United States

North Korean Refugees Now – Part 4: Outsized Influence

Examining the news for ongoing political actions that affect North Korean refugees in China, Crossing Borders has seen a number life-altering events unfold over time. We have come to realize that history doesn’t always occur under lights and in front of cameras. It often happens in meeting rooms with hours and hours of negotiation. One example of this kind of event unfolded last week when the United States and China met for a summit to discuss a variety of issues between the two countries. There are, to our understanding, a number of issues the two countries need to discuss: hacking, Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, economic disputes and Chinese banking expansion into the US.

There is another, quiet point of discussion that the two countries have debated again and again and have not come to a conclusion: North Korea. Within the long grasp of these two countries lies the fate of this small, poor country and its people.

It’s remarkable that a government in such economic disarray that it cannot feed its own people continues to command the attention of the most powerful countries of the world. North Korea, seemingly, is at the center of conflicts between the US and China, and has positioned itself to thrive under this umbrella of contention.

In this post, we will examine the world’s two largest economies: those of United States and China, and how North Korea has capitalized on a mutual mistrust between the two countries.

On February 29, 2012, Pyongyang agreed with the United States to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and all nuclear activity. But 16 days later, North Korea defied this agreement by launching a satellite into orbit. On December 12 of the same year, the country launched what appeared to be another satellite, sparking condemnation from 60 countries around the world and the UN Security Council, which unanimously adopted UNSCR 2087.

This seemingly erratic behavior by the North Korean government has left the world confused on what to do next.

“North Korea probably was never serious about ending its nuclear and missile programs,” wrote, Evans J.R. Revere of the Bookings Institute in 2013. “Pyongyang has enshrined its nuclear status in its constitution and declared that it will not give up its nuclear weapons under any circumstances.”

But the main focus of all political maneuvering by the US toward North Korea has been contingent upon denuclearization. Under the Obama administration, the US has made it clear to North Korea that any high-level talks or aid given to North Korea will be regarding meaningful steps toward dismantling their nuclear program.

China has also shown a wariness toward North Korea’s nuclear program but despite intricate ties with the North Korean government, it does not have the power to change its ally.

North Korea is China’s greatest foreign policy challenge, according to experts. This relationship has key strategic implications, as we discussed in earlier posts.

“Like a variety of foreign policy issues in recent years, North Korea threatens to besmirch China’s prestige,” wrote Andrew Scobell and Mark Cozad. “China craves the reputation of a responsible global citizen and a force for good in the world.”

China’s relationship with North Korea appears to be multi-faceted and focuses on three key areas: diplomacy, economics and military.

This means that China has purposely and strategically chosen not to criticize its neighbor on multiple occasions. UNSCR 2087 was an exception to the rule. It has taken measures in the past to prop up the North Korean economy, seemingly at any cost. And it has a long standing agreement to protect its neighbor, should war break out in the region.

For China, there is too much to lose if North Korea fails. The biggest fear is that North Korea will crumble, South Korea will assume control and US troops will be at its doorstep.

Under President Obama the US has strengthened its alliances with China and other key countries in East Asia, known as Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. But this move has been the topic of heated debate in China.

“This debate provides a backdrop to consider prospects for Sino-US cooperation on policy toward North Korea, and highlights Chinese wariness and strategic mistrust of US policy intentions,” wrote, Scott A. Snyder for the Council on Foreign Relations.

This key relationship between the US and China and all the mistrust that comes with it is at the heart of why the North Korean regime as we know it still exists.

North Korea has used this mistrust to its advantage. It feeds off the two countries and their differing agendas. It can only survive as long as the two largest economies will continue on this path.

Whether the US and China will continue on this path is yet to be seen. The US and China have recently reached major milestones in a key climate agreement. China has also grown weary of North Korea’s nuclear tests and was disappointed in the execution of Jang Sung-tek, North Korea’s main point of contact with China.

Despite these challenges, China has been unrelenting in their support of the North Korean government. They continue to be North Korea’s largest trading partner and even supply food aid to the country.

The result for the millions of North Koreans, still hungry from lack of food and the North Korean refugees in China, is devastating.

Will North Korea change? Can it change? Will it implode? For almost 13 years we have stood at the border of this country and wondered, prayed and cried. We are just as uncertain today as we were in 2003. But we have not lost hope and will continue to pray in hope for a better tomorrow for North Korean refugees.

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.