09.09.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“Mass Exodus” of North Koreans: a Reality or Myth?

34234234123123Summer 2016 was marked by a series of high-profile defections from North Korea. Unlike the story with the waitresses, they can hardly be classified as provocations.

The defection of Thae Yong-ho, the North Korean Deputy Ambassador to London, who left the diplomatic mission and requested political asylum for himself and his family, was the most sensational case in the series. According to BBC, Mr. Yong-ho had lived in the UK for about 10 years and was charged with supervising the North Korean propaganda campaigns. After Mr. Yong-ho’s disappearance, the Embassy made attempts to locate the missing diplomat, but unsuccessfully. Although at first it was not clear which country would give him asylum, Mr. Yong-ho ended up in Seoul becoming the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to ever defect to the Republic of Korea (ROK). So far, no claims have been made as to the reasons of his defection. However, the Ministry of Unification was quick to suggest that Mr. Yong-ho could have gotten frustrated with the North Korean regime and might have wanted to seek freedom.

While some news agencies claimed that he escaped back in July, Reuters reports that so far the London-based Embassy of North Korea has not confirmed this information.

Relying on the ROK’s mass media, at least 10 North Korean diplomats stationed in Europe and the Southeast Asia have defected in the first six months of 2016, including the former Third Secretary of the North Korean Embassy to Saint Petersburg, Russia, Kim Chol Song. At first, he was considered missing and a missing person alert was raised for him. On August 18, however, it became known that Mr. Song had arrived to the ROK accompanied by his family. What happened in reality was that Mr. Song secretly flew to Minsk, then to Ukraine and then, using crabwise routes, to South Korea.

On August 26, 2016, it was discovered that another Pyongyang’s trade representative had defected from Vladivostok along with his family in July.

Then, there was another report about the escape of an employee of the so-called “Office Number 39″ of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in charge of the party’s financial affairs. He, just like Mr. Yong-ho, had lived in Europe for about 20 years. Another North Korean escapee, known as “Mr. A” (“A” being the first letter of his last name) was in the rank of an army general overseeing North Korean affairs in Southeast Asia. He had planned an escape to the America, but the authorities of the United States refused to grant him asylum and he ended up somewhere in Europe. He defected on July 12. Among the alleged reasons are the dissatisfaction with Kim Jong-un’ regime and pessimism about the future of North Korea. There were also rumors that when defecting, the general stole several hundred bn wons ($111.1 mn) he had been entrusted with. South Korean periodicals suggested that “Mr. A” might be the man responsible for the so-called “secret party money” or even for the leader’s “personal funds,” which, as some suspect, have been deposited in European banks under false account holder names.

Furthermore, a North Korean student, who participated in the annual International Mathematical Olympiad held in Hong Kong, applied for asylum in the Hong Kong-based South Korean consulate on the night of July 16 to 17, immediately after the closing of the Olympiad. Three more North Koreans (two restaurant and one construction workers), who had worked on Malta and had been considered missing, also turned up in the ROK.

Pyongyang reacted to the wave of escapes by sending a commission composed of representatives of the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of External Economic Affairs to trade missions operating in Russia and the Northeast China. First, North Korean commissioners visited Vladivostok and on their way back, Chinese Dandong, Changchun and Shenyang.

North Korean trade missions have also began reshuffling their staff. An audit was ordered not only in respect of the North Korean diplomatic and trade missions, but also other state institutions, though audits are said to be a part of the “anti-corruption” initiative and are supposedly not politically motivated. These details were reported by the South Korean mass media, which allege that inspection commissions are being formed and sent abroad at Kim Jong-un’s personal order. The commissions’ goal is to ensure loyalty of all North Korean citizens working in foreign countries. The untrustworthy are supposed to be sent home without delays. The same sources alleged that an audit was also ordered for all PCs and phones used by the employees of North Korean diplomatic missions as well as for all financial statements.

They speculated that to prevent other escapes similar to Thae Yong-ho’s, North Korea had ordered all family members of diplomats and representatives of trade missions to return home.

As for Thae Yong-ho, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) declared him a crook and demoralizer, who, since he was facing a “call on the carpet” on his return home, decided to flee. The international audience remained skeptical of the explanation and soon started making witty remarks about the ease with which such a scoundrel managed to make a career of a diplomat and rise to a high position without being unmasked.

The South Korean mass media and its allies in the ideological struggle against Pyongyang believe that anti-North Korean sanctions, which are expected to push the country to the brink of revolution, contributed to the spike in the number of defections, which are being construed as the first signs of the impeding revolution. According to a statement released by the ROK’s Ministry of Unification, the desire of North Koreans to defect to third countries is quite understandable since Kim Jong-un’s regime actively employs the “policy of intimidation” in an attempt to bolster its position, which only further aggravates instability in the country, forcing its citizens to flee.

Having examined the above cases, we can move on and carry out an unbiased analysis of facts. What is important here is to stay sober and avoid jumping to false conclusions based on three-four cases at hand.

One of the core questions is whether an increase in the high-profile defection cases indicates that the overall number of escapees has also gone up.

According to the data released by the ROK’s Ministry of Unification, in the period from January to July 2016, 815 North Koreans fled the country. This is a 15.6 percent increase to the similar period of 2015. South Koreans attribute a rise in the number of defectors to the international sanctions and a declining standard of living in North Korea. They forecast that by the end of the year as many as 1,500 North Koreans might leave the country boosting the total number of North Koreans living in the ROK to over 30 thousand people.

