What happens to North Koreans who flee their country – and what can they tell us?
There is no shortage of commentary on what should be done about North Korean weapons programmes. Op-eds in major news outlets variously advocate for talks, a strategy of deterrence combined with progress on humanitarian and economic issues, and even regime change.
But while rhetoric about North Korea heats up, the abstract talk about military options, sanctions, and engagement obscures the people at the centre of it all: millions of ordinary North Koreans.
When demonising the “rogue” behaviour of an enemy state, it’s easy to vilify its citizens or tar them all with the same brush. But the reality is more complicated. North Koreans are neither brainwashed robots nor aspiring democracy activists desperate for liberation. Here I want to focus on a small subset of North Koreans: those who have left.
Over the last six years, I have interviewed 60 of these North Koreans about their experiences, and they’ve told me a great deal about life in the north as well as their escape and new lives in the south. I’ve written before about their stories, as have many other authors, and the collective insights from these studies are valuable for understanding North Koreans’ lives.
Like people in any country, North Koreans have aspirations for themselves and their families, and their beliefs are complex and sometimes contradictory. Some support their government; others are apathetic or downright sceptical, and some even leave in search of a better life. Tens of thousands of people have left North Korea in the last 20-plus years, and at the moment, more than 30,000 North Koreans live in South Korea.
Leaving North Korea is not easy. Those who do choose to leave usually pay a broker to smuggle them into China. Once they get there, their status is often precarious: if Chinese authorities catch them, they will be sent home. Some stay in China regardless, or cross the border back and forth to smuggle goods into North Korea to sell. This cross-border smuggling supplies a quasi-legal market that has blossomed in North Korea since the mid-1990s.
Others who make it to China focus on getting to a third country, where they can present themselves at a South Korean embassy or consulate. The next stop is South Korea itself. Once the North Korean authorities discover someone has left, their family is usually subjected to intensified inspections and surveillance.
The North Koreans who make it to the south usually leave the north for economic reasons. They are trying to secure better conditions for themselves and their families. Many remit money back to their families in the north via brokers. They are also often able to share information about their lives in South Korea via clandestine communication channels.
This means that the idea that the North Korean people are hermetically sealed off is outdated. Many ordinary North Koreans know that South Korea is better off, that China has developed significantly, and that their country has fallen behind.
A persistent question is what all this means for the Kim regime’s resilience. If North Koreans in the south can tell their families back home about life in the outside world, could this erode the north’s authoritarian legitimacy? If North Koreans get their daily goods from the grey or black market and not the state rationing system like they were promised, could this foster opposition?
Some who deal with the north directly seem convinced the answer is yes. The likely new US ambassador, Victor Cha, has argued that creeping marketisation will lead North Koreans to develop individualistic values, which will eventually spell the end of the regime. I myself am sceptical of this view, but it’s good to see high-level policymakers like Cha thinking about North Koreans’ everyday lives, not just the behaviour of their government.
A lot of outsiders do seem to think the dictatorship can be brought down by breaking its monopoly on information. Their argument goes like this: once North Koreans encounter information from the outside world, they will know their despotic government has been lying to them. Analysts and defectors themselves often credit South Korean TV shows or movies in particular with the ability to change people’s thinking inside North Korea; some initiatives take great risks to smuggle outside information and entertainment back in, particularly on flash drives. The idea is to erode northerners’ faith in the Kim regime, undermining its legitimacy and paving the way for change.
The problem is that North Korea remains an extraordinarily repressive state, and it seems collective opposition to the government is almost entirely absent. Furthermore, what if watching South Korean dramas encourages people to leave North Korea rather than stay and try to change the government? After all, most of the evidence about the transformative power of South Korean media comes from interviews and surveys with North Koreans who’ve left, not those who still live there.
That makes sense. In the highly repressive context, it’s extremely difficult for people to even imagine taking a collective stand against the government, and if the outside world looks better, a reasonable response is to try to get there.
This is not to say that getting outside information to North Koreans is pointless. Far from it. The north’s system of censorship and social control is repressive and unjustified. The point is that there’s still no sign of any direct relationship between the clandestine dissemination of TV shows and agitation against the government.
But ultimately, that this is even being discussed is the sign of a healthy debate. With geopolitical tensions extremely high, it’s vital that all involved remember North Korea is about more than nuclear weapons, missiles and deterrence. These issues are incredibly important – but they also have implications for the millions of ordinary people under the Kim regime’s control.