Attrition: Paradise Lost


January 24, 2014: In South Korea officials are alarmed at the recently revealed fact that, of 25,000 North Koreans who have made it to South Korea, 800 are currently unaccounted for. Many South Koreans feared that most of these missing refugees had returned to the north. but North Korea had only announced 13 such returnees and it is unlikely that North Korea would hide the existence of many returnees, expect for spies sent south as refugees who were ordered home for debriefing, rewards or to avoid getting caught down south. Some returnees may have been quietly imprisoned or executed because they were suspected of being South Korea spies. But it appears that nearly all of the 800 missing North Korean refugees just wanted to get away from Korea in general and do so quietly. These missing North Koreans probably slipped into China or some other Asian countries using false documents.

It’s a sad fact that nearly all the 24,000 or so North Korean refugees still living in South Korea have a hard time of it. Over 70 percent of them are unemployed, through a combination of culture shock and lack of useful skills. North Korea is run like a prison, with initiative and innovation (essential skills in the South Korean market economy) considered criminal behavior. The South Koreans were appalled when they began to note how ill-prepared North Koreans were to cope with freedom and democracy. Apparently many North Koreans have gotten the word as well. While more North Koreans are reaching South Korea (until recently, nearly 3,000 a year, versus about 500 a year in the late 1980s), most of them are women. Two decades ago, less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. But women are more adaptable, and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, the southern society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea and more abused. Northern men who make it to the south have already suffered a lot more wear and tear than their female counterparts.

South Korea is scrambling to find solutions to all this, but as they discovered when they studied the experience of East and West Germany reuniting, the culture shock was a generational thing. Those who were teenagers and younger could easily adapt but the older ones, who had grown up in communist East Germany, never fully adapted to life in a free market democracy. Unfortunately for South Korea, most of the northern refugees are not kids, but adults who have been conditioned to live in a police state and have chronic difficultly adapting.

Meanwhile North Korean efforts to curb illegal migration to South Korea have succeeded. The number of North Koreans getting to South Korea are down a third in 2013compared to 2012. But that still means over a thousand North Koreans a year are making it and this is a continuing embarrassment for the northern rulers as the migrants are quite open about how horrid (even by North Korean standards) living conditions are in the north. This crackdown reverses a growing effort by northerners to get to South Korea. Back in 2011 the number of North Koreans making it to South Korea had increased 19 percent over 2010. Over 2,500 a year were making it south and there were 23,000 of these refugees already down there.

Such migration only went into high gear after 2000. Wealthy North Koreans (either corrupt officials or market entrepreneurs) were also getting out, and organizations able to move the refugees through China to Thailand (the most common way station to South Korea) were larger and more efficient. South Korea asked China to relent and allow North Korean refugees to go directly from China to South Korea. But China continued to honor North Korean demands that illegal migrants be arrested and returned (to labor camp, or immediate execution). North Korean migrants in the south admit that everyone in the north knows about the harsh prison camps up there, even though North Korean media ignores the existence of these hellish institutions and the government officially denies that they exist. North Korean police and government officials, however, regularly mention the camps to northerners and how quickly people can be sent to one if they get out of line.

Increasing the pressure on refugees is North Korea’s way of ensuring that whoever does get to South Korea is worse for the wear and even more of a burden on the South Korean government. This is no big deal because South Korea has more than twice as many people (50 million) than the north and each of them has 18 times more income. 




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