Should North Korea Receive Assistance?

A worker unloads sacks of U.S. wheat in North Korea in 2008. In recent years both the U.S. and South Korea have cut off all aid to the country.

Even with our lack of credible North Korean intelligence, one thing remains clear: the country’s people are starving, and have been for decades. After the terrible famine in the 1990s left hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of North Koreans dead, the regime has proved itself incapable of providing basic sustenance to the majority of its surviving citizens. According to a recent estimate by the U.N. resident coordinator in the DPRK, Jerome Sauvage, some “16 million people [in North Korea] continue to suffer from chronic food insecurity, high malnutrition rates, and deep-rooted economic problems.” With a population around 24 million, that means close to two-thirds of the country is severely underfed.

With the recent drought and floods this summer worsening the condition of crops in North Korea, combined with an almost nonexistent DPRK economy and infrastructure, there is little doubt that North Korea desperately needs international assistance. The larger question when dealing with the Kim regime, however, is: should the international community do anything about it?

In most cases of underdeveloped starving countries, there is typically unanimous agreement that developed countries and nonprofit organizations should step in to alleviate suffering to some extent. The question in such cases is usually how much aid is needed and what the international community can afford (or is willing) to donate — the focus is not on whether or not the world should help, but on how much help is reasonable.

North Korea is different. With an aggressive regime that uses state-managed resources for political control — fueling unspeakable human rights abuses — the worry is that international aid helps support a violent regime. What’s more, there have been concerns that aid given to the North doesn’t reach the people who need it most. The high level state officials tightly control any incoming resources, and so any aid that does reach the starving populace (often through corrupt illegal transactions) usually comes at a high price. In recent years major regional powers (South Korea, Japan, and the U.S.) have stopped donating aid for these reasons.

The Case for Aid

It has not always been this way. One of the most famous attempts at large-scale unconditional aid to North Korea came from its southern neighbor. During the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) South Korea attempted what is now called the “Sunshine Policy.” Throughout this ten-year period, South Korea took a liberal economic stance in the hopes that overt generosity would pave the way for harmonious relations. Some government estimates place the total amount of aid to North Korea from the ROK during the Sunshine decade at close to $3 billion.

The main idea behind the Sunshine Policy was that generous assistance would help some starving Korean poor, who are innocent in all this, and would simultaneously warm inter-Korean relations. An editorial in the Korea Times last year sums this perspective up nicely:

“Imagine a hunger-stricken family in your neighborhood oppressed by a violent, despotic patriarch. This villain often threatens you and even hits you sometimes. Would you let the poor children, the biggest victims, starve to death for having a tyrant father, then? Especially when they were once your family members, who are currently alienated but should be reunited in the end? … food aid to the North is killing three birds with one stone: retaking the initiative in improving [the] relationship; winning the hearts of numerous North Korean residents under transparent distribution; and a boon for South Korean farmers suffering from rice overproduction.”

Sunshine advocates emphasize a separation between politics and humanitarian aid.  They acknowledge that the Kim regime is a brutal one, but insist that their wrongdoing shouldn’t stop the flow of aid to starving civilians, who should not be punished for the actions of their leadership. Even if the assistance only reaches a small minority of the people who need it — they would say — isn’t that worth it?

At the same time, according to this perspective, aid would help “win the hearts” of these North Korean people, who would witness the generosity of their southern cousins. An editorial by Gordon G. Chang even went so far as to suggest that international aid, if properly monitored, could undermine the control of information in North Korea by giving the people there “an opportunity to meet outsiders and thereby get a different perspective on the world – and on their own society.” According to this line of thought, foreign aid would not only be the morally right thing to do, it could even lead to the collapse of the terrible Kim regime.

