As published in Foreign Policy in Focus
In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) announced that a “commission of inquiry” would begin investigating suspected human rights abuses in North Korea. Given that over the past decade the United Nations (UN) has issued more than 20 reports and 16 resolutionscondemning the country’s abysmal human rights record, one might be tempted to ask what another investigation would accomplish.
In this case, however, the timing is fortuitous. Recent inter-Korean tensions have rekindled debate over possible methods for moving the North Korean government away from weapons development. If the HRC report were to result in the establishment of a framework and funding mechanism under UN auspices to assist refugees who have crossed the border into China, it might provide a far more effective approach against the recalcitrant nation than either further sanctions or engagement.
In trying to create change in North Korea, the international community has primarily relied on external pressures, such as punishments and inducements. As John Feffer notes in his recent piece for Foreign Policy in Focus, however, only North Koreans themselves can spark a change in the behavior of Kim Jong-un’s regime. Instead of drawing up a yet more extensive sanctions list, or unrealistically expecting China to cut off the flows of oil and energy that keep the regime afloat, policymakers should think of ways to intensify pressure within North Korea. Fostering out-migration is one way to generate internal pressure, and it is here that the HRC report can have a beneficial impact.
Emigration as a Political Act
Chronic food shortages in North Korea have already generated significant emigration. In March, a number of North Korean soldiers defected to China. This came mere months after the opening of a second “Hanawon” resettlement center in South Korea to help incorporate the increasing number of North Koreans arriving there.
Currently, migrants leaving North Korea face hazardous conditions, including intense security at the Chinese border and a hostile environment within China itself. Optimally, the HRC report could be used to advocate for the establishment of a UN-mandated safe haven for North Korean refugees. Such a safe haven would ideally be located in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, or Mongolia—countries that already provide sanctuary for North Korean refugees, albeit in less accommodating prison cells. The role of the Chinese government would simply be to do nothing; that is, to cease its repatriation of North Koreans. The safe zones would entail temporary shelter, as well as facilities for conducting health screenings and determining the status of individuals.
This would be the first step toward resettling North Korean refugees in yet another country, most likely South Korea. The establishment of such an infrastructure – unhindered passage through China and formalized safe havens – could encourage migration out of the country and thereby help generate pressure within North Korea.
Despite the popular misconception that North Korea is an informational black hole, cross-border networks created by refugees leaving the country over the past decade have resulted in an increase of information available to ordinary North Koreans. If the international climate facing refugees were to shift from one of (at best) benign neglect to one that actively supports and assists their transition to a third country, the North Korean regime would be unable to hide this information from its residents. As word of improved conditions for migrants spread, the trickle of people making a rush for the exits could quickly turn into a flood.
Until now, the international community has been leery of taking steps that could result in an increase of refugees escaping from North Korea. China in particular has maintained a long-standing policy of repatriating North Koreans found to be living illegally in the country. Last year the Chinese government forcibly sent back dozens of refugees despite protests from human rights groups, the South Korean administration, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and many of its own citizens commenting on the social networking site Weibo.
The Chinese made this decision in the months immediately after Kim Jong-un had assumed power, presumably while the young leader still enjoyed the benefit of the doubt in Beijing. Chinese officials have since realized that the new man in charge is cut from the same cloth as his father. Heightened displeasure over the North’s recent missile and nuclear tests has led to calls for the Chinese government, under president Xi Jinping, to reconsider China’s North Korea policy. The most notable of these calls has come from Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of the Communist Party’s official journal. Rethinking its approach to North Korean refugees could be a component of such a policy change, especially if it were to come on the heels of what is presumably going to be a damning report by the UN on the human rights situation in North Korea. This could be an important source of leverage for the Chinese, who, for all the talk to the contrary, have been reluctant to take the kind of punitive economic measures that would cause a change in action from their erstwhile dependents in Pyongyang.
The internal pressures sparked by increased migration would most likely inspire a severe crackdown by the regime. This raises a set of questions. How successful would this crackdown be, given lingering uncertainties about Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power? Would North Koreans begin demanding more of their leaders when offered the prospect of a more welcoming international environment awaiting them across the border? And most importantly, would this pressure be sufficient to push the regime to begin investing more in its people rather than its weapons programs?
From a human rights perspective, the benefits of opening the door even slightly to refugees hardly need articulating. The issue of human trafficking is just one example. The combination of harsh laws to restrict immigration and drastic measures to prevent refugees from arriving in third countries frequently means that North Koreans fleeing intolerable conditions have no option other than to rely on “brokers” or “coyotes” who make a living smuggling desperate people across international borders, often without regard for their safety or well-being. As Sir Michael Dummett argues in On Immigration and Refugees, the blame for the existence of this industry lies largely with governments that have erected the very barriers traffickers are helping frightened people to circumvent.
The establishment of a UN-administered framework regulating the movement of individuals out of North Korea would allow for improved protection of refugees. It would have a particular benefit for women, many of whom are victims of sexual violence and abuse. Inter-governmental cooperation, under the auspices of the UN, in the creation and maintenance of safe houses, migration agencies, and education centers to inform people about the dangers inherent in illegal migration would take the power out of the hands of migrant-smugglers and people-traffickers, who currently operate with impunity throughout the region.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has shown that this kind of state-sponsored regulation of the migration industry has had positive effects on the lives of vulnerable individuals in several countries where the use of migrant-smugglers and people-traffickers previously had been the only way to move. Such regulation could also improve the quality of information about those leaving North Korea. More accurate information on who is leaving North Korea could dampen South Korean fears of increased crime and disease epidemics that are often linked in the public mind to refugees. These perceived dangers have led Seoul to adopt a cautious attitude toward any measures that might lead to an influx of North Koreans into the country.
Financial considerations have also been a part of South Korea’s reluctance to open its doors to North Korean refugees. This is where the benefits of UN funding would be most apparent. And imagine if the United States were to use the roughly $6 million spent on sending two stealth bombers on a mock bombing run over the Korean peninsula to instead provide matching funds for creating a framework for refugees. This funding would help dilute the burden of incorporating North Korean refugees into the broader society (as a point of reference, the North Korean Refugee Foundation in Seoul estimated the 2010 cost of incorporating refugees at roughly $25 million). More importantly, the symbolism of the international community coming together on the issue of North Korean human rights would send a much more powerful message than a brazen show of American military force ever could. This sort of global cooperation would put leaders in Pyongyang on notice that how they treat their citizens must be changed.
Policymakers dealing with North Korea have had difficulty seeing beyond the nuclear issue to consider the suffering of the population. As a result, those interested in addressing the human rights situation need to use the recent global focus on the Korean peninsula to their advantage. The most effective strategy for doing this is to tie human rights to the larger issues that dominate the headlines, emphasizing that providing a more welcoming international environment will encourage more people to leave the country. In turn, this internal pressure has the potential to prod the North Korean government into reassessing the value of its destructive "Military First" policies in light of renewed interest in keeping its population satisfied and at home. And that is a goal that proponents of both sanctions and engagement will agree is worth pursuing.