E.g., 06/25/2024
E.g., 06/25/2024
Cross-Border Human Flows in Northeast Asia

Cross-Border Human Flows in Northeast Asia

International migration is not a new phenomenon in much of the world. In Northeast Asia, however, cross-border human flows are largely a post-Cold War phenomenon and are posing a serious challenge to the host societies' collective identity, social order, political agenda, and even national security.

The region's nations – China (including the People's Republic, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao), Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, and Russia – are home to about 28 percent of the world's population, but the migrant stock in the region represents only 11.7 percent of the world's total migrant stock. This means Northeast Asian governments have maintained restrictive migration policies, limiting the number of migrants who can legally enter their countries. If those policies change, the region will have substantial room for expanded international migration.

Since 2001 researchers from Northeast Asia as well as from the UK and the U.S. have been examining the growing cross-border human flows in Northeast Asia and their policy implications. More specifically, they have studied the population and demographic trends and migration patterns in each country of the region, focusing on Chinese and Korean migrants in the Russian Far East; Koreans, Chinese, and Russians in Japan; North Koreans in China; and migration issues in South Korea and Mongolia.

"Human flows" have been defined broadly to include not only "migrants" in the conventional sense – individuals who have permanently settled in a country other than their country of origin – but also short-term migrant workers, traders, tourists, businesspeople, educators, students, and "entertainers," including sex workers.

Researchers have used such an inclusive definition because they cannot assume that non-migrant movements are less important than those of conventional migrants. Each type of cross-border movement raises human security issues and presents challenges to host governments and communities.

The Case of China

The most important source of human flows in Northeast Asia is China. Post-1978 reforms have created huge developmental gaps between regions and propelled massive internal migration from rural to urban areas, as well as substantial emigration and temporary visits to neighboring countries. The latter development gave rise to nationalist fears and even national security concerns in the Russian Far East in the early 1990s over what some alarmists called "the yellow peril" or a "peaceful invasion."

Exaggerated speculations about the size of the Chinese population in the region – some as high as one million – have since been discredited and replaced by more realistic estimates upwards of 200,000. Chinese migrants, traders, and temporary workers have sought economic opportunities in the Russian Far East, which has experienced labor shortages in some sectors, such as construction and agriculture, and shortfalls in consumer goods production. Lack of employment at home has been the most important push factor.

However, the deteriorating economic condition and the declining population in the Far Eastern territories – dropping from a high of 7.8 million in the late 1980s to 6.7 million today – as well as China's proximity and rising power have made local populations feel vulnerable. Careful studies indicate that much of the fear is unfounded. The situation could be improved if Russia and China cooperate more closely in developing stable and orderly cross-border migration and trade regimes and if Moscow invests in developing the Far Eastern economy.

Massive unemployment in rural China, including in the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, is also creating waves of legal and illegal human flows to Japan, South Korea, Russia, and other countries.

Uneducated and unskilled Chinese laborers are often exposed to deceit and exploitation by Chinese labor exporters and their foreign partners, as well as by foreign employers who hire them as cheap labor under the guise of technical and industrial training. Many Chinese laborers end up working illegally in neighboring countries, as do tens of thousands of Chinese students.

Remedying these problems will require more liberal migration and labor import policies in Japan, South Korea, and Russia, more effective enforcement of criminal laws and migration policies in China, and the development of bilateral and multilateral labor migration regimes that recognize the complementary elements of the region's economies. The Northeast Asian countries should also consider domestic legal reforms and other necessary steps towards accepting various international conventions and protocols.

North Korean Migration to China

If Chinese migration to neighboring countries is motivated by economic reasons, the North Korean migration to China is also largely a result of economics, namely the calamitous condition of North Korea's economy. The main factor is the country's international isolation, which is due to dictator Kim Jung-Il's leadership and the international community's criticism of his regime. North Korea's failed economic system and natural disasters, including flooding and droughts in the 1990s, have made the situation worse.