The Snag

The problem is that the North’s leadership is well aware of the effect that interactions with foreigners could have on its people. As a result, North Korea has traditionally held firm on incredibly strict conditions for foreign aid, eliminating all transparency and accountability, while limiting and monitoring communication between foreigners and North Koreans. According to Korean expert Victor Cha, North Korea “was completely inflexible” with regard to assistance from the U.N. and the World Food Programme (WFP):

“[D]espite the fact that the WFP 1998 appeal for 680,000 tons of food for the DPRK was the largest in history, the regime only allowed twenty-four monitors for the country the size of Pennsylvania … They denied entry to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, even though the United Nations was responsible for feeding easily one-third of the North Korean population … And for nearly ten years … the regime denied entry to any Korean-speaking WFP staff, in order to minimize contact with the population.”

While under ideal conditions, foreign aid would be able to reach people in dire need, and allow for intercultural meetings that could dispel North Korean propaganda myths, the DPRK government would never allow aid under such conditions. One of the key terms for any foreign assistance, according to Ambassador Robert King, is to “ensure transparency in aid distribution ‘to be certain that aid we provide goes to those who are most vulnerable, those who are most in need.'” So far, North Korea has been hostile to most basic transparency or monitoring measures.

But what about warming relations through unconditional aid? Surely North Koreans would at least notice the generosity of donor countries and organizations, right?

Wrong. Instead, as the Sunshine Policy years have shown us, the DPRK twisted the facts through its propaganda machine. The North Korean public was made to believe that the aid was not generous assistance given by its wealthy southern neighbor to its impoverished northern brethren (i.e., the truth), but that all the donations were merely “gifts” from its weak neighbor that recognized the “greatness” of the DPRK leadership.

The clearest example was when former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was able to organize an historic summit with former DPRK leader Kim Jong-il in 2000. While heralded as proof of the Sunshine Policy’s success, and earning the ROK president a Nobel Peace Prize, it was later revealed that the South paid $500 million in bribes to arrange the meeting. Thanks to the tight control the DPRK has over any information in the North, any form of unmonitored aid, like the payments for Kim Jong-il’s presence in the 2000 summit, plays right into the DPRK leadership’s hands. Even worse, most of that money goes straight to military developments.

So, What to Do?

It may be that in North Korea there are no right answers, only varying degrees of bad ones. To ensure that food reaches those who need it most, any foreign aid to North Korea should at least adhere to basic transparency and monitoring guidelines. Ideally (in the U.S. and South Korea’s wildest dreams), foreign aid would also come at the cost of an economically open and denuclearized North Korea. The problem is that current DPRK leadership will never accept even the most basic transparency conditions for foreign aid, as it could reduce the regime’s stranglehold on its people. So, any food assistance — under the North’s terms — would only further bolster a corrupt, violent regime.

The crux of the issue, then, boils down to this: either give aid to North Korea with almost no conditions to help alleviate some of the short-term suffering at the risk of supporting long-term human rights abuses and military developments; or refuse unconditional aid and worsen the current plight of starving North Koreans in the hope that long term benefits will arrive from a potential regime collapse. In the words of former Ambassador and lead negotiator in the six-party talks Christopher Hill, this is “one of the toughest choices that any government can face.” Perhaps precisely because there is no right answer, only two unsatisfactory ones.

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Floods Hit North Korea Where It Hurts

A shirtless man carries a young girl through a flooded street in Anju City on the west coast of North Korea.

The bad news continues for citizens of North Korea. After facing one of the worst droughts in recent history this summer, the North now has its hands full with severe floods. According to an official release by KCNA, the DPRK’s official state news organization, the floods have killed approximately 170 people,  injured 144, and left 400 more missing. In addition, KCNA reports that around 212,200 people are homeless as a result, most likely in the more rural provinces northeast of the well-manicured capital of Pyongyang. (Although, if past reports of national emergencies by the DPRK are any indication, these numbers could, in fact, be significantly higher.)

