South Korea

North Korean Refugees Now – Part 3: Reunification

If you ask those around the world who work on behalf of North Korean refugees and North Korean people, there are differing opinions on what should be done in North Korea to alleviate the suffering in North Korea. Some say that all the North Korean people need is an open economy. Others say they need political freedom. Some say that reunification is the only path to lasting peace and happiness.

Reunification is an intriguing option that can bring many changes to the North Korean peninsula and even greatly benefit the 200,000 refugees in China. It can erase the border that has divided the peninsula for 70 years. It can join the vast mineral resources in North Korea with the industrial might of South Korea. It can bring the tens-of-millions of people in the North vital resources like food and medicine. It can bring the gospel into the country.

In today’s post we will explore the status of reunification and spell out how it can affect the 200,000 North Korean refugees in China, the peninsula and the region as a whole.

South Korea’s youth grows increasingly wary of their neighbors to the North and their interest in reunification is waning. This generation has only read about a united Korean peninsula in history books and have heard about it from their grandparents. They have no personal ties to cousins, aunts and uncles they may have in the Hermit Kingdom.


The chart above depicts the shifting sentiments of the Korean people. In 2011, 41 percent of South Koreans in their 20s polled said that reunification was necessary.


In 2014, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies asked South Koreans what words they would use they would associate with North Korea. The results (shown above) depict a population in South Korea that does not use the word “family” or “one nation” in their descriptions of their neighbors to the North. And why would they?

The once united Koreas are yin and yang today. One is rich. The other is poor. One is a democracy. The other is a totalitarian dictatorship. To reunite, many experts say that it will cost South Korea an estimated $2 trillion and disrupt the surging economy of South Korea.

South Korea’s president, Park, Geun-hye has made reunification a key component of her presidency. Some experts say that it’s the country’s last-ditch effort as interest in her country wanes.

In light of the decreased interest of the South Korean people to reunify, Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University, Sue Mi Terry spelled out three likely scenarios for reunification in Foreign Affairs magazine.

The first is what she describes as the “soft landing” in which North Korea improves their economy, engages with South Korea and willfully dissolves under democratic rule. The second involves an implosion of North Korea under economic pressures, in which case South Korea assumes control of the peninsula. The third is a military conflict in which the South and its allies gain control of the North by force.

The most likely, according to Terry, is the second scenario. North Korea implodes due to economic failure or political in-fighting and is absorbed into South Korea.

However, an implosion would send North Korean refugees into China and South Korea, creating an unparalleled humanitarian crisis. Such a scenario, though possible, is unlikely in the status quo as China, North Korea’s largest benefactor, will not allow this to happen for many reasons we discussed in an earlier post.

China sees North Korea as a key, strategic partner for many reasons, namely, to keep the US army far from its borders.

North Korea, on the other hand, has embraced isolationism. Its “rogue state” status has left the dictatorship no choice but to hold onto power in their failed state. They are keen to the fact that any scenario in which the regime topples would mean trials in international courts and possibly execution at the hands of its own citizenry.

The US and its allies have little time to devote to a meaningful solution to the problem of North Korea with wars in the Middle East and its dependence on Chinese imports. Reunification, to world leaders, will likely be an expensive if not bloody process and one which would require too much political will.

But this is, to many, is a short-sighted view. If there is no North Korean dictatorship, the largest destabilizing force in East Asia would be eliminated. 25 million North Korean people would be free from their imprisonment and add South Korea’s dwindling workforce. South Korea would eventually prosper with access to the rich mineral wealth North Korea cannot afford to extract on its own.

Reunification will likely mean that the 200,000 North Korean refugees caught in limbo in China can return home and will not have to live in fear of forced repatriation for the “crime” of their escape.

It sounds almost too good to be true. There are many variables in this process that can harm North Korean refugees. A simple misstep by either of the Koreas, China or the US can cause irreparable damage for this population and the millions of people living on or near the peninsula.

It is a risky and expensive proposition, which politicians do not like. But the alternative is, arguably, even riskier. North Koreans are still hungry. There are tens of thousands in political prison camps. They have no freedom. And they are at the whim of the few at the top who live in opulence and care little about those they oppress.

