History of North Korean Defections: A Transition From Political Identity to Economic Necessity

William Na, advised by Dr. Hugh Shapiro


The following research examines and analyzes the modern demographics and motives behind North Koreans who voluntarily leave their homeland to resettle. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (henceforth DPRK, or North Korea) is notorious for its human rights abuses and state-orchestrated deprivations of basic human necessities. Appropriately, contemporary media tends to portray North Korean defectors as political refugees pursuing the noble values of justice, freedom, and liberty. However, this is largely inaccurate, and the purpose of this study is to challenge this mainstream notion. When Korean language terms are used throughout this paper, I have deferred to utilizing the Revisited Romanization style with few exceptions (such as names of people), which remain in the McCune-Reischauer romanization style.

1 Historical Context: The Separation of the Korean Peninsula

As described by Bruce Cumings (2005), a leading scholar on modern Korean history, there was no historical justification for dividing the Korean peninsula [5]. During the Second World War, Korea was not a belligerent member of the Axis coalition; on the contrary, it was a victim of Japanese imperialism and had previously withstood decades of brutal occupation (Cumings, 2005; chapters three and four provide an in-depth history of the Japanese occupation of Korea) [5]. Despite this, Korea was doomed to share the same fate as Germany. Following the termination of the Japanese colonial administration in Korea after the war, the victorious allies were eager to fill the power vacuum on the peninsula, and Korea was swiftly divided and occupied by the United States and the Soviet Union. Korea was of secondary importance to the Allied powers, according to Don Oberdorfer (2001), a scholar on Korean studies [23]. It was only when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and deployed troops to Manchuria when the United States realized the implications for the future of East Asia and began serious considerations for postwar policies in the Korean peninsula. With Soviet forces rapidly advancing on Korea, Lieutenant Colonels Dean Rusk (the future 54th Secretary of State) and Charles Bonesteel (the future Commander of U.S. Forces Korea) were tasked to define the American occupation zone on the peninsula (Oberdorfer, 2001, p. 5) [23]. Completely unprepared and constrained by a 30-minute deadline, Rusk and Bonesteel spread open a National Geographic map and selected the 38th parallel north circle of latitude as the dividing median (Cumings, 2005, p. 187) [5]. This would divide the peninsula roughly into half but place the capital city of Seoul within the American occupation zone, which was accepted by the Soviet Union. This decision was made without consulting subject matter experts, the Korean people, or other members of the Allied coalition (Cumings, 2005, p. 187) [5]. Unbeknownst to these two Army officers, they had effectively sealed the fate of future East Asian policymaking and the lives of millions of Korean people with a simple stroke of the pen. Following the Korean Armistice Agreement, the 38th parallel morphed into the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a division that remains to this day and will likely be the status-quo for the foreseeable future (Oberdorfer, 2001, p. 8) [23]. Over seven decades of separation have resulted in rifts in the Korean language, social norms, traditions, culture, and history.

According to the Ministry of Unification (2020), a total of 33,718 North Korean refugees are now registered residents in South Korea, 72 percent of which are females. North Korean defectors were once highly regarded but have now become a burden and a source of deep controversy in South Korean society (International Crisis Group, 2011, p. 16-20) [11]. Early defectors were largely members of the elite classes of North Korean society—senior Workers’ Party cadre, technocrats, bureaucrats, and high-ranking members of the armed forces (Lankov, 2006, p. 109) [14]. Migration became increasingly attractive to average North Koreans when economic hardships and famine ravaged the country. Tables 1, 2, and 3 in the upcoming sections reveal how the overwhelming majority of these North Koreans are economic migrants.

