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The Exodus from North Korea
Speech by
Dr. Takane Kawashima
Associate Professor, Meiji University,Tokyo, Japan

Presented at:
      North Korea Human Rights Seminar
      Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand  
      20 October 2008


The word "exodus" is not familiar to non-English speakers or Non-Judeo-Christian cultures. This word originated in Biblical times, telling the ancient story of the Jewish departure from Egypt. In contemporary times, it means "many people leaving a place at the same time".

"The Exodus from North Korea" is defined as the mass departure for survival from North Korea. I cannot find any suitable words for expressing this unprecedented tragedy. I am convinced that that the words "exile" or "defection" are not proper, because it is not that they betrayed their state, but that their regime has abandoned the people.

          * "Korea" means "the Republic of Korea".
             "North Korea" is "the Democratic People's Republic of Korea"

In this report, we look first at the background of the exodus; next will be an overview of its history, and lastly, we will advocate the necessity of creating a new philosophy of civilization.

In the 1990s, the problem of the North Korean asylum seeker appeared on the world stage. And from 1994 the numbers increased dramatically. The border zone where China and North Korea meet had begun spilling over with innumerable stories of human rights abuses.

However, no countries recognized this tragedy except the Republic of Korea. For many of the North Korean escapees, the Republic of Korea was their destination. So, this problem was originally a bilateral problem between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

But now, this problem has become an East and Southeast Asian problem.

Why does Thailand accept several hundred North Korean refugees every year? Indeed, Thailand is 5,000 kilometers from North Korea.

The answer is that, first, between Korea and North Korea stands the 38th parallel, a military boundary zone, which the armed forces of both countries strictly guard as a defense against each other, so it is extremely difficult to cross this border. Almost all defectors take the route that crosses the border between China and North Korea.

Second, crossing the border into China does not mean they will be protected by China, the Chinese Government forcibly sends them back to North Korea, knowing that these returnees will be punished violently. So, escapees hide themselves as they move about within China. Many run eventually to Thailand, seeking protection as refugees.

The answer is simple, but serious human rights violations are being committed.

Before the Exodus, the time of Blockade

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a dictatorship under the absolute rule of Kim Jong-Il. No state in modern history has for so long and so thoroughly controlled its people. North Korea has many large-scale prison camps. The government does not allow its citizens free departure or emigration. Anyone who goes into exile is considered a traitor to the nation, and that person's relative are punished harshly. In other words, the government shuts its citizens within the country. The state as a whole seems to be a concentration camp.

Although the country's Constitution provides for the "freedom to reside in or travel to any place", the people must apply for a trip passport even when they go to neighboring town. Their applications are granted only for official matters, and private matters are limited to such things as a relative's wedding or funeral. The application procedure involves much time and effort. Freedom of movement is controlled by procedures, and the range of permitted actions is narrow.

The penal code is draconian, and the regime has committed many serious human rights abuses. Without a pass issued by the authorities, people cannot go to a neighboring city or town. For the regime, the aim of regulation is to restrain acts of collective resistance such as demonstrations.

We can classify all of what comes and goes between nations into four categories: human beings, currency (money), things, and information. Border control is a problem involving the kind of limits imposed for these four categories. Non-democratic and authoritarian systems in particular accept only inflow, taking advantage of this to maintain their regime.

This is why the government of North Korea does not allow freedom of departure to its citizens, and issues inhuman punishment to any citizen who is returned from a foreign nation without departure permission. The North Korean government has not wanted to inform the global community about its inhuman domestic situation. Nor does it want its citizens to know about the world outside of North Korea. What they fear most is the inflow and outflow of information; their aim is to allow only the inflow of money and supplies.

Background of the Exodus

Dissatisfaction with this blockade regime began with the Cold War collapse in 1989, and expanded with the great famine occurring in the mid-1990s. The collapse of the Cold War was the opportunity to cause unrest under the blockade regime; however, it was the widespread and extended starvation that weakened the regulation of freedom of movement.

It has been estimated that between 2 million and 3 million people starved to death in North Korea during the catastrophic famine. There is some disagreement regarding this number, because North Korea will not open up their country to observers. But today, among representative international human rights and humanitarian groups, few estimates are under 1 million.