South Korean experts base their assumptions on the fact that the number of defectors has been gradually reducing right after Kim Jong-un’s rise to power. To see whether this opinion is correct, let us refer to the statistics below. Although the numbers slightly differ, they are compatible. The table below summarizes the numbers of North Korean defectors to the ROK.

Prior to 1970 1

1970-1979

1980-1989

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

485

59

63

9

9

8

8

52

41

56

85

71

148

312

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

583

1,138

1,281

1,894

1,383

2,018

2,544

2,809

2,927

2,379

2,737

1,502

1,420

1,276

In 2015, 1,277 North Koreans fled to South Korea through China and other countries.

76% of defectors are women originating from the border regions. Their decision to leave North Korea is usually driven by economic rather than political reasons.

There are only few lucky ones who receive permission to reside in the United States. Just six North Koreans were granted the refugee status in the US in May 2006. Since then only 200 North Koreans settled in the United States. Under the US law, North Korean refugees who have lived in the country for a year are eligible for a legal permanent residence. To apply for the citizenship, they have to stay in the country for five years. The largest number of North Korean defectors (38 people) was admitted to the US in 2008. The smallest number (9 people)—in 2006. In recent years, the number of North Korean escapees accepted by the US has been steadily declining. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 only 14, 15 and 14 people respectively were admitted. Since the beginning of this year, only 8 people ended up in the US. Defectors recognized by the US as refugees usually have an established status of the people “persecuted for political reasons.”

The data provided in the table does not correlate all too well with the amendments made to the DPRK’s anti-defection legislation establishing punitive measures for illegal border crossing. For example, 2004 (when the punishment for defecting was relaxed) saw a slight increase in the number of escapees; 2010, which followed the year when maximum punishment was increased from 3 to 5 years, saw just a slight decline of cases; 2011 was marked by another upswing.

South Korean experts link the declining number of defectors with tougher penalties for fleeing the country introduced by Kim Jong-un. They, however, fail to provide any references supporting their opinion (e.g., amendments to the Criminal Code, etc.). There is another explanation of the decline (although unofficial)—a slight improvement in the state of the North Korean economy. Besides, more North Koreans realize that life in South Korea is not a bed of roses. What’s more, North Korea is actively pursuing a policy of repatriation of defectors. In 2013 alone at least 13 people defected back to DPRK.

Even if the South Korean forecast proves correct and the number of escapees reaches the projected 1,500 in 2016, it would be close to the number reported in 2013 (before the imposition of sanctions). The table also demonstrates that the number of defectors reached its peak in the last years of Kim Jong-il’s rule when the situation in the rural and border regions of the country was not too bad. There were no warnings of famine or catastrophic changes coming out of South Korean at that time either. Judging by the numbers indicated in the table, the flow of defectors in the five recent years can be described as volatile: there are no sharp spikes or downswings.

But there is another, more important question: are we witnessing a mass exodus of the North Korean elite? Evidently, the answer is “yes,” but what is noteworthy—all high-profile cases involve diplomats or employees of trade missions. In the majority of cases, they were people who had lived abroad for a long time.

As for Thae Yong-ho, it is quite clear that he was not too thrilled to return to North Korea or to bring back his children, who had, evidently, gotten so used to the western lifestyle within ten years of their stay abroad, and would have had a hard time adjusting to the North Korean reality. According to the western press, those were the true reasons for Mr. Yong-ho’s defection and not his disappointment in the North Korean regime. But there is another aspect to the problem, which South Koreans keep overlooking.

Shortly before the recent ordeal with defectors, a high-profile corruption scandal erupted in Bangladesh. The country’s authorities deported the First Secretary of the North Korean Embassy Han Son Ik for smuggling into the country cigarettes and electronic devices worth of nearly $500 thousand. Customs managed to seize all the smuggled goods. The country’s authorities stated that it was not the first time that the First Secretary had been caught committing crime. They also said that Han Son Ik’s predecessor had been deported from Bangladesh when he had been caught carrying 27 kilos of illegally transported gold. The cost of the gold was estimated at almost half a million US dollars.

Of course, the South Korean mass media reported on the incident as well as on the reaction of the North Korean leader who ordered a harsh large-scale audit of all relevant departments to ensure nobody else was engaged in illegal business activities. It is a known fact that despite the efforts of authorities, the black market exists in North Korea: allegations of corruption, for example, made up a major part of “Jang Sung-taek’s criminal case.” Besides, imposition of western sanctions disrupted access to the international banking system for North Korean diplomats and trade representatives alike forcing them to carry around large amounts of cash in hope that their status would render them immune to checks. Quite understandably, such an awkward situation provides fruitful grounds for the invention of corruption schemes. It is also quite logical that people involved in them would be inclined to choose the status of a defector over the status of a corruptionist, who, by the North Korean tradition, is always accused of being a spy, demoralizer and a member of an “antiparty” group. If convicted, all these charges would carry if not a death penalty, then at least a long-term imprisonment.

Thus, South Korean mass media has once again resorted to the wishful thinking. All these talks about “more and more Koreans disapproving of the current North Korean regime and refusing to live in the country where Kim Jong-un practices his “policy of intimidation,” or the chewing over of the “discontent of the local population spurred by the tightening of anti-North Korean international sanctions and extended exploitation of labor in the run up to the recently held events on the occasion of the WPK’s 70th anniversary and the Seventh Congress of the WPK” merely demonstrate how the masters of propaganda having been distantiating themselves from reality getting more and more obsessed with their own delusions.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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