One of the biggest concerns is the effect this could have on North Korea’s already starving population. If the KCNA reports are accurate, the torrential downpours have left over 160,000 acres of farmland completely submerged and have damaged a number of healthcare and factory buildings. According to CNN, U.N. reports also indicate that damage to wells have left some 50,000 people without access to clean drinking water. In a country that has been struggling to feed its own citizens for decades — due to economic mismanagement, stubborn ideology, and aggressive military developments deterred foreign aid — the floods will hurt that much more.

Despite current U.N. sanctions on the DPRK (following the missile testing in April), the World Food Programme (WFP) agreed earlier this week to send emergency food aid to the most affected areas after the U.N. officially declared a state of emergency in North Korea on August 2. According to a report in The Guardian, the WFP aid will “provide the flood victims ‘with an initial ration of 400g of maize per day for 14 days.'”

Although the floundering DPRK will gladly take all the aid it can get, the recent natural disasters continue to fuel speculations of whether or not the Kim dynasty will finally collapse under its own chronic food shortages.

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It’s Official: Kim Jong-un Is Married

DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un (left) smiles during a photo-op with his newly announced wife, singer Ri Sol-ju (left), during a ceremony at a Rungna amusement park.

After weeks of speculation and a number of surprising public appearances, there is no longer any doubt over the mystery woman’s identity and her relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. KCNA, the official — and only — state news organization of the DPRK subtly announced the young woman to be Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju (contrary to previous South Korean reports, which claimed she was Hyon Song-wol, an already married woman). The article casually mentioned that “Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju were present at the [Rungna Pleasure Grounds] ceremony. All the participants enthusiastically welcomed them, loudly shouting ‘Hurrah!'”

While it may seem like a casual aside, just another propaganda piece about ordinary people welcoming the power couple on a business trip, the announcement has drawn considerable international attention (including even Stephen Colbert). North Korea’s decision to publicly announce Kim’s marital status, along with his new wife’s identity, signals a deliberate shift in governing style from that of his reclusive, playboy father Kim Jong-il. According to John Park, a research fellow for the Belfer Center at Harvard University, Ri’s appearance is yet another sign of Kim’s attempts at mimicking his deeply revered grandfather’s public image, as well as distancing himself from his less popular father:

“Secrecy and shadows characterized the 17-year rule of Kim Jong-il … In contrast, Kim Jong-un has already shown a pattern of being more open and engaging. He appears to enjoy public events and interacting with children and the common soldier. Many of these recent appearances look like a re-enactment of his grandfather’s mingling with the people in better times.”

Interestingly, however, grandson Kim’s taste in women seems to mirror those of his father, Kim Jong-il. Like his father Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has married a performer (although, in contrast to his father, only one so far). Ri is rumored to be a popular orchestra singer in North Korea (check out a reported video performance of Ri at Shanghaiist).

The political significance of the DPRK’s decision to publicly reveal the first lady, however, appears minimal at best. Although some commentators are quick to anticipate Ri’s appearance as the beginning of “liberal times” in North Korea, the move merely demonstrates, once again, young Kim’s efforts to revive the image and policies of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung (who also used to bring his wife along to meet with foreign officials). It’s an understandable strategy. Kim Il-sung enjoyed immense popularity as a father- and God-like figure who ruled through much better economic times. An effort to draw comparisons to the “Dear Leader” and founder of the DPRK makes sense. (Throughout his rule, Kim Jong-il tried to deflect attention to Kim Il-sung too, as he declared his father, and not himself, the eternal president of the DPRK.)

More worrisome, though, is the lack of any serious policy change in the current regime. While the “juche” (self-reliance) ideology and aggressive military posture may have worked in the early days of the DPRK, today North Korea faces much bigger challenges. Due to poor economic decisions in the 1980s, aggressive nuclear developments that draw the world’s condemnation, and a terrible food shortage in the 1990s which led to millions dead, North Korea is struggling for stability — and has been for decades.

