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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Reaffirming the Republic of Korea's constitutional obligations to North Korean escapees would have intangible but far-reaching and salutary effects for South Korea, both domestically and internationally. Such a declaration would strengthen the rule of law in South Korea, reinforcing the political foundations upon which the ROK's own freedom, prosperity, and security ultimately rest. And it would provide a magnificent demonstration to the world that South Korea's commitment to its basic legal principles is not merely rhetorical or opportunistic.

South Korea, it bears remembering, is still a state under siege--like Israel, the Republic of Korea remains locked in conflict with neighboring forces that entirely deny its authority or even its right to exist at all. No gesture would better remind the international community of the reasons that the Republic of Korea is the legitimate state in the intra-peninsular contest than welcoming the refugees home.

Rescuing the North Korean escapees is unquestionably the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint, as well. The circumstances that have forced North Koreans to risk their lives crossing the Chinese border to forage and beg are so awful as to defy understanding by the comfortable, the well-fed, and the well-protected. North Korea's subjects have long suffered under a police state once described by Robert Scalapino, the eminent Asia scholar, as "the closest approximation of totalitarianism that could be achieved by a society operated by human beings." As many as a million--or more--were killed in the Great North Korean Famine of the 1990s.

Because of the extreme secrecy of the North Korean state, we do not know just how serious the privation facing ordinary North Koreans actually is. Even the international humanitarian organizations that have supplied Pyongyang with hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars worth of supplies over the past decade have not been given honest information about the distress that they are paying to relieve. But we know that ordinary North Korean children and young people these days are stunted and wasted--so small and slight on average that, by comparison to their South Korean brethren, they look as if they were drawn from a different race. (That is why the North Korean military has steadily relaxed its height and weight prerequisites to the point where the height requirement could reportedly be met by a typical 8-year-old South Korean schoolboy.)

News reports suggest that North Korea's food situation is taking a turn for the worse--reports seemingly confirmed by announcements that rations are again being cut. Under such circumstances, the argument for humanitarian rescue would appear self-evidently arresting.

Welcoming these escapees from North Korea will also create direct and acute pressure upon Pyongyang to attend to the needs and aspirations of its subjects. Sending the signal throughout the North that escapees have a real alternative to the hell of Kim Jong Il's "workers' paradise" and the purgatory of a no-man's land just across the Chinese border will compel the Kim Jong Il regime to re-examine the destructive policies and practices that are driving North Koreans to flee.

Addressing the reality of a beckoning safe haven for escapees would require the North Korean regime to adopt a more pragmatic and humane food policy, to tolerate a wider scope for self-betterment through individual initiatives, and to build sturdier links to the world economy. In short, the possibility of a real alternative to life in the North will push that regime, much against its wishes, to open the door a bit to a less illiberal order--not to a liberal order, to be sure, but perhaps to a system with less malevolence than any they have yet known.

We do not know and cannot know the status of the discourse within the inner circles of Kim Jong Il's hierarchy about the question of "reform." And it is probably fruitless to speculate about just who among that country's top mass-murderers may secretly be a "closet reformer," or what "reform" would actually mean to them: For North Korea today, after all, ordinary Stalinism might count as a liberal advance.

We do know, however, that the North Korean state can be moved in the direction of more pragmatic policies and practices: The small economic steps of recent years--changes termed "the July 2002 North Korean reforms" in some circles--show that the system can bend in the direction of rationality. Perhaps all that is needed for the North Korean system to bend still further in that direction is a heavier weight of exigency.

There is no question, incidentally, that North Korea's leadership regards the exodus of escapees as a weight that may force them to bend. If they did not, why was it that after the July 2004 repatriation to Seoul of 468 North Koreans, the media in the North published a long and hysterical fulmination denouncing the "enticement" of its citizens to the South, and declaring that such migration was a "plot to topple our system"? Rescuing North Korean escapees will not only unequivocally improve the quality of life for the escapees themselves--it will help to improve the quality of life for those who cannot yet escape the North.