2 The Transition from Defector to Refugee

Defection inherently carries a political implication, and the North Korean Ministry of Social Security classifies it accordingly as high treason (Human Rights Watch, 2020) [36]. Repatriated defectors are subject to punishment ranging from incarceration in short-term detention facilities, long-term prisons, to political prison camps (Human Rights Watch, 2020) [36]. However, when examining the contemporary demographics of North Koreans defecting to South Korea, it becomes apparent that this is more an economic issue and a matter of human condition than one strictly of political allegiance. Although North Korea is impoverished, government propaganda touts another narrative. State media portrays the country as a worker’s paradise, free from hunger (DPRK Video Archive, 2012) [4]. Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the DPRK, famously proclaimed that his regime will elevate the standard of living to ensure that every Korean without exception will “[live] on rice and meat soup, [wear] silk clothes and [live] in tile-roofed houses,” the pinnacle of living standards [20](Kim, 1998, p. 127). However, reality dictates otherwise. On the contrary, the self- reliance doctrine of Juche that governs the state’s political philosophy and policymaking has only further exacerbated economic failure (Martin, 2004, p .111) [18]. As such, the DPRK relies on international humanitarian aid, of which the United States is a major donor (Lynch, 2019) [16]. Famine and periods of severe economic stagnation are universal motivators for emigration, and the North Korean people are no exception to this. Compelled by the acute inability of the state to guarantee food, housing, and employment for their citizens, traffic along the Sino-Korean border has increased as deprived North Koreans look beyond their borders for survival (Lankov, 2006, p. 110) [14]. Matters were further complicated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Preferential aid and subsidies to the DPRK ceased with the newly declared Russian Federation (Tertitskiy, 2018) [32]. With the North Korean agricultural industry utterly crippled and the national economy virtually nonexistent, an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 North Koreans perished between 1993 and 2000 alone (Spoonrenberg and Schwekendiek, 2012, p. 134) [30]. Although such degrees of mass starvation have since passed, the DPRK remains economically impoverished (Lankov, 2014) [14]. Ultimately, the dogma of national sovereignty and selfreliance touted by Juche resulted in the DPRK losing its self-sufficiency in food production and subsequently becoming heavily reliant on foreign aid to feed its people. The peak of the economic crisis and mass famine in the DPRK is referred to as the Arduous March, which plagued the country throughout most of the 1990s and reached its height between 1998 and 1999 (Lankov, 2006, p. 110) [14]. Ineffective central planning and general mismanagement destroyed the North Korean economy, rendering it completely defunct. The famine was further worsened by a series of natural disasters that decimated crop harvests in a country already at a geographic disadvantage. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2011) approximates 80 percent of the land in the DPRK as mountainous. This leaves only 19.5 percent of the land suitable for agriculture (Central Intelligence Agency, 2021) [1]. In a 1997 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that devastating floods in 1995 ravaged agricultural production, resulting in the loss of 1.2 million tons of grain output and a further 1.5 million tons of grain in the national reserve lost. The government food rations that citizens relied on for daily consumption initially dwindled, then ceased altogether, and even the revered Korean People’s Army went hungry (Martin, 2004, p .308, 552-553 [18]). Defections immediately following the Korean War were highly difficult and rarely attempted. Until the 1970s, both Koreas observed similar levels of living standards, with the DPRK even holding a slight lead over South Korea (Lankov, 2006, 109). According to Andrei Lankov (2006), a leading scholar in Korean studies, until the 1990s, defection was exclusively reserved for privileged individuals, because they were among the few in the country who had opportunities to leave the DPRK [14]. Initially, defectors largely comprised of diplomats who could defect from foreign postings, elite soldiers stationed in border units, and pilots who could fly to airfields in South Korea. Such individuals were welcomed by the South Korean government as they were valuable intelligence assets. Moreover, these individuals held potential to be utilized as propaganda for the South Korean government (Lankov, 2006, p. 109 [14]). Following the Arduous March, individuals from broader cross-sections of North Korean society began to defect. At this time, the North Korean government was unable to effectively restrict and monitor migration, and the Sino-Korean border became increasingly porous (Lankov, 2006, p. 110) [14]. This extended the opportunity for ordinary North Korean citizens to leave their hometowns and illegally migrate to neighboring China and then to South Korea via land and seaborne routes despite the zero-tolerance policy towards unapproved travel. After the beginning of the Arduous March, economic hardships replaced political motives as the primary rationale for defection.

3 Challenging the Popular Notion of Defection: Examining Contemporary Defection Patterns

Data in this section reveals that economic migrants now outnumber the elites in defection numbers. The Ministry of Unification (2020) currently tracks the professional backgrounds of 33,648 defectors that have entered South Korea. Of these numbers, the Ministry has determined 1,175 as “non-target” people (children) bringing the current number of individuals with valid working backgrounds to 32,473. Table 1 classifies the professional backgrounds of defectors.

Fig. 1: This table shows data on Defectors by Professional Background.

