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    Korea
     Jan 5, 2013


Kim cracks open refugee issue
By Andrei Lankov

In early November, North Korean TV viewers were exposed to an unusual sight: official North Korean TV (admittedly, the only TV North Korea has) broadcast a press conference in which a young man and young woman confessed their former misdeeds and begged for forgiveness.

In 2008, Kim Kywang-hyok and Ko Chong-nam escaped from North Korea to the South. They met and married in the South, but a few months ago they chose to flee the capitalist hell of the South and return to loving bosom of the Dear Leader.

That is more or less literally what they said during their press conference - the couple claimed that they decided to move back

 
after they were moved by the sight of Young Marshall Kim Jong-eun visiting a kindergarten. Facing such a moving sight, they realized that their child should not face any more of the living hell of the South and returned forthwith to the great fatherly love of Kim Jong-eun.

This press conference is just another sign of the rather dramatic reversal of North Korea's attitude towards refugee-related issues.

Until the mid-1990s, only a handful of North Koreans fled the country and moved to the South (a dozen persons a years at most). However, in the mid-1990s, North Korea was struck by a disastrous famine, and around the same time the domestic surveillance and border control systems collapsed. As a result, at times of famine, a large number of North Koreans left the country and crossed the porous border to China in search of food and work.

In 1999, an estimated 200,000 North Koreans illegally resided in China - largely doing poorly paid unskilled work. In subsequent years the number went down, but still remained considerable - now there are some 30,000 North Koreans hiding in China and a comparable number of North Korean citizens who stay there officially.

Some of these people have eventually managed to find their way to the South. As a result, from around 2000 the hitherto statistically insignificant community of North Korean refugees in the South began to grow fast. As of now, there are 24,000 North Koreans residing in the South - an impressive 24-times increase in little over a decade.

Unlike the earlier era, most of these people now stay in contact with their families, using a network of brokers - professional intermediaries who deal with money transfers, letter delivery and if necessary people smuggling (across the Sino-Korean border). Chinese mobile phones are smuggled to the North in large numbers, and this penetration also has made a great difference. Refugees now can call their relatives in North Korea, so long as these relatives live in the vicinity of the Sino-Korean border, where mobiles can pick up signals from relay stations in China.

Until about a year ago, the North Korean government essentially ignored the existence of the refugee problem. Refugees were occasionally mentioned in some confidential papers, which only party cadres and security officials could read, but the general media remained completely silent on the issue. This was understandable: even though official propaganda has recently become prepared to admit that North Korea is not the world's most prosperous society, it still claims that all North Koreans are unified in their unwavering loyalty to the current Kim and would never think about willingly leaving their beloved country.

This attitude changed recently. Starting from the last summer, the North Korean media has begun to talk about the refugees. Interestingly, they refugees are described as talbukja, which is word that was coined and is widely used in South Korea itself.

In 2012, at least three major media events that dealt with refugees. In one case, the North Korean media reported that some of the refugee groups in the South had dispatched agents to North Korea to commit terrorist attacks. The object of their planned attack was not exactly animate, since according to the report these agents of imperialism were sent to blow up statues of Generalissimo Kim Il-sung, founder and former leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The two other media events were press conferences in which returned refugees begged for forgiveness and described their sufferings in the capitalist hell. The first such case was that of an old lady called Pak In-suk, who was shown to the North Korean populace last summer. In November, the aforementioned conference of Kim and Ko also took place. Judging by recent trends, one can almost be certain that such reality shows will become a major part of Pyongyang's propaganda repertoire for the foreseeable future.

It is difficult to say what drove these particular refugees back. It has been even suggested that their entire defection was an operation by North Korean secret services, so they were Pyongyang agents from the beginning. While this is not completely impossible, such an idea does not seem particularly likely. This correspondent strongly suspects that most of these returned refugees are genuine.

From my own interactions with refugees in the South, I have become aware that many of these people experience serious social, psychological, cultural and financial problems that tend to be especially acute in the first years after their arrival. Many of them have told me that at some point during their sojourn in the South they entertained the idea of returning to the North.

While North Korean defectors in the South tend to live significantly more affluent lives in than they did in the North, they soon discover that their earlier expectations were not particularly realistic and that it is very difficult for them to adjust to South Korean society. In most cases, they can only get unskilled work, for which their income will be significantly lower than the South Korean average. Things are further exacerbated by the suspicious and somewhat hostile attitude of many South Koreans.

