN sanctions and now the Covid-19 economic downturn, North Korea appears to be increasingly concerned about its future. The blast at South Korea and the tightening embrace of China appear to show a North Korea increasingly fearful about the future in a very difficult time.

South Korea’s Immediate Response Risks Emboldening the North

In less than 24 hours after Mme. Kim Yo-jong issued her demeaning and intemperate screed against the flier balloons, the South Korean government responded that it would take immediate action to prohibit the sending of fliers via balloon because they caused “tension” with the North. Mayors of some of the towns along the border reportedly called for strong government action to halt the balloon launch. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification said “most leaflets have been found in our territory, causing environmental pollution and increasing burden on local people to get rid of them.”

Defectors and human rights activists were equally adamant that they would not stop their launch activities. One rights group said it had no plans to stop sending fliers across the border, and in fact had ordered another one million leaflets. Advocates were quick to denounce the restrictions as a violation of the right of freedom of speech, and others denounced buckling under Pyongyang’s demands.

The real risk of for the Moon Jae-in government is that by responding so quickly and so publicly to the demeaning dressing down from Mme. Kim Yo-jong gives the administration the appearance of being overly eager to accede to Pyongyang’s demands. It looks particularly obsequious to respond so quickly and so totally to such an arrogant ultimatum from the North.

Such a response only weakens Seoul’s ability to negotiate with the North.  The quick and total capitulation by the South will only encourage Pyongyang to take a tougher position in any negotiations that may come up in the future.  There was not even a hint that the South might drive a bargain with the North to get something in return for ending the sending of fliers.

I am personally skeptical of the value of balloons. Getting information into the North is better done with radio broadcasts and thumb drives than with fliers. How Seoul is responding, however, will have a major impact on future negotiations with the North.  Unfortunately, the pattern does not bode well. The South Korean government’s immediate capitulation on balloons will only encourage the North to make unreasonable demands. The real danger is that Moon Jae-in administration will be so eager to show success in improving relations with the North in the final two years of its tenure in office that there will be an incentive to cave to demands from the North.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Picture sources from Wikimedia commons

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A New Milestone in Advocacy for Defector Community

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On February 18, a group of North Korean defectors formed a political party called the South-North Unification Party.
  • The Unification Ministry recently announced plans to provide greater support for North Korean defectors.
  • According to the Unification Ministry, the average monthly income among North Korean defectors living in South Korea exceeded $1,681 for the first time in 2019.

Implications: Direct participation in electoral politics by people who escaped to South Korea from the North suggests that Seoul’s effort to integrate the defector community into society is delivering results. If the South-North Unification Party is able to send a delegate to the National Assembly in April, it would be a major milestone as only one North Korean defector has ever served in South Korea’s legislature to-date. Political mobilization by the community parallels improvements in living standards for North Korean defectors who have benefited from the steady expansion of services under successive administrations. The launch of this new political party shows that the community feels sufficiently assimilated to participate in policy discourse – albeit their campaigns spotlighting areas where the community has experienced persistent discrimination.

Context: As of December 2019, there were 33,523 North Korean defectors in South Korea. Annual surveys by Korea Hana Foundation showed that the quality of life for North Korean defectors has improved over the past decade. For instance, the number of respondents who said they were satisfied with their lives in South Korea rose from 67.3% in 2012 to 72.5% in 2018. The employment rate increased from 48.3% in 2012 to 60.4% in 2018. School dropout rates also decreased from 10.8% in 2008 to 2% in 2017.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from RFA by 서재덕

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Quiet over the Deportation of North Koreans

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • At the start of the month, two men escaped from North Korea after allegedly killing sixteen crew members aboard their fishing boat.
  • Just days after their arrival in South Korea, they were repatriated to the North because of the crimes they committed. This was the first time a North Korean had been deported since the end of the Korean War.
  • In response, a group of eighteen human rights organizations denounced the decision and accused President Moon of abandoning human rights issues to win favor with Kim Jong-Un.

Implications: Aside from the human rights groups, there has been limited public outcry against the deportation – potentially reflecting a growing domestic view that North Korea is a distinct and separate country from South Korea. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea argued that the expulsion is a violation of South Korea’s constitution, which views all Koreans on the peninsula as citizens of South Korea (with rights to due process in South Korea). Nevertheless, the government has stood by its decision, saying that the men’s crimes prevented them from being categorized as refugees. And a professor at Chung-Ang University acknowledged that other foreigners would be sent back to their country if they committed a crime, so the same should be done for North Korea. These positions suggest that North Korea is increasingly viewed as a sovereign country by South Koreans.