To put it lightly, as the New York Times did, “North Korea remains one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states, with active gulags where defectors say torture and death are commonplace and one where failed economic policies helped lead to mass starvation in the 1990s and widespread food shortages that continue today.” While Kim may be putting on a family-friendly appearance with his newly debuted wife, the official policies of his regime continue to be anything but.

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Photo Gallery: Kim Jong-un in the Public Eye

It seems that Kim Jong-un resembles his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in ways beyond mere facial features. Although we still know very little about young Kim’s political vision for North Korea, one clear emphasis early on of the new DPRK leader has been an array of public appearances. If one goes to the Korean Central News Agency’s homepage (the official state, and only, news organization in North Korea), one is bombarded with images of a smiling Kim making the rounds with a group of loyal followers in various industries and cultural events:

“Kim Jong-un visits Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.”

“Kim Jong-un has a photo session with exemplary soldiers of KPISF.”

“Concert given by Unhasu Orchestra on KCU anniversary.”

“Kim Jong-un provides field guidance to Pyongyang Hosiery Factory, Children’s Department Store.”

“Kim Jong-un visits Kyongsang kindergarten.”

All these public appearances and photo-ops deliberately hark back to the days of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung, far and away the most revered and adored figure in North Korea today. The founding father of the DPRK made it a point to appear at numerous factories and ceremonies in order to inspire his people (so they could work harder) and develop his image as an involved, caring, loving familial figure. Kim Jong-un is taking a page out of his grandfather’s book, posing with children, officials, and soldiers all around the country.

Notably, many of the venues where Kim is pictured involve North Korean industry — factories, groceries, tourist spots, etc. (One recent propaganda video shows a lengthy inspection through a newly opened meat “shop” in Pyongyang.) There have been signs that Kim is moving away from the military-first policies of his father toward a focus on living standards and economic improvement, and many of the pictures back this up. A recent Foreign Policy entry cataloged the “inspector in chief’s” many public visits, where the leader is photographed at an amusement park, basketball court, development site, musical performance, and more (for the full FP slideshow, click here):

“Wearing what appears to be a Panama hat, Kim visits the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground in July.”

“Kim inspects Unit 671 of the Korean People’s Army.”

“Here he cuts the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Exhibition of Arms and Equipment of the Korean People’s Army in Pyongyang.”

Kim Jong-un “squeezing the face of a student at Mangyongdae Revolutionary School.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the North Korean regime is its ability to cultivate  lasting feelings of admiration and affection within its people while simultaneously keeping their individual freedoms violently constrained. Even in the face of brutal famines and economic hardships, the DPRK leadership has found a way to inspire its citizens. With all these smiling photo-ops, the newest leader in the Kim dynasty is trying to cement his place in the hearts and minds of ordinary North Koreans. Only time will tell whether he will succeed or not.

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What Does General Ri Yong-ho’s Dismissal Tell Us?

DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un (right) talks with former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Ri Yong-ho (left) during a ceremony in February 2012.

With genuine news as tightly controlled as ever within North Korea, the world is left to guess at the true state of affairs in Pyongyang through a few calculated moves by the DPRK regime. First a mystery woman appeared beside Kim Jong-un on state television, and now a rare public dismissal of a high ranking DPRK military official has been announced by the KCNA. Last Monday, the official mouthpiece of the DPRK announced that Ri Yong-ho, a high-level military official, was dismissed from all his previous posts due to “illness.” The move has sparked widespread curiosity abroad as it is highly unusual for the regime to publicly announce any dismissals within the government or military. (Generally they just allow such officials to gradually fade from public sight and quietly reveal a new person who since filled the position.) What could such a bold announcement tell us about the new North Korean regime?

