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Beijing Signals Through North Korean Defectors

Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China, in this April 12, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Joseph Campbell/Files

Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China. (REUTERS/Joseph Campbell/Files)

Despite a growing number of experts raising their doubts on the effectiveness of a buffer zone, the Chinese authority still recognizes North Korea’s geopolitical significance: a buffer state between itself and the 29,000 U.S. troops stationed in the South. Considering China’s current political agenda, emphasizing its own security and economic development, being forced into a conflict due to Pyongyang’s provocative behaviors would be costly for Beijing.

In early April, 13 North Koreans restaurant workers escaped from their jobs in the Chinese coastal city of Ningbo. A similar escape happened one month later, according to the Ministry of Unification in Seoul. All defectors are workers at North Korean state-run restaurants in China and fled through a third country and arrived in the South weeks after the escape. These defectors were not only able to obtain their own passports but also received tourist visas from the Thai embassy in Beijing.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang, the 13 restaurant workers left the country legally with valid passports. Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, confirmed the second escape in May, indicating that the defectors left the country legally as well. It was the first time that the Chinese government made public announcements on such a matter.

Beijing Signals Through North Korean Defectors

The common defecting route for North Koreans is to cross the northern border to China, reach a third country before arriving in the South. (Luisetta Mudie & Sarah Jackson-Han/Radio Free Asia)

Escaping from the North was never easy. Between 1,000-2,000 North Koreans make their way to the South successfully each year, but many more are being captured or executed. Approximately 29,000 North Koreans relocated to the South since the division of the Korean Peninsula. Against all odds, the most common route for defectors is to cross the Chinese-North Korean border, reach a third country before finally arriving in the South.

As an important transit point, China has been creating obstacles for these escapes. For years the Chinese government has captured and repatriated these defectors. Common practices include assisting DPRK undercover police in searching for escapees and rewarding Chinese villagers that report suspicious personnel. Since 2006, a wired fence was installed by the China-North Korea border to prevent defectors from entering the country.

A North Korean female soldier, right, looks back as she and another patrol on a pathway along the bank of the Yalu River, the China-North Korea border river, near North Korea's town of Sinuiju, opposite to the Chinese border city of Dandong, Sunday Nov. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

A North Korean soldier as she patrols  along the banks of the Yalu River, the China-North Korea border river. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Poor working conditions and lower incomes may be the trigger for these two escapes. North Korean state-operated restaurants are experiencing financial difficulties, and some of them have closed down in the past few months. Experts believed that the UN Security Council Sanctions (Resolution 2270) adopted last March had a significant impact on these restaurants.

The South Korean government discouraged their citizens and international tourists to visit the restaurants, as they are a source of income for the Kim’s regime. To make up for revenue losses, restaurant workers were required to work additional hours. These unfavorable circumstances transformed the once desirable job into a defecting stepping stone for the staff and managers.

A common practice of North Korean restaurants is for the managers to seize their employees’ passports during their stay in a foreign country. Having managers in their group made the escape easier for these restaurant defectors.

Beijing’s new non-corporative stance with Pyongyang also facilitated these escapes. As all travelers are required to pass customs when exiting the country, a North Korean passport with travel visa to Thailand should have raised the suspicions of Chinese immigration officers. Nevertheless Beijing chose to look the other way as these North Korean passport holders were crossing the border.

This was the first time the Chinese government took a neutral stance on North Korean defectors. Despite that the stability of the Kim regime has long been a priority of China’s East Asia policy, Beijing is losing patience with the regime and signaling its dissatisfaction by loosening its grip on North Korean defectors in China.

To read more on this topic:

Jonathan Corrado & Brian Moore, North Korea’s Outsourced Workforce. Foreign Affairs. (June 9, 2016)

John Ruwitch & Joseph Campbell, Before defecting, North Korean waitresses shopped for backpacks. Reuters. (April 13, 2016)

James Pearson & Ju-min Park, South Korea says more North Korean restaurant workers defect from third country. Reuters. (May 24, 2016)

Yeh Yong-June & Kim So-Hee, China snubs North’s grouse about defectors. Korea JoongAng Daily. (April 12, 2016)



Wenjun Zeng

Wenjun Zeng is a Chinese national focusing on the regional security and trust-building in the Asia-Pacific. She has worked with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and U.S. diplomats and scholars to create Track II dialogue platforms on Asia-Pacific security issues. She is also an analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy that identifies and provides solutions to global risks.

Wenjun earned her Bachelor in Arts degree in Psychology and International Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her Master of Arts degree in Politics from New York University.

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