It is a common misconception that most defectors come from privileged positions within the military, government, or academia. The Ministry of Unification (2020) identifies individuals formerly within the Worker’s Party and professions in “management” as managers and those occupying supervisory roles in white-collar and blue-collar industries. Additionally, those formerly working in “specialized professions” are skilled white-collar and blue-collar workers, industry professionals, and academic scholars (Ministry of Unification, 2020) [34]. Further, the “unemployed” individuals include stay-at-home caregivers and those who had still worked in other capacities but were not on the payroll of the state (Ministry of Unification, 2020) [34]. According to this statistic, approximately 87 percent of defectors do not hail from privileged backgrounds. Another important factor to consider is the origin of North Korean refugees. Their provincial and municipal origins offer insight into their motives for defection and correlates with the new paradigm we are observing. Residency is determined by one’s songbun standing, a complex class system consisting of over 50 classifications based on political reliability and family background which can be generally divided into three core groups: the loyal core class, the wavering class, and hostile class (Demick, 2009, p. 27; Martin, 2004, p .226) [6]. Provinces and regions that are further away from this center are more rural and less developed, which consequently are the places where individuals with low songbun are confined to. Moreover, such remote provinces are also where some of the country’s worst labor and concentration camps are located (Demick, 2009, p. 174) [6]. The showcase capital city of Pyongyang is the core of the country and is therefore the most developed area within the DPRK (Demick, 2009, p. 27, 40) [6]. Pyongyang and its surrounding area are reserved for the regime’s most loyal elites, and as one’s songbun status devolves, so too does one’s proximity of residency to Pyongyang. Table 2 outlines the statistics of North Korean defectors according to their birthplace.

Fig. 2: This table shows data on Defectors by Region of Birth.

As observed from Table 2, the top three regions of origin are North Hamgyong, Ryanggang, and South Hamgyong provinces which account for 85 percent of all North Korean refugees (Ministry of Unification, 2020) [34]. These areas harbor little political clout and host large populations of disadvantaged individuals with low songbun. Additionally, areas in close proximity to the Sino-Korean border observe a higher number of defections, with the exception of Jagang Province. Jagang is a designated “Special Songun (military-first) Revolutionary Zone” that houses much of the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, testing facilities, and arms factories (Daily NK, 2018) [19]. The Ministry of Unification’s data confirms a clear majority of North Korean refugees are economic refugees, given that most of them hail from underprivileged regions of the country.

Fig. 3: This image shows a map of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)

Moreover, the educational backgrounds of North Korean refugees further confirm that privileged individuals are not in the majority. The DPRK offers public compulsory education to all citizens that covers up to secondary schooling (Martin, 2004, p. 58) [18]. Universities and colleges are typically reserved for those with excellent songbun standing and stellar academic performance (KBS World Radio, 2020) [24]. Table 3 classifies the academic backgrounds of defectors.

Fig. 4: This table shows data on Defectors by Academic Background

Most North Koreans either enter the workforce immediately after completing their secondary education or begin their mandatory military service, which can last up to 10 years (KBS World Radio, 2020) [24]. As outlined by Table 3, 82 percent of North Korean refugees only complete their compulsory education and those privileged enough to be afforded opportunities for higher education only make up 17 percent. Furthermore, settlement surveys conducted with North Koreans confirms the notion that many are economic refugees. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Unification (2019) identified that 52.6 percent of surveyed North Koreans cited economic difficulty as the primary motive for their defection, while 17.2 percent were motivated by their families, an additional 8.5 percent made the decision on recommendations from their acquaintances, and only 7.4 percent directly citing their dissatisfaction with the government, with the rest citing other reasons [34]. A study conducted by the Korean Hana Foundation in 2019 revealed similar data. The Korean Hana Foundation is a non- profit public organization established by the Ministry of Unification to assist with settlement support for defectors. Their Settlement Survey (2019) cited the following as the top five motives for defection: food shortages (23.5 percent), dissatisfaction with government surveillance and control (21.5 percent), provide family with a better living environment (11.1 percent), reunite with family who had already defected (10.1 percent), and desire to earn more money (9.9 percent) [10]. Although it is indisputable that North Korean refugees are escaping political repression and persecution, rarely are these the primary or sole motive for defections. Government background data and surveys support the claim that underprivileged individuals are in the majority. In contrast to the surge in disadvantaged migrants, defections of high-profile North Koreans are becoming increasingly rare. Hwang Jang-Yop is the highest-ranking North Korean to have defected to South Korea, and prior to his escape in 1997 he was Kim Il-Sung’s ideological secretary (Martin, 2004, p. 243) [18]. His defection sent shockwaves through Pyongyang because he was the prime architect responsible for crafting the Juche state ideology (Martin, 2004, p. 646) [18]. The most recent high-profile defector is Thae Yong-Ho, the former Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom who used his diplomatic posting to successfully defect with his family in 2016 and enter into South Korean protection (Chan, 2020). In the 2020 South Korean legislative election, Thae won a landslide victory and was elected to the National Assembly representing the Gangnam district as a member of the conservative People Power Party. (Kim, 2020) [20].

