Border Crossing, North and South



Two stories about border crossings happened to coincide last week, and provide their own little microcosm of the divided peninsula. South Korea has been transfixed by the story of the North Korean solider who defected in a hail of bullets at Panmunjom, the first shooting incident at the Joint Security Area (JSA) since 1984. An unambiguous North Korean violation of the armistice, the effort to kill the soldier, identified only as Oh, is reminiscent of the cruel shootings along the Berlin Wall. In an Orwellian turn, the shooting of citizens seeking to leave East Germany was defended by the regime as integral to the defense of the country's borders. In an Academic Sources post, I reviewed an interesting piece of social science by Jose Aleman and Dwayne Woods that explains this apparently upside-down logic. They not only find that authoritarian regimes have more restrictive exit policies, they also find that those that do tend to be more stable. One of the findings of Anna Fifield's recent survey of 25 North Korean refugees is that exit has become tougher under Kim Jong Un and the regime is believed to have replaced the entire contingent of forces in the JSA. We can only hope that the North Korean purveyors of such cruel policies meet the same fate as their East German predecessors. None other than Egon Krenz as well as four other high-ranking East German officials were ultimately brought to justice for the shootings in the 1990s and spent time in prison.

The real shock of Sergeant Oh's defection, however, was the information that he was infected with parasites, a condition that has been found in other defectors as well. For those who study economic development, the irony is hard to miss: Deworming was the subject of one of the early randomized controlled trials of health policy, and was shown to be an incredibly low-cost, high-return intervention (see for example Kremer and Miguel here). But the worms, while the most shocking, were not actually the worst of the soldier's health problems. He also had hepatitis B and his operation revealed that he had recently consumed raw corn. The incidence of infectious disease in the North, malnutrition, and longer-term anthropomorphic differences between North and South is testament not only to the priorities of the regime but to the misleading nature of the images of gleaming new apartment buildings that I have labeled "the Pyongyang illusion."

Less in the foreground was a decidedly less uplifting story about a border crosser going the other way. Aijalon Mahli Gomes was an English teacher living in South Korea when he crossed into North Korea via the Chinese border and was subsequently arrested in 2010. His motives remain somewhat opaque, but his account Violence and Humanity suggests they rested on a humanitarian impulse: to highlight human rights abuses in the North. Gomes was sentenced in April 2010 to eight years of hard labor and—again revealingly—fined an extortionate $600,000 for entering the country illegally and for committing "hostile acts" that were, of course, unnamed. Gomes was ultimately released following the requisite trip to Pyongyang by a high-level envoy, in this case Jimmy Carter. But Gomes was in detention for 214 days and not provided even the most basic right of consular access. His story deserves closer journalistic treatment. But initial interviews suggest that however misguided his gesture, the North Korean experience was the beginning of a long slide. Believed homeless after moving to San Diego, Gomes was found burning to death last week by local police, yet another one of this eclectic group of detainees—some brave, some naïve, some troubled—who were ultimately defined by the callousness of the regime.

Previous Posts on Detainees

  • Detainees and Envoys (April 2013; on the possible North Korean motive of securing visits by high-level envoys)

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