Some experts have suggested that the dismissal signals a shift in power from the “songun” (or military first) policies of Kim’s late father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il. According to a New York Times article published earlier this week, the move may show how the new leader is heading toward “a bold readjustment [or weakening] of the military’s role.” Under Kim Jong-il, the military enjoyed a wide role in economic affairs as well as unprecedented power and privileges, including the right to profit from particular exports (a rarity in a country where any individual business transactions are strictly forbidden). Analysts note that Ri’s dismissal, coupled with Wednesday’s public announcement of Kim Jong-un’s appointment as marshal (the highest military rank in North Korea), point to the regime’s efforts to quell an internal power struggle between the Workers’ Party and the People’s Army.

Just how serious the power struggle is (and will be) in the current regime is anyone’s guess. According to an article published this weekend in The Atlantic, there were unconfirmed reports of a shootout between Ri’s followers and other North Korean soldiers in a possible military coup:

According to the South Korean daily The Chosun Ilbo, soldiers led by Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae attempted to detain Ri after he was dismissed from his position on Monday. According to South Korean government officials, that’s when guards protecting Ri opened fire on the soldiers in a gun battle that left 20 to 30 North Korean soldiers dead. The source also said “We cannot rule out the possibility that Ri was injured or even killed in the firefight.” Backing up that story, an official at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense told The Korea Times that the order may have been an attempt to suppress a military coup.

The article goes on to note a Reuters report that quoted an anonymous source as saying that Ri “opposed the government taking over control of the economy from the military” and was purged as a result. If these reports are accurate, the violent coup and disagreements would certainly signal a Kim regime struggling for stability — a far cry from the official “reports” of the KCNA.

However, it would be wise to take all these media speculations from South Korea with a grain of salt. Time and time again we are shown just how little we know about events in the North. And, as an NPR article reminds us, many reports from experts in the ROK turn out to be wrong. This is what happens when “insatiably curious journalists in Seoul are starved for information about their tight-lipped, isolated rival to the north.” (Although, to go even further than NPR, curious analysts worldwide are often too eager to identify any small event as a harbinger of change in North Korea.)

While the DPRK power struggle may be less violent than media reports would have you believe, Ri’s public dismissal certainly signals more of a significant policy change than other previously reported recent events (like the mystery woman or Kim’s recent choice of musical entertainment). With that said, exactly what this move tells us remains far from clear.

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Why Does China Still Support North Korea?

A Chinese flag waves in front of the Yalu Bridge as trucks loaded with Chinese goods head into North Korea one day after the memorial service for the late leader Kim Jong-Il on December 30, 2011.

Over the past five decades, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has gone from a fledgling economic power to a famine-wracked state best known for its labor camps, nuclear weapons program, and inclusion in George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil”. The country’s repeated military provocations, missile launches, and egregious human rights abuses have driven the United States and many European countries to sharply curtail any form of aid (including humanitarian) to Pyongyang. Yet despite its well-earned pariah status, the DPRK continues to receive significant material and political support from its historical (and perhaps only) ally — China. Why does Beijing still support North Korea?

Through Thick and Thin

The Chinese government has supported North Korea from its founding in 1948, providing an estimated 1.5 million ground troops to help the fledgling government secure statehood and defend itself from South Korean and American forces during the Korean War.[1] But Beijing’s support did not stop when the war was over. As North Korea began to rebuild its destroyed cities in the 1950s, China is reported to have provided the government with over $500 million in aid and loans.[2] Thirty years later, as North Korea watched the collapse of its other principal ally, the Soviet Union, China once again stepped into the void—boosting aid and energy flows across its northern borders. By 1993, independent analysts concluded that Beijing was the driving force keeping the North Korean regime afloat, providing an estimated 77 percent of North Korea’s fuel imports and 68 percent of its food supplies.[3]

China continued its support even as most other countries and international NGOs halted their humanitarian aid to North Korea due to widespread corruption, a complete lack of transparency, and Kim Jong-il’s nuclear threats. In 2005, the only countries providing aid to the DPRK were South Korea (during the “Sunshine Policy” initiated by President Kim Dae-jung) and China. Since South Korea’s subsequently more conservative leadership pulled the Sunshine plug in 2008, China is once again Pyongyang’s primary benefactor. Today, experts estimate that China still provides some 80 percent of North Korea’s imported consumer goods and 45 percent of its food.[4]