Context: The limited criticism in South Korea to the deportation of the North Korean men cannot be attributed to political apathy. South Koreans have congregated time and time again to protest perceived injustices. In the past weeks, South Koreans have turned out to support both sides of the Hong Kong protests. However, no major demonstrations were held over the extradition.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Photo from NVictor’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Reports of Defector Dissatisfaction Raise Questions About Resettlement Process

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Since 2015, 12 North Korean defectors in South Korea were caught trying to return to North Korea.
  • During the same time period, 64 defectors applied for refugee status in Europe and the United States despite receiving settlement in South Korea, according to new government data.
  • According to the 2018 Settlement Survey of North Korean Refugees in South Korea, 72.5% of North Korean refugee respondents were satisfied with life in South Korea.

Implications: With cases of North Korean defectors attempting to leave South Korea, Seoul will likely focus more heavily on social integration when formulating its resettlement policies going forward. Following the incident in August when a defector and her son starved to death, the inquiry initially focused on whether public services are materially failing this community. But survey data revealed that defector dissatisfaction was not predominantly driven by economic conditions. Most defectors cited difficulties separation from family back in North Korea (27.4%) and discrimination and prejudice (18.3%) as principal challenges to integration. Only 14.9% of respondents cited economic difficulties.

Context: The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago due to tighter border controls. As of June 2019, 33,022 North Korean defectors live in South Korea. Although still a relatively small community, research by Steven Denney (University of Toronto) and Chris Green (Leiden University) show that there is variation within this community’s attitudes towards South Korea. Denney and Green attribute this to people older than 55 having a different resettlement experience than their younger cohorts. Specifically, they hypothesize that the need for younger age defectors to compete with native-born South Koreans for jobs, build social networks, and substantively integrate into South Korean society negatively influence their resettlement experience and feelings of ethnic solidarity.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from Ceosad on Wikimedia Commons

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Five Notable Facts about Thae Yong-Ho

By Juni Kim

North Korea watchers have been busy for the last few days thanks to the high-profile defection of DPRK’s second-in-command in London, Thae Yong-Ho. While information will continue to emerge about Thae and his motivations, here are five interesting facts that we know thus far.


He defected with his family

Thae was able to defect with his wife and children. Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, noted in a press conference that Thae’s defection was partially motivated by his concern for his family’s future. It is widely reported that in order to deter potential defections, North Korea often punishes relatives still in North Korea. Although the method of Thae’s defection with his family is unknown, the fact that he could secure his immediate family’s safety likely played a large role in his decision.


He was scheduled to return to Pyongyang

Steve Evans, a BBC Korea correspondent, noted that Thae was scheduled to return to Pyongyang with his family. Although it is merely speculation at his point, Thae’s pending return to North Korea may have troubled him because of fear of regime retribution upon his arrival. Evans speculated that negative press about North Korea in the British media may have caused Thae to draw the regime’s ire. In addition, some experts have noted that with increased scrutiny of North Korea’s illicit activities, diplomats such as Thae may be having a hard time meeting quotas of gold, cigarettes and other valuable items they used to smuggle back to Pyongyang.


He is the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect in nearly 20 years

As the second highest ranked North Korean diplomat in London, Thae’s defection makes him the highest-ranking diplomat to defect since 1997, when North Korean Ambassador to Egypt Jang Seung-gil sought asylum with his wife at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Jang Seung-gil was also scheduled to return to Pyongyang at the time of his defection.


He lived in London for 10 years 

Thae worked in London for 10 years, which is an unusually long post for a North Korean diplomat. He was thoroughly engrossed in British suburban living, having taken up membership at a local tennis club, and he frequently played golf. Regarding Thae’s adjustment to British life, Evans commented, “He seemed so at home. He seemed so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper.”


He escorted Kim Jong-un’s brother to an Eric Clapton concert

Thae escorted Kim Jong-chul, elder brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and son of Kim Jong-il, to an Eric Clapton concert at Royal Albert Hall in 2015. A BBC video shows Thae with Kim Jong-chul emerging from a vehicle to enter the concert hall, which can be viewed here.


Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Laika ac’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Why Are Fewer Women Defecting From North Korea?

By Clare Hubbard

The 2012 Heritage Foundation/ Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom ranks North Korea last, after Cuba and Zimbabwe, with an economic freedom score of 1.  However, in the mid-1990s famine when women and men had to focus on securing food by generating income and bartering for staples and foodstuffs, small-scale markets developed.  The socialist system started to break down but it was still important for men to retain their state jobs to meet security requirements and have access to the welfare provided by the work unit. Women, on the other hand, either lost their jobs or left them to find other ways to generate income. Due to female microentrepreneurships giving North Korean women extra income, they have been able to defect in higher numbers than men; however, with North Korea pursing economic developments, the same women who might defect see a chance to make a profit and live more contently in their own country.