So one should not be surprised when learning that a relatively small number of North Korean refugees have had enough and decided to move back to the North. If rumors are to be believed, such things have happened in the past, but until recently neither North nor South Korean authorities were willing to attract attention to such "double defections". In North Korea, such returnees were, according to persistent rumors, treated with great leniency and given their own lecture circuit. Nevertheless, until early 2012, the refugee problem was officially non-existent in the official North Korean media space.

Why did the official attitude change? There are seemingly two reasons. First, the North Korean government has begun to worry about the growing political impact of refugees and has decided to do something about it. Second, the North Korean authorities realized that returning refugees, if handled with some skill, have huge propaganda potential.

To start with, the North Korean government has valid reason to worry about the potential impact of refugees in the South. Refugees now constitute roughly 0.1% of North Korea's entire population (a very small, but not completely insignificant number), but they still can exercise significant influence over their extended families and friends within North Korea.

The South-based refugees send $10-15 million home annually (these transfers are technically illegal but easy to arrange). These remittances are not negligible and their existence is a further demonstration of South Korea's prosperity. Illicit phone calls, letters and stories are also major carriers of dangerous knowledge about the outside world, above all about the rich and attractive South Korea.

Last, but not least, politically committed refugees form the core of the most militant anti-Pyongyang groups operating outside North Korea (even though the vast majority of refugees are remarkably apolitical).

It seems that it was Marshall Kim Jong-eun himself who initiated the reverse of North Korea's refugee policy - at least, the first signs of changes coincided with his ascent to power.

Marshal Kim did not limit himself to propaganda alone: a need for stronger policing of the border is understood, too. It is widely believed that the new North Korean leader (at the time still a recently appointed heir) initiated the considerable increase in border security in 2010; allegedly, he said that the "border with China is more important as a line of ideological struggle than even the DMZ". This is indeed the case: the Sino-Korean border was porous; the DMZ was and is not.

Admittedly, heightened border security is bearing fruit. The year 2012 saw a sudden and dramatic drop of refugees arriving in the South. According to recently published data, only 1,508 North Korean refugees entered the South in 2012 - roughly half of the 2011 level (there were 2,706 refugees in 2011). This unprecedented drop is understandable: due to the heavy presence of border guards and police, it has become very difficult and risky to cross the border.

At the same time, policing is not enough. It makes perfect sense to persuade North Koreans that escape is a bad option, that life in the affluent South is far more difficult than it might appear at first glance. This is not easy to demonstrate when many North Koreans watch South Korean TV shows or movies and when rumors about South Korea's unbelievable affluence spread via China. The use of returning refugees is therefore all too logical, since their testimony may be taken seriously (well, in some cases at least).

In their conference, Kim and Ko described their sufferings in South Korea in great detail. There is little doubt that their performance (marked as it was by exaggerated gesturing, outbursts of tears and other cheap theatrics) was carefully scripted. It is not incidental that they explicitly mentioned the great difference between the reality of South Korean life and the lifestyle depicted in South Korean TV shows. Their scriptwriters obviously understand that many who were watching the official Pyongyang broadcast also secretly watch South Korean TV shows.

Kim and Kom also stated that North Korean refugees cannot buy houses of their own and have great difficulties getting jobs. That is true, even though they predictably failed to mention that the South Korean government provides refugees with heavily subsidized public housing. The message was simple: South Korea might not be hell for many native-born South Koreans, but it is clearly not a place where North Korean refugees are welcome, and thus it is better to stay home and not be seduced by the shining bright lights of not-so-distant Seoul.

Will this propaganda work? Perhaps yes, but only to some extent. As a former Soviet citizen, the present author remembers well how similar methods were employed in Soviet agitprop of the 1970s and 1980s. In those times, the Soviet audience was occasionally treated to the sight of their fellow compatriots who had been tricked by Western propaganda and foolishly left the socialist motherland only to discover that life in a capitalist society is full of suffering and deprivation.

The Soviet audience remained unpersuaded (even though the post-communist experience demonstrated that much of what this propaganda said about capitalism turned out to be true). The stories of repenting compatriots returning to the Soviet-union could probably only mildly tarnish the glittering image of the prosperous, democratic and free Western countries.

Therefore, I strongly suspect that the new propaganda line of Pyongyang will have only a marginal impact on popular attitudes toward the South. Nonetheless, it is a smart move, which tells that Young Marshal understands where the threats to his rule come from.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.

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