Rocky Relationship

The bilateral relationship, however, has not been an easy one for China. Mao Zedong was reported to have harbored reservations (and rightly so) over the DPRK founder Kim Il-Sung’s rash, often violent actions. And while the Korean War was celebrated by both countries as a major military victory, China’s participation cost it over 900,000 soldiers dead and a $1.3 billion bill.[5] Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, famous for the revolutionary reforms that spurred China’s remarkable economic growth, also had his run-ins with North Korean recklessness. Deng was reportedly furious after North Korea’s October 1983 assassination attempt on South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, which killed half of Chun’s cabinet. Not only did Deng view the incident as poorly conceived, its timing further aroused his ire. Just days before the attempted murder, Chinese diplomats had met with American representatives on behalf of the DPRK to propose three-party talks between the United States and the two Koreas. The flagrant violence only a few days later left China embarrassed on the international stage and its diplomatic efforts in shambles.

But North Korea’s blatant nuclear defiance may be the largest source of frustration for China. Brushing off international censure and even Beijing’s condemnations, the DPRK conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and in 2009. According to Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, the 2006 test “amounted to the ultimate sign of disrespect and irresponsible behavior that Kim Jong-il could have levied against China, short of starting a second Korean War.”[6] And although China has largely refused to back sanctions or international resolutions criticizing the renegade country, North Korean provocations are a serious concern for many Chinese officials.

In 2010, the DPRK continued its deadly antics with the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, killing 46 soldiers on board. Further imperiling inter-Korean relations, North Korea followed that attack by shelling the South Korean island Yeonpyeong in broad daylight—killing four civilians and injuring nineteen. Throughout these unprovoked military attacks and escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, China refused to either officially acknowledge the North’s culpability or to publicly criticize Pyongyang’s violent actions.

Stability or Money (or Both)

So what does China get out of this lopsided relationship? Analysts including Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, underscore the importance of regional stability for Beijing. He writes: “The Chinese are most concerned about the collapse of North Korea leading to chaos on the border.”[7] The rationale underlying this argument is that if China ended its economic support, the North Korean regime’s imminent collapse would trigger an enormous humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of malnourished, uneducated North Korean refugees flowing across China’s border. As illegal North Korean refugees already constitute a serious problem in China, this fear is well-founded.

North Korea’s location is also strategically important to Beijing, providing a buffer between China and South Korea (home to an estimated 29,000 U.S. troops). With North Korea in the middle, China is able to focus its military presence and expansion elsewhere in East Asia and abroad. With the Obama administration’s new “pivot to Asia” strategy, China aims to preserve maximum influence and regional allies against what it perceives to be a United States containment policy.

Lastly, China also has economic incentives for continuing to support North Korea. The desperately poor state is actually well endowed with natural resources including coal, iron ore, and limestone. A 2009 Goldman Sachs report estimated that the North’s mineral deposits were worth over 140 times the country’s GDP.[8] In addition, the North’s cheap labor and lack of regulatory oversight might be tempting for Chinese companies. As Cha observes, “The Chinese could mine [these] resources in their own country, but they can do it cheaper, setting their own price, and without cumbersome health regulations, in North Korea.”[9] The final benefit for China is that North Korean mining projects may bring in money and employment for China’s underdeveloped northeastern regions.

Whatever the myriad motivations, one thing is clear: if any country has the ability to influence North Korea’s behavior, it is China. But the risks associated with adopting a more critical line toward Pyongyang may run contrary to China’s emphasis on regional stability and economic growth. Daniel Sneider, an associate director of research at Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center, sums up this dilemma: “It’s clear that the Chinese have enormous leverage over North Korea in many respects. But can China actually try to exercise that influence without destabilizing the regime? Probably not.” Unlike most other countries, China has the leverage to potentially curb Pyongyang’s reckless behavior—but don’t expect a change in policy to come anytime soon.

