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자유찾는 탈북난민 강제북송 왠말이냐! Sure, but what then?

November 16, 2009

The plight of the North Korean refugees (talbukja) is again brought to people’s attention by a Wall Street Journal editorial which calls for Obama pressing the Chinese leaders in his ongoing visit to China. It is believed that there are anywhere between 30,000 to  300,000 North Korean talbukjas currently living/hiding in China. So far about 17,000 (according to Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea) talbukjas have made their way to South Korea. Human rights groups in South Korea and the West have long criticized China for allegedly rounding them up and sending them back to the DPRK. While I doubt that the Chinese authorities are actively trying to round up and locate every North Korean talbukja on Chinese soil, I have no doubt whatsoever that life for these people in China must be very hard.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be in China’s shoes right now. China is in a delicate situation: On one hand it wants to live up to the expectations from the international community as a “responsible stakeholder”, plus South Korea is one of those places where China would like to further advance its political and economic leverage. On the other hand China doesn’t want to offend and agitate the DPRK by being seen as too cooperative with the demands from those human rights groups. More importantly, China alternating its current policy might prove to be too dangerous and destabilizing for both the DPRK and China: If the North Koreans know that they won’t be repatriated if they ever venture out to China, this will open the flood gate and we will see perhaps a million more North Koreans swarming the plains of northeastern China.

Yes I agree that 북송 should be done at a minimum level and hopefully it will cease to happen. However, stopping repatriation alone should not be the solution that those human rights groups are so hung up on. What about those 30,000 to 300,000 talbukjas who are in China already? If China doesn’t send them back, where will they go? The majority of these talbukjas naturally want to go to South Korea. So far the South Korean government has been very slow and reluctant to come up with a plan to systematically deal with these talbukjas. Not surprisingly, many in South Korea simply do not want these 300,000 some people to come over and settle down as they are likely to be seen as a drain on society, if the collective experience of those 17,000 talbukjas in South Korea is any indication. I think it is highly hypocritical for those human rights groups to only focus on pressuring China instead of urging the South Korean government to come up with a permanent solution that will be acceptable to all parties involved: Some 300,000 talbukjas, South Korea, North Korea and China.

I am going to take a stab at it. About a month ago I half-jokingly mentioned my proposal on Joshua Stanton‘s ever-righteous, intolerant blog 一言堂 (people with different opinions need not visit and comment) and was shot down instantaneously.  The following is the gist of it: South Korea should work with China to locate all talbukjas in China who wish to go to South Korea, get them on board Korean Air planes and fly them to South Korea. Problem solved! This way nobody will be bitching about how these poor people will be potentially repatriated back to the DPRK. All the associated cost of locating and flying these people to South Korea, of course South Korea should pick up the tab as these talbukjas are officially considered citizens of the Republic of Korea. And in order to stop the North Koreans from making a fuss about it (also to relieve the Chinese from getting grilled by the North Koreans), the South Korean government could consider paying $10 for every talbukja who is flown to South Korea. I am sure the DPRK would be thrilled to receive 3 million USD payment from the South, which can be used to reinforce the northern border to prevent any more talbukjas from escaping to China. Right? Wait a second, perhaps this will even encourage the DPRK to be more laxed and more tolerant of allowing more talbukjas to cross into China. When most of the 27 million North Koreans flee to South Korea this way, wouldn’t Korea be finally reunified? The Nobel Peace Prize of 2050 goes to… Juchechosunmanse! 🙂

I am serious. Instead of yelling “자유찾는 탈북난민 강제북송 왠말이냐!” they should be demanding “북한인권 침묵하는 남한정권 규탄하자!”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2009 6:15 am

    I interrupt my righteous ignorance to point out a glaring factual inaccuracy in your post. There are 17,000 North Korean refugees in the South, not 2,900. Ignorance indeed. And if China isn’t trying to round up every last North Korean, it may be because of a shortage of wire, cattle prods, or bounty money. Or maybe it just likes having the ready supply of comfort women.

    By the way, I’ve approved all of your comments on my blog provided they were on-topic. Your off-topic invective and ad hominem insults weren’t.

  2. November 16, 2009 6:27 am

    Ahh, thank you Stanton for enlighening me once in a while. I guess you are right, I have corrected the figure accordingly, my bad. See? You are so righteous, as always. 🙂

    So what do you say about South Korea getting more active in moving those 30,000 to 300,000 some people over there? If they were all “lost” SK citizens, why doesn’t South Korea try to claim them?

    • adamcathcart permalink
      November 17, 2009 9:48 am

      Nice to see the dialogue continuing over here. Not to be pedantic, Joshua, and certainly not to assert that China treats refugees gently, but as I have attempted to explain before, the “wire [through the wrists]” thing you mention isn’t confirmed, which gives me an excuse to link back to your site, where I left a 1,000 word comment a while back on this issue:

      As for the Voice of the Martyrs report and the Christianity Today citations you included subsequently to assert the “wire through the wrists” thing, I don’t find those particularly convincing. (Perhaps teaching at a Christian university, or having been briefly adopted by a born-again family in the early 1990s, allows me to think that evangelical students and thus members of organizations like Voice of the Martyrs are more likely care about certain issues if some crucifixion implications can be attached.) So maybe you’re right, but that particular NYT piece is anything but conclusive.

      It’s interesting point in Juchechosunmanse’s original post here about reversing the China pressure (which unfortunately has resulted in virtually no concessions from the PRC on this issue in the last ten years) and focusing on South Korea. If the PRC had assurances from ROK on refugee resettlement, would that really change things? DPRK would get enraged. But then again, China has done plenty of things to make them mad in the last year and certainly seems much less interested than they used to be in preserving North Korean face.

      And righteousness is fine! As long as there are plenty of facts sloshing around, it’s all good.

  3. November 17, 2009 12:51 pm


    I guess China could simply try bribing the DPRK again (pampering it with aid, as usual) to make the North Koreans less angry. However I am not sure if this is going to work out in China’s favor in the long run as ample examples presented by the Daily NK (and by you too, Adam) have shown that China’s hard-earned money basically went down the drain and bought ZERO goodwill from the North Koreans. China needs to have a plan B for countries such as the DPRK and Myanmar so that they won’t one day find themselves in a 被人卖了,还帮着数钱 situation vis-à-vis the Americans. This is a topic for another day that I am working on.

    Back to the topic, I seriously think the South Korean government should be more involved in this. It is kind of disingenuous for them to ask China not to send those former ROK army POWs back to the DPRK while ignoring the other 300,000 talbukjas.

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