Welcoming and embracing North Korean escapees will constitute a concrete and tangible step in the reconciliation between North and South. These escapees, indeed, will constitute a living bond across the divided peninsula--and because they will be well treated in the South, it will be a bond of healing. Indeed, rescuing and embracing the escapees will send a multiplicity of signals to the North, all of them propitious: that Northerners are truly regarded in the South as long-lost brothers; that South Korea is not the "Hell on Earth" they have been taught to fear this past half century and more; that a humanistic liberal democracy awaits on the other side of the DMZ. And word will assuredly get back to the North. As the people of North Korea learn the fate of escapees to the South, this will generate further pressure for more humane rule in the North.

Finally, accepting North Korean escapees into the South will provide invaluable experience and guidance as South Koreans consider all the practical preparations that will be needed for the eventual reconciliation of the entire populations of the North and South. We know already about the challenges and difficulties North Korean immigrants face in the South as they struggle to assimilate from the frozen monochrome of their former existence into the splendid, dizzying Technicolor of modern life. Now is the time to learn more about the steps and measures in education, training, support, and acceptance that will be needed to help these ordinary people stream into the vibrant flow of South Korean life. Now is the time to learn how small businesses, NGOs, religious groups, and all the other wonderful panoply of civic associations in a "civil society" can best aid these former outcasts in their transformation into citizens of a free and democratic Korea.

Needless to say, learning how to make this integration work brings us one step closer to the day when the entire Korean people will be able to live as one--reconciled, united, secure, prosperous, and free.

IF THE ARGUMENTS FOR A RESCUE CAMPAIGN to bring North Korean escapees to South Korea are so compelling, why have they not been translated into political action? Why are the escapees not already being rescued en masse? The answer is quite clear. The self-styled "human rights" champions who came to power in the ROK in 1998, and who have subsequently governed uninterrupted through two successive presidencies, have to the very best of their abilities ignored the tears, the prayers, and the heart-rending distress of endangered compatriots with lives flickering as precariously as candle-flames just across the Yalu and the Tumen.

Perverse and improbable as it may seem, these one-time dissidents--activists who sought office by promising the South Korean public to speak up for the vulnerable, to stand up for the disempowered, and to embody solidarity with the victimized--have done almost everything within their power to avert their gaze from a human rights disaster second to none in the contemporary world: a disaster befalling their own Korean minjok.

This part of the saga of North Korea's escapees is painful to recount. But it must be recognized, if only out of respect for the suffering of victims alive and dead, and in our capacity as witnesses for future generations.

Christians distinguish between "sins of omission" and "sins of commission"--a useful taxonomy for believers and nonbelievers alike in examining the South Korean government's response to the plight of the North Korean escapees. That the escapees still huddle in hiding nearly 10 years into this crisis speaks clearly enough to the "sins of omission." Let us focus then on what might be described as Seoul's "sins of commission."

We can note the milestones without rehearsing every detail. We may, for example, go back to the year 2002, when handfuls of North Korean escapees were breaching the boundaries of Western embassies in Beijing, seeking asylum. Chinese security operatives stormed some of those diplomatic compounds, in a number of cases beating the asylum-seekers and physically dragging them away. After Beijing came under a storm of international criticism for its shocking, violent, probably illegal abuse of these asylum-seekers, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson retorted that the South Korean government had been secretly asking China's help in keeping North Korean escapees out of the ROK diplomatic compound. The government in Seoul never refuted this assertion. That episode occurred on the watch of a Nobel Peace laureate and human rights role model, President Kim Dae Jung.

With the transition from the Kim Dae Jung presidency to the Roh Moo Hyun administration, it is true that more North Korean refugees were repatriated than ever before: over 3,000 since President Roh's inauguration, more than half of the total since the 1953 Korean War cease-fire. But such numbers still constitute a mere trickle--and it is a flow that has hardly been encouraged by official policy.

