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Beijing Needs to Rethink its North Korean Refugee Policy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds binoculars as he guides a live-firing exercise in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA in Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds binoculars as he guides a live-firing exercise in this undated photo released by North Korea’s KCNA in Pyongyang

In an apparent act of defiance, North Korea on Tuesday fired rockets several kilometers north of a popular South Korean tourist observatory near the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).  North Korea has also threatened a fourth nuclear test, in violation of United Nations sanctions, and has test-fired short-range missiles and rockets four times in the past two weeks.  In recent months, North Korea carried out a series of missile and rocket launches into the sea, drawing strong criticism from South Korea, the United States and the U.N. South Korean defense officials have confirmed about 90 such firings by North Korea since Feb. 21, with 10 firings believed to have been ballistic launches.

Analysts speculate North Korea may be reacting to the presence of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in South Korea as part of joint military exercises, or demonstrating its anger with hated arch-rival South Korea, after South Korean President Park Geun-hye welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping last week in Seoul.  The two leaders agreed on the need to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons and to oppose any more nuclear tests.

China is North Korea’s only major ally and has long subsidized the regime’s existence as a buffer state through large amounts of fuel and food aid.  Withholding economic and food aid is one of Beijing’s strongest hands in deterring further rocket and missile tests, but it could easily exacerbate the situation by forcing one of Pyongyang’s strongest hands – opening the borders to a potential flood of refugees into China.

Beijing does not wish to deal with a flood of refugees, let alone a dozen.  The 11 North Koreans who were arrested by Chinese authorities in Jilin province on June 19 are the latest awaiting their fate, while international pressure builds for their release.  Beijing says the 11 North Koreans fled for economic reasons and should be returned to North Korea.  Pyongyang calls them criminals and those who helped them kidnappers.  Under international law, China is required not to return the defectors to North Korea, where human rights activists say they face persecution, torture and possibly death.

Refugees have long wandered back and forth between China and Korea.  From 1865 the Qing dynasty officially allowed Koreans to live and farm in Manchuria.  In 1920, the number of those migrating from Korea into China surpassed 450,000, most of which were escaping poverty and Imperial Japan’s attempts at smothering Korean culture.  By 1945, the number of Korean migrants in China totaled 2.1 million, and in 1952 China established the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, which is now home to over 800,000 ethnic Koreans.

Nowadays, there is an established underground network of South Korean churches and non-governmental organizations which shuttles refugees from China to South Korea — tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled since the famine of the mid-1990s.  Some activists estimate that between 30,000 and 40,000 North Korean refugees are living in China, procuring food for their relatives or waiting for a chance to escape to Laos or Thailand, where the South Korean authorities are able to help.

Given warmer economic and political ties with South Korea and frostier ties with North Korea, Beijing should consider a relaxation of its deportation policy to remove some of the leverage Pyongyang holds over Beijing.  Beijing is understandably worried of a humanitarian crisis developing on its territory should the floodgates open for a potential 24 million North Koreans – but it is unlikely an overwhelming number of refugees could escape.  South Korea could push for existing networks to be further strengthened through additional multilateral assistance and additional funding for NGOs to cope with manageable levels of refugees.  Whether or not China chooses to soften its refugee deportation policy in future and potentially reduce Pyongyang’s leverage, Beijing should make a small humanitarian gesture now and display its soft power capabilities by releasing the 11 North Koreans.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666