The North Korea Government claims the cause of the starvation is drought and flood. It was surely caused by these weathers. However, this abnormal weather did not occur in neighboring countries but only in North Korea. Indeed, in China where North Korean people can cross the border on foot, foods were abundant throughout the 1990s. During this same period, the North Korea Government has dedicated its enormous budget to the development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

Even under the daily starvation, the people have been required to get a pass for moving about to buy food. Because this situation was prolonged, two important changes appeared. First, the regime was forced to allow its citizens far greater movement for seeking food. And second, among public officials who regulate the freedom of movement, corruption has become widespread.

The corruption spread even among government border guards. A person able to bribe government officials could cross the border successfully. Those who could not were risking their lives to cross the border. According to defectors in 1994 and 1995, the Penal Code defines defection as a capital crime, and any border crossers involuntarily repatriated to North Korea were routinely executed.

Historical Overview

We can divide the history of the exodus into three phases. For each phase, I point out a general characteristic of the phase from a historical/economical standpoint. Then I specify the major factors in each phase from the following viewpoints: regulation of the North Korean Government against freedom of movement; the number of North Korean asylum seeker; the policy of the Chinese government regarding the North Korean refugees; and the policy with respect to border control of the Chinese and North Korean Governments.

Name or characteristic
The First
the appearance of border-crossing period
The Second
the mass escape period
The Third
the semi-structured period

We can take the years from the late 1980s to 1993 as the first phase. In other words, it extended from the collapse of the Cold War to the catastrophic famine. It has been termed "the appearance of the border-crossing period". The characteristic of this time was the appearance of the border crossings themselves. Before this period, all legal border crossings were allowed for limited or high class people. In the case of illegal departures, they were all intentional exiles by members of the elite class. In contrast, with the appearance of the border-crossing period, escapees did not always consider their illegal departure as exile. The difference between before and after this phase can be expressed "exile as the purpose" and "exile as the result".

In the first period, the Background of the Exodus has already been mentioned.

The second period extended from 1994 to around 2002. It is termed "the mass escape period". Large numbers of North Koreans seeking foods due to the famine appeared in the border area between China and North Korea. Because the scale of starvation in North Korea expanded and became more protracted, the motives for the border crossings changed, and their attitudes toward the border crossing grew more diverse.

In the second phase, the motive of the border crossing tended not to be exile. When they had gotten food and money in China, they returned to North Korea. This cross-border shopping was life threatening, but many people repeatedly engaged in border crossing.

However, their thinking began to change after the border crossings. This is the characteristic of the third period. In other words, it may be said that the overall character of border crossing changed because the cross-border act, which began in the first half of the 1990s grew prolonged. The third period, after 2002 to the present, can be defined as "the semi-structured period".

Number of North Koreans Entering the South    Unit: Persons
  / Year
Share of Female (%)

The Ministry of Unification,

The Semi-Structured Period

The following factors are seen in the changing motives of border crossers.

First, after a border crosser was arrested, their motive had to change, whether they were arrested in China by the Chinese authorities and forced to go back, or they were caught by the North Korean authorities. In this case, it was not only the border crosser, but also their family and relatives who were punished, so they could no longer find a safe haven in North Korean society.

The second factor of change was the obvious prosperity in China. The person who intended to return to North Korea after getting food and supplies was surprised by the rich Chinese society and the great contrast with North Korea. Their urge to return to North Korea decreased, and they began thinking of bringing their entire family from North Korea to China.

"Exile as the result" shifted to "exile as the purpose".

The Government of China denied repeated requests by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to protect North Korean asylum seeker as refugees. The Chinese Government detained large numbers of North Korean asylum seekers and forcibly returned them to North Korea, where returnees met inhuman punishment. The Chinese authorities arrested and detained not only North Korean asylum seekers, but also foreign humanitarian activists. The North Korean asylum seekers had to from China in order to escape from forced repatriation to North Korea by The Chinese authorities.

The reality that they had to live as officially non-existent in China brought many tragedies to women. There have been many reports of trafficking of North Korean women in China. Even border guards were reportedly involved in trafficking. Some women were sold against their will to rural Chinese men who had difficulty finding wives, or they were forced to work in the sex industry. Such women could not understand the Chinese language; they had to be under the controlled. The price of North Korean brides varied from $38 to $150 in the 1990s. The high ratio of women in the list above has serious implications.