Quite the contrary: In December 2004, the Republic of Korea's unification ministry announced that it was slashing the government's per capita resettlement stipend for North Korean newcomers by almost two-thirds (from approximately $28,000 to approximately $10,000)--and that it would be stepping up its screening and interrogations of would-be resettlers.

One rationale indicated for the increased scrutiny of escapees was the possibility that spies were posing as defectors. If so, that would mark an unusual--one is tempted to say unique--expression of concern about the risks of domestic subversion by the current administration, since the Roh government has otherwise reined in longstanding police and intelligence counterespionage activities, and cut back the government's prosecution of suspected spies and agents to less than a handful of cases a year.

As the Roh government was changing its rules to let escapees know they could expect a chillier welcome in the South, it was also embracing what might be called a "see no evil" policy regarding the escapees, diligently neglecting reports that might morally obligate increased concern for their well-being, and responding with ruthlessly optimistic spin to ominous accounts of the fate of North Korean border-crossers.

For a full month last year, for example, the ROK foreign ministry officially denied that China was rounding up hundreds of escapees and sending them back to North Korea--only to be forced eventually to admit that those stories were true. Subsequent news accounts by the ROK's own semi-official Yonhap newswire have reported the execution of dozens of North Korean returnees "to discourage North Koreans from seeking political asylum in South Korea." Then there was the stunning video smuggled out of North Korea that documents horrifying daytime public executions; if you live in South Korea, you will not have seen it on TV. The video has been broadcast all over the rest of the free world, but the Roh administration has made sure that South Korean television will not carry it.

Could Seoul's posture toward the plight of the North Korean escapees possibly get any more callous? As we learned earlier this year, apparently so. In January, the minister of unification repeated what had earlier been described in the local press as "virtually an official statement of regret to the North" about the aforementioned repatriation of 468 North Korean refugees from a third country in July 2004. This time he went further, declaring, "We disapprove of the mass defections," and promising that "there will not be another large-scale movement of North Korean refugees" into the South. "North Korea takes the refugee issue as a threat to its regime," he said, and "undermining the North is not our policy." The minister was not misspeaking: To the contrary, he was providing an absolutely faithful description of his government's broader approach to North Korea.

It is an approach that has prompted the ROK ministry of national defense to deny that North Korea is the "main enemy" for South Korea's armed forces, striking all such references from this year's ministry "White Paper." It is an approach that recently led the South Korean government to abstain--for the third year in a row--from voting on the United Nations Human Rights Commission resolution condemning human rights abuses in North Korea. "There is no need to provoke the North by voting on the resolution," unnamed South Korean officials explained.

Nor, apparently, to provoke the North with any expressed disapproval of the condition of Pyongyang's subjects. The Wall Street Journal has quoted a previous Roh administration unification minister as dismissing talk of political rights in North Korea with the memorable phrase "political freedom is a luxury, like pearls for a pig."

There is an awful coherence to this approach to relations with the North. Plainly put: It is an approach that regards the jailers who run North Korea as "partners for peace," while it treats the captives and escapees from this huge open-air prison as troublesome claimants who only get in the way of Seoul's grand designs for peninsular peace. It should go without saying that the obstacle to peace, reconciliation, and unification is not the North Korean population--it is the wicked regime that enslaves them.

While enslaving them, that same regime strives to destroy the South. The ministry of defense may pretend otherwise, but South Koreans are the true intended targets of the North's chemical weapons, biological weapons, its short-range missiles, and now perhaps, its atomic weapons. There is no contradiction whatever between the North's treatment of its subjects and its program of perfecting WMD threats against the South: Both are animated and guided by a single worldview and strategy.

At this point let me dispel any intimations of partisanship in the above indictment. It is true that South Korea's current opposition party has raised a few voices in honorable exception to the current "see no evil" policy for North Korean escapees. But it is a fact that the opposition party controlled the National Assembly for a number of years during both the Kim Dae Jung and the Roh Moo Hyun administrations. Over that tenure I am unaware of any legislation passed, or even hearings convened, to assuage the distress of North Korea's escapees.