4 Future Prospects of North Korean Migration

Defection numbers are beginning to curb, with only 1,047 new North Koreans reported by the Ministry of Unification in 2019, the lowest observed in 18 years (Yonhap News Agency, 2020) [2]. Modern technology and the unprecedented challenges brought on by the 2019 Coronavirus (COVID-19) have contributed to rendering border crossings increasingly difficult to attempt. In an effort to heighten security along the Sino-Korean border, North Korean security forces have deployed unprecedented technology. GPS tracking is now frequently utilized to map out common defection routes, monitor border traffic, and in some instances state agents have been known to infiltrate groups of defectors (The Chosun Ilbo, 2019) [27]. Additionally, the North Korean government has begun prioritizing the building of 3G infrastructure to aid in its surveillance operations. Despite their technological lag, 20 percent of North Koreans are now everyday users of mobile communications technology and this number is expected to grow exponentially (Kim, 2019). Such technological advancements will not only allow the DPRK to closely monitor potential defectors but also enable state officials to crack down on corruption rampant among border security forces. Bribing border guards is a common practice for those defecting, but the state is paying special attention to restoring accountability amongst their ranks, adding to the difficulties of border crossings (Kim 2019) [13]. Chinese entities have also been observed assisting the North Korean government’s efforts to thwart defections, primarily through technological aid. Among them, tech giant Huawei is suspected to be a prime suspect. Documents leaked by a former employee revealed that Huawei partnered with a Chinese state-owned firm called Panda International Information Technology to secretly assist the DPRK with the construction and maintenance of wireless network infrastructure (Nakashima et al., 2019) [21]. Moreover, Chinese authorities have expanded 5G coverage across the Sino-Korean border, equipping border units with state-of-the-art facial recognition technology, drones, and 4K real-time video streaming (Dong, 2019). Additional border checkpoints equipped with 5G are planned to be installed in Tonghua to aid in cracking down on defectors and Chinese smugglers that frequent the area (Dong, 2019). While the DPRK has not reported any positive cases of COVID-19, the government has nonetheless pursued aggressive measures to combat spread and restrict movement (Shin, 2021) [28]. It swiftly enacted lockdown measures, and when a defector swam back to the north in July 2020, a national emergency was triggered (Choe, 2020) [7]. Lockdowns are strictly enforced with zero- tolerance, with one individual reportedly being executed for violating the lockdown upon their return from China to the border city of Sinuiju (Kuhn, 2020) [26]. Furthermore, the pandemic has empowered the government to tighten border security at the porous Sino-Korean border. Buffer zones have been established, similar to the internal buffer system employed at the Berlin Wall, and border units are under unconditional orders to shoot on sight (Sifton, 2020) [29]. The Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, General Robert Abrams shared intelligence revealing special forces units of the Korean People’s Army have been deployed to the border to provide increased security (KBS World, 2020) [37]. In addition to the larger military presence on the border, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service confirmed that North Korean soldiers have laid mines in certain parts of the Sino-Korean border to discourage illegal border crossings (Yonhap News Agency, 2020) [3].

5 Conclusion

North Korean refugees are a testament to the many flaws of the Kim regime. None more apparent of these shortcomings is the failure to guarantee North Koreans the right to work, food, and housing—the tenets of human survival. Given such conditions, defection has become a viable means for ordinary North Koreans to escape their poverty and seek better economic opportunities elsewhere. As evident in the demographic of North Korean refugees observed by the Ministry of Unification, defection is no longer exclusively reserved for the elites, but has now become a tool of the masses. It no longer represents a dramatic reversal of political identities and allegiances. The poignant reality of the poor living standards in the DPRK have transformed defectors into economic refugees. Although many defectors are primarily motivated by economic reasons, they still risk their livelihoods and are labeled as traitors by their government. The DPRK celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding in 2018 and the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2020 (Talmadge, 2018; KBS World Radio, 2020) [25] [32]. Given its resiliency, it is unlikely that the DPRK will collapse soon, and as the Kim regime continues with its hallmark policy of depriving its citizens, ordinary North Koreans will continue to search for opportunities and livelihoods elsewhere.

7 Acknowledgements

The author gratefully acknowledges Professor Hugh Shapiro for his steadfast guidance, encouragement, and feedback throughout the research process. Additionally, the author is indebted to Saejowi Initiative for National Integration for accommodating the author with an invaluable and informative internship experience that aided in this project.


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