Money is essential when defecting from North Korea.  Bribes ranging from $100 to $1,000 (during a Pyongyang crackdown) have to be paid to border guards to allow passage without being shot at. Money is also needed for hiring a guard to take you through the Asian Underground Railroad, paying off officials and Chinese police. It can take years for North Koreans to accumulate enough money to defect.  Women account for a high number of defectors because they have the capacity to earn enough money to defect through their entrepreneurial efforts in small markets.

 In 2002 economic reforms were passed that allowed general markets to exist in North Korea, and this is the same year that women became the majority of defectors.  In 2004 men were banned from working in the markets, giving all the business to women. Women either lost their jobs or left in pursuit of more lucrative market opportunities.  In 2005 there was a drop in total number of defectors.  This drop could be due to policy reversals of the 2002 reforms in the fall of 2005, banning private trade in grain.  As a result of the ban on private trade people started to defect because of  worsening economic conditions leading to a higher defecting rate in 2006 and 2007. By 2006 markets were back to selling a variety of goods and North Korean women represented ¾ of the people defecting.  Females stayed in the 75-78% range until 2011 when they dropped to 70 percent.  Three explanations can explain why percentage of women defectors dropped:

1) Tightened security of the Chinese-North Korean border on both sides.

2) More available visas to work abroad and the ability to renew these visas after the first trip.

3) Women being more content with the current situation in North Korea.

Tightened border security could be a factor in declined defection because the control around the Chinese-North Korean border is said to have been boosted by both sides after the death of Kim Jong Il on December 17, 2011.  However, the security was also said to have gone back to normal in January/February 2012.  With border security at the same level of strictness as before and females earning enough money in their entrepreneurial careers to bribe guards their opportunities to defect became are the same as before and it can be said that tightened security is not a major factor in the percent of female defectors.

Legally, North Korean citizens are permitted to go to countries like Russia, China, Kuwait, Cambodia, Africa and Mongolia on work visas.  They leave on two year visas and now can return abroad once they’ve come home.  North Korea sends workers abroad to work in factories, restaurants and construction so that they can reach their fiscal goals.  While abroad North Koreans are not allowed to travel in their host country or have extended interactions with locals.  Their housing is usually located in or very near their work environment to prevent as much interaction with foreigners and the foreign culture as possible.  Only North Koreans with very secure family backgrounds are allowed to take these jobs and their family acts as “hostages” to assure their return. A benefit for the workers is that they earn a little bit more money than they would if they worked in North Korea. Even though these North Koreans have the ability to work in a different country they are not defectors in the sense that they do not have the mindset that defectors do: they are content with their role in North Korean society and they have no desire to leave.

While this could be the start of a new trend or just a glitch in the numbers, one thing is certain, there has been a change in the percentage of female defectors reaching South Korea.  Factors of this change could be due to economic reforms, never announced but quietly implemented, encouraging North Korean citizens to stay.  Or, the news of stricter borders could be discouraging potential defectors to leave now due to the perceived danger, waiting a little longer until they are assured security is back to normal.  North Koreans might be delaying their departure to see if the new regime will take a different approach in leading the country. The number of female defectors declining is most likely due to financial contentment in the freedom through street markets where women can make a profit and no longer feel like they have to defect to survive financially. However, the surge in inflation could also be impacting the ability of women to defect and undermine the possibility of economic reforms playing a role in the declining numbers. North Korea is undergoing major inflation made evident through the rapid increase in the price of rice and its exchange rate.  This surge is expected to worsen if the harvest, as predicted, comes in low. Inflation is eroding the savings of many citizens and makes it harder to make decent profits through the markets, even as the state is making market trade easier.

However, economic developments could give North Koreans more opportunities to pursue microfinancing by selling their extra crops in markets and then using their profits to give loans with interest to other citizens.  There have already been whispers of microfinancing from border NGOs that have talked to recent defectors about the economic situation.  Economic development, Special Economic Zones and the fact that a million North Koreans now have phones are all signs that the country is opening up.  The future of Kim Jong-un’s developments could equalize the gender ratio of defectors as more even opportunities for men and women to prosper in the market continue.

Clare Hubbard is a former Fulbright Korea English Teaching Assistant and current intern for the Korea Economic Institute.

Photo from Sung Ming Wang’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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