The real risk isn’t in doing something to free these people, it’s if the world, with all its riches and bounty, does nothing.

We are not saying reunification is the ultimate answer but, in light of the suffering, we believe that something needs to be done.

China Facts: North Korea as a Buffer Zone - North Korean Refugees

How does China's continuing political relationship with North Korea affect North Korean refugees? The Korean peninsula is still at war. No peace agreement has been signed as fighting between North and South stopped in 1953. There are about 29,000 US troops and marines currently stationed in South Korea. South Korea adds about 655,000 active troops to this force.

The Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ), which splits North and South Korea, is currently the most militarized border in the world.

For China to continue to grow economically, they must maintain stability. What this means is simple: No war.

Korean Military forces
Korean Military forces

China wants to keep this military standoff, involving not only the Koreas, but the United states, as far from its borders as possible.

"For the Chinese, stability and the avoidance of war are the top priorities," Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at Stanford's Asia-Pacific Research Center, told the Council on Foreign Relations.

China has many interests in North Korea as a strategic partner, none of these interests are in the people who have been suffering since the mid-1990s, many of whom have, as North Korean refugees, come into their borders in search for help. It is, in fact, in the best interests of the Chinese government to reject the North Korean refugees who cross into China, as its desire to appease North Korea as their buffer zone is greater than its desire to harbor North Korean immigrants.

Twice a North Korean Refugee

“We never had enough firewood in the winter,” Yae Rin, a North Korean refugee in Crossing Borders' care told us. “My dad and I would go very early in the morning to the mountain and cut down a pine tree to bring home. We would have been in such big trouble if we were caught. When there was enough snow on the ground, we could take a big tree and slide it down the mountain.” Yae Rin is a young woman. She is less than five-feet-tall. She has a bright disposition and innocence about her. It’s hard to tell that she is a North Korean refugee in hiding in China. It is shocking to learn of the hardship she endured growing up in North Korea. Yae Rin crossed the border into China with nothing and subsequently had to live for years with the fear of repatriation by the Chinese government.

In North Korea, Yae Rin and her family shared a house with four other families and struggled to find enough work to eat on a regular basis. “I had to get out, so I planned to cross the border into China. I went to my friend’s house to prepare to leave but somehow my father found out and stopped me. We cried together and I went back home.” But a few days later, Yae Rin crossed the river into China. She hasn’t seen her family since she escaped.

Soon after crossing over into China, Yae Rin was found by a local Christian who took her to an underground church for safety. Countless other North Korean refugee women are trafficked into China from North Korea or found by wrongdoers and sold as wives or prostitutes. Experts estimate the number of North Korean refugees to be in the hundreds-of-thousands, those who have crossed illegally into China since the Great North Korean of the 1990s.

Yae Rin found work in China and Crossing Borders was able to help her with rent and obtain an ID so she could apply for jobs. She would find work at different restaurants, often working 7 days a week. The field staff at Crossing Borders would meet her regularly during this time for encouragement and prayer. Our missionary couple shared many hours during Yae Rin’s time off talking about her past as well as hopes for her future.

After a few years of struggle and weariness, Yae Rin felt ready to go to South Korea. The trip along the Modern Day Underground Railroad to freedom can take weeks. In addition, South Korea requires each North Korean refugee to take several months of reeducation courses before entering mainstream society. Yae Rin made the trip safely and took all the required coursework in South Korea.

This past year, our field staff who shared time caring for Yae Rin in China were able to meet her just outside a subway station soon after she got her own apartment in Seoul. They hugged and wept for a long time out on the street. They went to her new home and prayed to thank God and cried together again.

Yae Rin, now 26 and a North Korean refugee twice over, through the dangers of China and now in the modern day rush of South Korea, shared one of her first thoughts landing at Incheon airport in South Korea. “I’m finally in Korea. I don’t have to worry about hiding.”

Then while on the bus crossing the long bridge into the city in mid-winter she thought, “I wish my family could be with me now.”

Adjusting to a new life provides many challenges for North Korean refugees but Yae Rin shares that she is happy and now she finally has the freedom to fulfill some of her hopes and dreams. Today, Yae Rin is studying hard and has plans to become a nurse. She may never escape the memories of her past but maybe she feels it’s now her turn to do some healing.