The Magazine

Bring Them Home

From the June 6, 2005 issue: Why South Korea should open its doors to refugees from the North.

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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Not far from Seoul--maybe a half hour's journey north, by jet plane--an untold number of terrified Koreans are hiding in a foreign land, engaged in a grave and uncertain struggle for survival. (There may be tens of thousands in the ranks of these misérables, or there may be hundreds of thousands--it is a chilling indication of their plight that we should have no reliable information about such a basic fact.) These wretched vagabonds--most of them women and children--are escapees from North Korea. They have crossed the Yalu and the Tumen into China in tiny groups, driven into the unknown by Kim Jong Il's man-made famine. That catastrophe--the only peacetime famine to befall an urbanized, literate society in all of human history--claimed hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of victims in the 1990s; though the death toll from the ongoing North Korean food crisis seems for the moment to have subsided, hunger remains a dire problem there--especially for that society's officially disfavored strata.

For the North Korean border-crossers in China, existence is stripped of the most modest vestiges of ordinary human dignity. Local rules of survival oblige these people to live like animals--if they hope to live at all. Many of the border-crossers stay in the woods, sleeping by day and foraging by night, alone and in constant fear of discovery by fellow humans. The women can be sold, like cattle; the men are regularly hunted down and rounded up, almost like dogs.

These escapees are at the mercy of the least scrupulous element of the populace north of the Yalu River. They can be robbed without recourse--or raped, or beaten and killed just for the fun of it. And that is the peril when their hunters are simply ordinary villagers or townsmen. When they are captured by local security agents or members of the secret police, their fate is possibly even more frightening--for then they are deported back to North Korea, a receiving state that regards any voluntary departure from Kim Jong Il's "paradise" as a crime, an act of betrayal verging on treason. The deportees forced back into North Korea face unspeakable punishments in political prisons, reeducation camps, and special detention camps for children. In addition to the tortures returnees can expect to face themselves, there is the added pain of knowing that their family line is subject to retribution--for in the North Korean control system, horrible penalties can fall on family members as many as three generations removed from the perpetrator of a so-called political crime.

The conditions facing today's North Korean border-crossers are no less grim than those of the Vertriebene or Falasha/Beta Israel before them, and likely are more dire. The case for a Republic of Korea rescue of these escapees--that is to say, for aiding in their relocation to the South, for welcoming them into South Korean life, and for positively determining to abet their integration as citizens and members of South Korean society--is compelling, in fact, overwhelming.

Indeed, it is imperative that the Republic of Korea--for legal, and for moral, but also for entirely practical reasons--accept the challenge posed by the distress of these very vulnerable fellow Koreans and rise to meet it.

HERE ARE JUST A FEW OF THOSE REASONS. Welcoming and embracing North Korean escapees who wish to come to the Republic of Korea (ROK) and enjoy the guarantees of constitutional democracy is not simply a sentimental impulse. Rather it is a position consistent with the ROK's most basic laws. The rights and jurisdiction of people living in the northern part of the Korean peninsula are spelled out in the ROK constitution. Though the constitution went through nine revisions between 1948 and 1987, the basic promise of citizenship held out to brethren in the North never waivered. Nor does it today--from the standpoint of the written law.

After stipulating that the government of the ROK has the right to define nationality for the country, the constitution goes on to define the legal conception of the Korean nation in Article 3: "The territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands." And it goes further, stipulating that "the State shall protect its citizens abroad as provided by Act." Are ordinary North Koreans who wish to claim South Korean citizenship eligible for it under ROK law? The answer is unambiguously yes. The question in fact has been reviewed and settled by the ROK Supreme Court.

On November 12, 1996, the Court ruled on a pending deportation case that one Ms. Lee Young Soon, a North Korean who had been living in China, but had made her way to the South, was in fact automatically qualified for ROK citizenship. The relevant portion of the ruling reads as follows: "Under Clause 3 of the [ROK] Constitution, North Koreans should be acknowledged as citizens of the Republic of Korea."