THERE ARE, to be sure, many practical problems and objections to be considered in any effort of humanitarian rescue for the North Korean escapees. Let me mention two of them. The first concerns China, the escapees' most unwelcoming host. Despite its international treaty obligations--Beijing is signatory to the U.N. Convention and Protocol on Refugees, the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations--the Chinese government routinely hunts downs, rounds up, and deports North Korean escapees to a certainty of savage punishment back in the North. As we have already noted, some of these hunts have taken Chinese agents into the embassies and consulates of foreign governments against the express wishes of foreign diplomatic representatives.

China asserts that it is not bound in this instance by the Refugee Convention and Protocol because the North Korean escapees are "economic migrants" rather than "refugees." Legal analyst Benjamin Neaderland also raises the possibility that China may face conflicting international legal obligations with respect to the escapees: If China, as may be the case, has a secret bilateral pact with Kim Jong Il--a sort of Fugitive Slave Act requiring the repatriation of illegal emigrants--a "Chinese argument that they are bound to return North Koreans found to be traveling illegally [would] not [be] without merit in international law."

Still and all, China's current intransigence is not necessarily an insuperable obstacle. The wordplay China uses to evade its Refugee Convention responsibilities is of course grotesque, and transparent. China is, however, a dictatorship--a government that takes liberties with the law through sheer force of habit. And China is emboldened to take liberties with these particular laws precisely because the Republic of Korea--a constitutional democracy under rule of law--is today so very conspicuously avoiding its own legal responsibilities toward those same escapees. China's leeway for legal obfuscation would be tremendously reduced if South Korea made it clear that Seoul intended to resettle any and all escapees who wished to head South--and was willing to make an international issue of this.

The possible contradiction between presumed bilateral obligations to Pyongyang and international treaty obligations, moreover, seemingly evaporates if Seoul remembers its constitutional obligation to make citizens of ordinary North Korean escapees desirous of that status. Here again Neaderland:

If the South Korean government were to assert that the North Koreans in China possess South Korean nationality, it could plausibly claim that China is treaty-bound by the Vienna Convention to allow access to any North Korean seeking to enter a South Korean consulate in China. While there may be policy reasons . . . that stand in the way of South Korea asserting such a claim, it is a claim potentially supported by international law and one that China would have to take seriously if offered by South Korea.

IF SEOUL ADOPTS AN ACTIVIST STANCE and insists upon observance of the law--starting with its own laws--many of the problems encountered with China today may solve themselves.

The second issue concerns the United States. With the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, Washington is now committed to taking in an as-yet-undetermined number of North Korean asylum-seekers. Shouldn't a big country like the United States--a country peopled through immigration--shoulder a major share of the burden of resettling North Korean escapees? One could certainly hope that the active Korean-American community and Korean-American religious organizations would take the lead in helping them adjust to their newfound freedom.

That being said, we must also recognize that there is an international division of labor in the struggle for freedom. In this division of labor, the United States' indispensable contribution in its bilateral relationship with South Korea has been--and remains--the guarantee, underwritten by the lives of U.S. soldiers and the treasure of U.S. taxpayers, that South Korea could be the home for freedom in the Korean peninsula. South Korea's indispensable contribution in this arrangement is to act on that guarantee.

There is constant talk of "burden sharing" in the Washington-Seoul relationship, but discussions of "burden sharing" in this humanitarian rescue challenge must not become an excuse for delay or avoidance of Seoul's own special duties in this particular emergency.

Korea is a nation with a long and venerable history--the myth of Tangun takes us back almost 5,000 years. Nevertheless, Korea's greatest and most glorious days still lie ahead: The reunification of the Korean people under free and democratic governance, which will be an epochal event not just in Korean history, but in world history.

Against great odds, South Korea has become the home of freedom in the peninsula. Now the task is to extend that freedom to the North, if need be, one escapee at a time. The duty for the South could not be clearer: Bring them home.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy and government at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from an address at the Kim Koo International Symposium, Seoul, delivered May 25, 2005.