However, the Chinese government has begun to step up its forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers, and they refused to change the policy. The Government chose to deny the existence of escapees, rather than to protect them as refugees. In 2001, deportations of North Koreans from China increased, because the China authorities instituted a "Strike-Hard" anti-crime campaign. They officially regarded the North Korean escapees as illegal entrants.

Turning Point of 2002

North Korean asylum seekers and their support groups began a program of running into diplomatic institutions as a last-ditch measure in 2002. It was 2002 when the Shenyang Case in China happened. That is then the world began to take the problem of escapees from North Korea seriously. The Shenyang Case was an exile case. The North Korean asylum seekers, who had been hiding themselves in China, dashed into the Japanese Consulate General. However, Chinese police officers tried to seize and remove them in front of the Consulate's entrance gate. Similar exile cases occurred at several other diplomatic institutions, and some seekers were able to escape from the Chinese police authorities, although others not get past them.

A crying infant whose family was arrested by police, an asylum seeker blocked by police, these shocking scenes were taken by video camera, and it was reported all over the world. The world realized that many North Koreans were finding it necessary to escape to China, but that the Chinese government then arrested and repatriated many of them to North Korea without protection. Therefore North Korean asylum seekers had to escape from the authorities of two countries: North Korea, and China.

The world criticized China, but the suppression of human rights and humanitarian activities by the Chinese Government grew even stronger. The Government of China denied the UNHCR access to the border zone for North Korea escapees. The authority of China restrains even the United Nations, and far more the private humanitarian groups. A Japanese humanitarian worker for North Korea refugees, Hiroshi Kato was detained in October 2002. Korean Bong-il Choi was detained in April of the same year. Humanitarian worker Hee-tae Kim was detained in August. Many other activists were held as well.

Restrictions on religion by China made rescue operations more difficult and dangerous. Both China and North Korea harshly suppress Christianity. Many Christian groups work to help rescue North Korea refugees, and their efforts have been suppressed because of religious discrimination. In China, Bibles and Christian literature cannot be published without government approval. Some Christians have received sentences of a few years for violating this publication law.

Journalists who report on North Korean refugees are frequently detained. Korean photojournalist Seok Jae Hyun was imprisoned and sentenced to 2 years. In 2003, the Committee to Protect Journalists assessed China as "the world's leading jailer of journalists". This year 39 journalists were imprisoned, and China received the same title again.

Nevertheless the number of escapes from North Korea to China continued to rise. Authorities did not allow border crossings, but it became the actual situation. The large-scale starvation and food crisis had ended, but the critical situation of the economy continued. Therefore, the number of border crossings increased. This means the border crossing problem had changed from an invisible existence to a visible reality. This is true not only for international society but also for North Korea. In particular, the successful results of the Chinese economic reform became a great presence for both North Korean authorities and its citizens. Whether officially or unofficially, without the border-crossing economy, neither the public nor the non-public North Korean economy could stand alone.

Minor Conclusion

No solution is in sight for the problem of North Korean asylum seekers. Many facts are covered up by China and North Korea. A clear conclusion cannot be presented.

One can assume that this problem has become visible to the global community. Now international society knows why the North Korean asylum seekers were forced to remain invisible within the Chinese society, and the fact is clear that the Chinese Government does not protect them as refugees.

It is important that in this exodus, the people themselves have come to form a kind of society with its own networks. The number of North Korean asylum seekers hidden in Chinese territory has been estimated as ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. And the number of North Korean defectors who have reached the Republic of Korea has increased year by year. Now there are about 13,000 exiles living in the Republic of Korea. Asylum seekers in China become the foothold of support for their relatives remaining in North Korea to escape from North Korea, while defectors in Korea have become a similar foothold for asylum seekers in China. The exodus is making a exodus, and someday they may possibly contribute to creating a new Korea.

Finally, I want you to know it is not an accident but a necessity that many North Korean asylum seekers come to Thailand. When you consider the sphere of influence of Chinese political culture, it is easy to see that Korea, Thailand and Japan are just outside the periphery of Chinese influence. Conversely, North Korea, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Nepal touch borders directly with China, and are inside the Chinese zone of influence.

Remember, the exodus from North Korea is the longest journey from the inside to outside for seeking freedom and hope. To protect them is to defend our cultural zone of influence.