How “Open” is the North Korea – China Border?

Although many consider North Korea to be a “hermit” country, perhaps the China-DPRK border is not as closed as we think.

The typical portrait of North Korea these days is that of a highly secretive and completely isolated country. However, an Asia Times article today by Andrei Lankov, an associate university professor in Seoul, believes that this is an overly “exaggerated” image of a closed-off nation, and argues that the northern North Korean border is, and has been, more porous than is often assumed. Lankov outlines a brief history of the migrations, in both directions, on the China-North Korea border to highlight the volume and variety of legal and illegal border-crossings within the past century.

According to Lankov, the migrations have historically gone in both directions. In the early 1900s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1934), Korean migration to China was on the rise, and was already relatively high after a migration ban was lifted in the late 1800s. The majority of immigrants were Korean farmers attracted by the large amounts of fertile land. By 1942, the Korean population in Manchuria totaled approximately 1.5 million, close to five percent of the total region’s population. In the initial years of the DPRK, in the early 1950s, the border remained almost completely unregulated, and many ethnic Koreans living in China also traveled to North Korea, to move permanently. In those days, the North Korean government in Pyongyang “actively encouraged the return of Koreans living overseas.” Upon their return, they would typically be given jobs and granted citizenship.

Migration continued to occur later, even under “tightly controlled” governments that worked hard to restrict border movement. In the late 1950s, after a number of mass emigrations of ethnic Koreans, Chairman Mao Zedong refused to allow mass repatriations, as he feared they would damage China’s reputation, which he was trying to portray as a “communist utopia.” Although, after terrible famines in China in the early 1960s and 1970s, the harsh restrictions had seemingly little impact, as tens of thousands fled to North Korea in search of better opportunities. Although it may be hard to imagine now, in those days North Korea was doing relatively well, and, as Lankov notes, North Korea even had higher living standards than China in the early 1980s.

Eventually, however, the tides turned. In the 1990s China’s economy was “booming” and a mass famine and food shortage hit North Korea. There were plenty of jobs available in China for workers with little skills or who lacked a suitable grasp of Chinese. In 1999, during the height of the famine, there were over 200,000 estimated North Koreans living in China. Then, it was North Korea’s turn to limit emigration, and soon borders were routinely patrolled by military and security forces. Although, Lankov notes that, given the resources, illegal immigration can still be arranged: “If one can pay a bribe, an illegal cross-border trip is still easy, but the cost of these bribes has increased considerably, so many common migrant workers cannot afford to go to China anymore.”

Even given the current harsh rhetoric from the DPRK, Lankov observes how the amount of legal travel by North Koreans to China is still surprisingly high today:

North Koreans are often sent to work in China – the sale of labor is one of the main sources of income for Pyongyang. These workers travel legally, with proper documents … In recent years this legal cross-border movement has surpassed the illegal migration. In 2011, for example, about 122,000 North Koreans went to China legally, and for a majority of them the destination was near the border.

In fact, according to Lankov, this relatively open border functions as a window for North Koreans to the rest of the outside world: “The news about China’s economic success and the unbelievable prosperity of South Korea is spreading in North Korea, and in most cases these reports travel by way of China.” If the border really is as open as Lankov’s article implies – and he argues from a convincing historical narrative – it will be interesting to see if this international information will have effects for the North Korean regime and its people.

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