Slave to the Blog: Getting Out of North Korea Edition



Today’s Slave to the Blog is taken up with some recent stories on North Koreans getting out of the country.

First, Chico Harlan at The Washington Post has a useful piece on the ongoing border crackdown. Last year, 2,706 North Koreans came to the South. During the first half of this year, there have been only 751, a 42 percent decline compared with the same period a year earlier. Harlan notes that this rate of arrival has not changed between the mourning and post-mourning periods, either. One piece of information in Harlan’s piece that comports with our analysis: that the crackdown has raised the bribe price. In the past, you get across the border for $1000; according to a South Korean NGO the price now runs to as much as $6000.

The latest issue of Goodfriends suggests that the crackdown is not only on the North Korean side; the Chinese are getting agitated as well. The report notes that “the Chinese police, border patrols, rangers, and even small police stations in rural areas, have intensified their investigations. Chinese national security agents and public prosecutors are investigating and arresting Chinese citizens or any officials who might have helped North Koreans cross the border or assisted foreign countries and organizations in the border crossings.”

The PRC Ministry of State Security also sent a strong message to South Korean human rights and refugee activists with the arrest of Kim Young Hwan and three other South Korean activists. After nearly four months in detention in Dandong, the four were finally released recently (see coverage in the DailyNK). The release followed a visit by PRC Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu to Seoul, the first such visit by a Chinese head of public security since the normalization of relations. Press coverage suggests that Meng met with Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan, Minister of Justice Kwan Jae Jin and National Intelligence Service Director Won Se Hun; we would have loved to be a fly on the wall in those discussions.

Problems for the refugees are not limited to China. The indefatigable Suzanne Scholte of the North Korea Freedom Coalition has picked up on an unfortunate case in Laos, where 20 North Koreans were arrested crossing over from China. Given China's behavior, repatriation of the refugees to China would be equivalent of repatriation to North Korea; Scholte's letter on the issue underscores the importance of getting the UNHCR involved.

Debate continues about the pressures that North Korea is able to bring to bear on defectors after they leave North Korea. The DailyNK reports on the sad case of Park In Sook, a woman who “re-defected” to North Korea in May after living in South Korea for six years; the MOU suggests that she was probably coerced, using family members as the pressure point.

Of course, labor exports are fine if the regime can profit from them. Yonhap reports on a deal with China that involves 40,000 workers, including seamstresses, technicians and construction workers. According to the story, the workers will earn a monthly average of US$170, 60 percent of which will be remitted directly to the regime in Pyongyang. We are not opposed to labor movements in principle, but one of our favorite journalists, Barbara Demick at the LA Times, explains why this isn’t the equivalent of your typical circular migrant. She too underlines the foreign-exchange motive of the regime. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the North Korean minders and their Chinese counterparts can keep these workers completely under wraps; unfortunately, they are practiced at it.

To close on a more hopeful note, a form of labor movement that we wholeheartedly endorse is the movement of North Koreans for study abroad. Prof. Kyung-ae Park’s hard work has managed to get six North Korean faculty members to the University of British Columbia (UBC) for a full six months of study. The Korea Times covered the story, and UBC offers their overview of the broader "knowledge sharing" program.  That well-chosen title is by no means facetious; it is as important for us to have contact with more North Koreans as it is for them to have contact with us. Kudos to Prof. Park.

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