North Korean migration raises several challenging issues. First, the legal status of North Koreans who illegally enter China is not clear. The media has called them "defectors" while human rights groups and the U.S. Congress have labeled them "refugees" and "asylum seekers;" the Chinese government says they are "economic migrants." North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated may face political persecution, but they have economic incentives for risking their safety and that of their families back home. Since the international community has not reached a consensus on this question, no one knows what rights these North Koreans can claim and what legal obligations China, North Korea, and other countries have towards them.

Second, there are no reliable statistics on how many North Korean migrants live and work in China, though estimates range from an unrealistically high one million to the more probable numbers of 200,000 to 250,000. Unfortunately, there is currently no way of getting a dependable count. Even estimates are difficult to establish, much less verify, as migrants fear exposure and the Chinese authorities lack control over their comings and goings.

Third, while "hiding" in China, North Koreans face labor exploitation, mental and physical abuse, and even indentured servitude. Under constant fear of exposure and arrest, North Korean migrants earn a meager living in agriculture, construction, and housework.

There have been reports of young North Korean women who are forced into prostitution and face sexual abuse. They do not report their cases because they fear exposure and arrest by the authorities. Some North Koreans, including young children, have been going back and forth across the border, bringing food, other daily necessities, and money to their hungry families at the risk of capture by North Korean border guards.

To alleviate their suffering, the Chinese government will need to identify who among these migrants are actually refugees and find ways to help those who need food and basic goods. Granting semi-resident status to those who can prove they have work and shelter could also help the situation.

Russians in Japan

Russians in contemporary Japan represent a new and different phenomenon than the well-studied cases of the so-called "old-comers" – the Koreans and the Chinese who were forced to move to Imperial Japan from 1910 through the 1940s.

Despite their proximity, there is a wide cultural gap between the Japanese and the Russians. In addition, the sovereignty dispute over the Northern Territories/Southern Kuril Islands has contributed to diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

Yet, the growing presence of Russians in Japan's northern provinces had hardly been researched until recently. Japanese government statistics put the number of Russians entering Japan at around 37,000 per year, and the number of Russians residing in the country for 90 days or longer at a little over 6,000. Also, several tens of thousands of Russian seamen and tourists visit Japanese port cities each year on a temporary landing permit while their ships are anchored.

Surveys and interviews of Russian residents and local Japanese in the northern-most island of Hokkaido, Niigata, and elsewhere in Japan have uncovered generally unfavorable stereotypes of Russians. These stereotypes exist for various reasons: largely negative media coverage of Russian visitors in many port cities, the public's ignorance and lack of interest about Russia, and the superficial nature of personal interaction between Russians and Japanese.

This situation could jeopardize unprecedented opportunities for a post-Cold War thaw in Russo-Japanese relations and expanded economic ties between the two countries. Japan and Russia could break down these harmful stereotypes by expanding both public and private initiatives for citizens' exchanges and giving Russian residents and visitors information about culturally acceptable behaviors in Japan. Public agencies, educational institutions, and civic groups may want to consider addressing the cultural and social issues that Russian and Japanese community members face in dealing with each other. In addition, media "watchdog" groups could help ensure that coverage of Russians and other foreign residents, visitors, and ethnic minorities is fair and balanced.


Cross-border human flows in Northeast Asia are varied in their background and impact. Some pose human and national security challenges, while other cases create cultural friction and social tensions short of security challenges.

Yet all the cases outlined here are changing the face of Northeast Asia's border regions – their ethnic composition, cultural identity, and social environments.


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Gelbras, Vilya (2002). "Chinese Migration to the Russian Far East: A View from Moscow." Available online.

Larin, Victor (2003). “The Chinese and the Russian Far East.” Unpublished paper available from the Center for East Asian Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California.

Smith, Hazel (2002). "North Koreans in China: Defining the Problems and Offering Some Solutions." Available online.

United Nations (2001). World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision, Volume I: Comprehensive Tables. New York, United Nations.

Van Arsdol, Jr., Maurice D., Stephen Lum, Brian Ettkin, and Glenn Guarin. "Population Dynamics and Migration Patterns in Northeast Asia." Available online.

Wishnick, Elizabeth (2003). "Explaining Chinese Migration to the Russian Far East.” Available online.

Zha, Daojiong (2003). "Chinese Migrants in Niigata: A Research Update.” Available online.