Lost in the flurry over North Korea’s detention of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee is the story they sought to cover: the plight of North Korean women refugees in China. Eighty percent of recent North Korean migrants in China are women. According to “Lives for Sale,” a recent report by Lee Hae-Young based on interviews with 77 North Korean women living in China, most of these women fled North Korea in search of a better life, only to find themselves sold to Chinese farmers and laborers. Possessing few or no legal rights in China and faced with the prospect of prostitution, forced marriage, and sexual slavery there, the freedom of these Korean women is directly related to what is happening in North Korea, and what might happen should they be able to return home.
North Korean women in China are highly vulnerable to exploitation, yet what consistently fails to be covered is “why are they leaving their home country?” The Washington Post found that Lee’s report, mentioned above, “is a part of a growing body of research conducted inside China that shows that North Korean defectors are mostly women from working-class and rural backgrounds who fled because of hunger and poverty, not political oppression.” This finding is corroborated by a 2004 South Korea government (Ministry of Unification) survey of over 4,000 North Koreans living in South Korea. The survey found that 75% left North Korea for economic reasons or to join their families in the south, and only 9% left because of political repression. A similar survey conducted by Refugee International in 2005 found that only two of the 63 defectors they interviewed left North Korea for political reasons. Historically, we can observe that people leaving North Korea was largely unheard of for the first four decades of its existence, until the 1990s, when the state had difficulty delivering basic economic and social goods. This is not to say there is no political oppression in North Korea. There are numerous stories of refugees who endured experiences unimaginable to most of us. However, the evidence indicates that it was the economic decline North Korea began to experience in the 1990s, not political oppression that is the main factor driving North Koreans over the border.
The notion that the flight of North Koreans to China is due to political oppression has been asserted as a rational for discontinuing aid to North Korea since it would only prolong the existence of the regime and therefore the suffering of the population. But if indeed economic hardships are the primary reasons for the migration, as the evidence suggests, then the discontinuation of aid will only exacerbate the suffering of the population and encourage more to leave. This would be a terrible mistake.
If we are serious about addressing the conditions of North Koreans and supporting their increased access to a wide range of political, economic, and social rights, we have to understand the root causes of North Korea’s famine and poverty.
Like most industrialized countries of all political stripes around the world, the North Korean government spent decades over-relying on chemical inputs in agriculture and paying insufficient attention to soil replenishment. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist trading bloc in the late 1980s dealt a heavy blow to North Korea’s industrialized, petroleum-dependent agricultural sector. Tractors had no gas, and farmers lost a key compound in fertilizer. As North Koreans struggled to recalibrate their economy in the 1990s, the country found itself at the epicenter of devastating, once-in-a-century droughts and floods. But even before agricultural policy mistakes, Soviet collapse, and El Nino, the country of Korea was divided by the postwar Truman Administration, leaving most of the nation’s agricultural lands in the South while the North is faced with a mere 14% arable land.
Nevertheless we persist in attributing the cause of North Korea’s famine to an “evil dictator” who must be dislodged before the country can get back on its feet. But this is far from the truth according to Theodor Friedrich, Senior Agriculturalist for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In Pyongyang, in 2004, one of us asked him if an “evil dictator” was the cause of the famine. He responded that, to the contrary, what he observed was that because of North Korea’s exceptional centralized food distribution system and collective spirit, a great many lives were saved. Agricultural expert Urs Wittenwiler, who spent five years in North Korea with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, says that in most parts of the country, the food situation has stabilized and what North Korea needs is development aid and investment.
Recognizing their limited options for economic recovery under the political status quo, North Korea has, since at least the early 1990s, been actively seeking to normalize relations with the United States. In response to the collapse of its state-centered economy, the government introduced economic reforms to attract foreign investment. Veteran Korea scholar John Feffer tells his audiences that “markets have become a dominant feature in North Korean society,” and that contrary to the assertion that North Korea is trying to suppress them, the government acknowledges their importance and seeks to control them through taxation and staffing. Feffer believes that “the North Korean government appears today to have no fundamental ideological opposition to markets or capitalism.” Long-time North Korea specialist Kathi Zellweger of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation says, “I feel very strongly that [the North Koreans] are trying to open up the country. They are trying to attract business. They are trying to send more delegations outside to do business, to learn about business.” Yet despite North Korea’s efforts to liberalize, “no investor is interested in North Korea as long as there are sanctions.”
Many human rights groups have joined the U.S. State Department in calling for greater sanctions against North Korea, pointing to its success in South Africa and Burma. But there are huge differences between North Korea and those countries. Feffer and Martin Hart-Landsberg point out that “no domestic group within North Korea supports sanctions, as did the African National Congress in South Africa and the National League for Democracy in Burma, both of which saw the sanctions as strengthening their respective domestic struggles for democratic transformation.”
This brings us, of course, to the round of U.N. sanctions imposed on June 12th as a “punishment” for North Korea’s second nuclear test. Like Cuba after its revolution, North Korea has never experienced a time when it has not been heavily sanctioned by the United States. As with Cuba, the impact of U.S. sanctions on the average North Korean has varied depending on global events, weather conditions, and political alliances. U.S. sanctions have probably had a greater negative impact on the average North Korean since the 1990s when the state was seeking more direct aid, development aid, technical assistance, and opportunities for meaningful trade. And make no mistake—the North Koreans know what the sanctions are for. According to respected Korea scholar and reporter Selig Harrison, “the North Koreans understandably see them as a regime-change policy designed to bring about the collapse of their regime through economic pressure.”
While sanctions may not be “intended to restrict legitimate activity and trade and should not have an adverse affect on the already hard-pressed people of North Korea,” as British Ambassador Philip Parham claimed with the announcement of more U.N. sanctions, research clearly demonstrates that economic sanctions do indeed hurt the most vulnerable populations. For example, according to a 2000 Lancet article, during the decade-long United Nations-imposed sanctions on Iraq, the mortality rate of Iraqi children under age five more than doubled.
When Barack Obama was elected President, Korean Americans, Koreans on the peninsula, and all advocates for the reunification and economic justice on the Korean peninsula dared to dream that decades of enmity between the U.S. and the North Koreans would end. Sadly, the Obama administration is, so far, at least as bad as the one it replaced. Just last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the administration was considering placing North Korea back on the State Department’s terrorist list. This ignores the point that there is no credible reason to put them on the list. In a recent interview with the Korea Policy Institute, longtime Korea expert Leon Sigal said, “I know of no evidence of recent terrorist acts by North Korea nor have I heard of anybody making such an allegation credibly.”
On June 12th, the U.S. succeeded in pressuring the U.N. Security Council to place even more sanctions against North Korea, including restricting new loans, grants, and export credits. Tightening the noose around North Korea via sanctions and further isolating it has not worked before and will not work this time to improve the human rights of the people living in North Korea. What sanctions may do is force more Koreans, especially Korean women, to cross a dangerous border to face a highly exploitative system that has developed in the area to take advantage of these vulnerable people. North Korea has been tarred with the label of human rights abuser. Those of us in the U.S. who care about the human rights of North Koreans might ask ourselves what role the U.S. has played over the course of six decades in the suffering of North Koreans and in the current cross-border movement. And rather than wring our hands about a mysterious man half-way around the world, we might take responsibility for our country’s foreign policy and work to help change it.
* Christine Ahn is a policy analyst with the Korea Policy Institute and member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War. Thomas Kim is the executive director of the Korea Policy Institute.