[1] Xiaobing, Li. A History of the Modern Chinese Army (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), p.105.

[2] Eui-Gak Hwang. The Korean Economies: A Comparison of North and South (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.200-204.

[3] Jaewoo Choo. “Mirroring North Korea’s Growing Economic Dependence on China: Political Ratification,” Asian Survey, vol. 48, no. 2 (March/April 2008), p.359.

[4] Victor Cha. The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), p.342.

[5] Bruce Cumings. The Korea War: A History (New York: Random House, 2010), p.35.

[6] Cha, The Impossible State, p.330.

[7] Jayshree Bajoria and Beina Xu. “The China-North Korea Relationship” (Council on Foreign Relations, February 21, 2013) []

[8] Goohoon Kwon. “Goldman Sachs Global Economics Paper No. 188” (September 21, 2009).

[9] Cha, The Impossible State, p.337.

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The Plight of North Korean Defectors in the ROK

North Korean defectors attending a class at the Hangyeore school in Anseong, South Korea. North Koreans commonly arrive feeling unprepared for life in the fast-paced South.

For many North Korean defectors, life away from the DPRK is still filled with obstacles. While many North Korean citizens continue to flee the country in search of better opportunities, large numbers of defectors living in the South report battles with discrimination, isolation, and under-education. According to a New York Times article published yesterday, many North Koreans living in the ROK find themselves unprepared for integration in the technologically advanced South — posing a unique challenge to the South Korean government.

Despite tight border controls along the 38th parallel, the number of North Korean refugees living in the South is on the rise. (Almost all North Korean defectors attempt to leave via the northern China-DPRK border, and arrive in South Korea through various northeast Asian channels.) Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, more than 23,000 North Korean citizens have sought refuge in South Korea. And with massive food shortages and living conditions continuing to deteriorate in the North, these numbers show little signs of slowing down. In fact, the past decade has seen some of the largest inflows, with 2,737 people – one of the highest recorded totals – fleeing to the ROK in 2011. The large majority of these people report coming to South Korea in search of food (50 percent) and freedom (31 percent).

The South Korean government has attempted various integration efforts to aid the refugees’ transition, but to mixed success. One of the major governmental efforts was an offer for “approximately 500 defectors enrolled in South Korean universities” to have access to “free tuition, government-paid housing, and living stipends.” However, a large number of these North Korean students struggle with their coursework, as many arrive with only elementary education, which focused more on “political indoctrination than reading and math.” And it shows: Education experts say that more than half of North Korean university students drop-out of school (compared to 4.5 percent of South Koreans).

Typically, North Koreans in the South face discrimination, lower-salaries, and higher rates of unemployment. Often stereotyped as “backward country cousins,” 12 percent of North Korean defectors in the South are unemployed (compared to 3.4 percent of South Koreans). While a lack of education certainly contributes to this statistic, discrimination and emotional problems hamper defectors’ economic prospects as well. According to the New York Times article, North Koreans “often suffer depression, anger and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.” One North Korean defector, Kim Kyeong-il, described his experience well:

“I felt like someone from the 1970s who was put on a time machine and dropped in the 21st century,” said Mr. Kim, 24, a senior majoring in Chinese language. He said many of his classmates shun him for his northern accent, and for his small stature likely caused by inadequate nutrition.

This is not to say that many North Koreans don’t have significantly better lives in the South. (For instance, 70 percent of North Korean defectors living the South Korea report that they are “satisfied” with their lives, compared to only 5 percent who said they were dissatisfied.) The South Korean government, however, should continue to make headway in its integration efforts. Because if the shaky DPRK were to collapse (and the region flooded with refugees), the bulk of the responsibility would fall to the ROK.

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