W- Courtland Robinson

The Problem with Numbers and North Korean Refugees

One of the biggest hurdles in trying to convince people to help North Koreans is that there is so much mystery surrounding North Korea. For all the press on the Great North Korean Famine of the late 1990s, experts still disagree on exactly how many North Koreans died from starvation. In 2001, North Korean foreign minister, Choe Su-hon told UNICEF that 220,000 North Koreans died of starvation between 1995 and 1998.

A 1998 memo to the House International Relations Committee stated that 300,000 to 800,000 North Koreans were dying per year at the famine’s peak.

But there is another phantom statistic that makes it hard for Crossing Borders to promote our work: how many North Korean refugees are there in China? People like solid numbers and the absence of one makes people skeptical that a problem even exists. With an absolute statistic people can assess what exactly needs to be done. They can put a dollar figure next to the issue and throw the appropriate amount f money and resources to experts who work in the field.

In 2003, when Crossing Borders officially started work, most experts estimated that there were between one hundred to three hundred thousand North Koreans hiding in China. A recent study by W. Courtland Robinson from Johns Hopkins University pegged the figure at 10,000.

The only thing we know for sure is that the number is big but that’s the equivalent of going to the international community, spreading our arms as wide as we can and saying, “we need this much help.”

Crossing Borders is among the few organizations that has kept our eye on the situation among North Korean refugees for a prolonged period of time. Though we cannot quantify the problem objectively, we are noticing that the number of North Koreans is decreasing in the area in which we work. In 2004 our wait lists for those who needed support were long and the problem at hand was too big for us to handle. Today North Korean refugees are still plentiful in the area but there is no waiting list.

Despite the absence of a solid figure, we have an amazing amount of anecdotal evidence backed by the testimonies of North Koreans who have defected to the South. We also meticulously vet each person who comes through our doors to get the clearest picture on the refugee crisis and on how we can expand our work. We have people on the field who keep their ears to the ground in refugee communities and underground churches. Thus far all the evidence we have gathered indicates that the great number of North Koreans who need our help throughout China are not going away any time soon.

If only that were enough.