E.g., 06/28/2024
E.g., 06/28/2024
North Korea: Understanding Migration to and from a Closed Country

North Korea: Understanding Migration to and from a Closed Country

North Korea is one of the world's most secretive states. In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush labeled the country an "axis of evil," and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called it an "outpost of tyranny." In the so-called six-party talks involving both North and South Korea as well as the United States, Japan, China, and Russia, nations have prioritized the nuclear weapons crisis over human rights issues, but the latter remain an important theme in bilateral and multilateral negotiations with the country.

Economic, social, and political conditions in North Korea have prompted migration flows to South Korea, China, and Russia, as well as to Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. Little has been said, however, about the different types of migration flows within, to, and from North Korea. This article explores the various forms of humanitarian and economic migration flows and illustrates the situation of North Koreans living abroad.

Historical Background

The Korean Peninsula, historically known for its ability to stay ethnically and linguistically homogeneous and keep regional and Western powers at bay, was first invaded by the Mongols during the 13th century and by other neighboring states from the late-16th century onward.

By the late-19th and early-20th centuries, China, Russia, and Japan were competing to gain control over Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. Following its two victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Japan, as the rising power in the region, annexed Korea to its empire in 1910. Large-scale migration of Koreans to China, Russia, and Japan ensued and marked the beginning of a growing ethnic Korean presence across the region.

Japan's defeat in World War II led the United States and the former Soviet Union to find a temporary solution to the future of Korea. Under the trusteeship of the United Nations, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two parts, with the United States administering the southern territory and the former Soviet Union the north.

At the end of the three-year trusteeship, the North boycotted what was supposed to be a nationwide parliamentary election, which resulted in only the South forming its government on August 15, 1948. The Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) was established on August 15, 1948, and elected Syngman Rhee as its president. Twenty-five days later, on September 9, 1948, Kim Il-sung, North Korea's "Eternal Leader," established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea).

In 1950, North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea. While the Chinese People's Volunteer Army assisted the North militarily and the former Soviet Union provided arms and supplies, the 16-member UN Command (UNC) helped South Korea push the line north.

After the fighting reached a stalemate, the armies of North Korea, China, and the U.S.-led UNC signed an armistice agreement that ended the fighting in 1953. South Korea, however, did not sign the armistice. Since no peace treaty has replaced the 1953 agreement, the North and South are still technically at war.

Following two years of disagreements between UNC, North Korea, and China over the voluntary or forced repatriation of prisoners of war (POWs), all sides reached an agreement in 1953 that allowed POWs to cross what was known as the "Bridge of No Return."

Under Operation Little Switch and Operation Big Switch, over 20,000 North Korean and Chinese POWs, of which approximately 65 percent were Chinese, remained in South Korea or moved to Taiwan instead of returning to their respective countries, while only 350 North Korean-held POWs remained in the North.

Though estimates vary widely, approximately 900,000 North Koreans, or 10 percent of North Korea's population, migrated to the South between 1945 and 1953. This period is divided into two parts: liberation after Japanese colonialism (August 15, 1945 to June 25, 1950) and the Korean War (June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953). The 900,000 estimate does not include South Koreans who returned to the South from North Korea or Manchuria during the liberation period, or POWs who moved following the armistice agreement.

By the end of 1957, approximately 300,000 Chinese — mostly those who had fought in the Chinese People's Volunteer Army during the Korean War — resided in the DPRK. When it began its national program of the Great Leap Forward, China sought to repatriate these nationals in an effort to mobilize manpower to support its labor needs. In response, Kim Il-sung asked Chinese officials to encourage the 400,000 or so ethnic Koreans living in China to "return to the homeland" to balance out the potential loss of Chinese workers.

North Korean Emigration and Immigration Policy

Migration in the North Korean context can largely be divided into two types: humanitarian and economic. North Korean emigration primarily consists of refugees and temporary contract workers sent by the government to work abroad.

Migration to North Korea, on the other hand, primarily involves temporary visits by (mostly South Korean) business managers, investors, and tourists. Most movement is a result of the South Korean Ministry of Unification's efforts to bring the North and South economically, socially, and eventually politically closer together.

North Korea imposes very strict migration controls on the entries and exits of foreigners and of its citizens. Despite being a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1981, North Korea does not uphold Article 12(2) of the law, which states, "Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own."

Instead, North Korea has long regarded unauthorized departure as an act of treason. Individuals who are caught emigrating or helping others to cross the border illegally are detained in political penal-labor colonies, known as kwan-li-so. Prisoners serve anywhere between two to seven years in these camps, where rates of torture and death are notoriously high.

Despite these mobility restrictions, the size of refugee flows from North Korea, particularly to China and countries in Southeast Asia and Mongolia, overwhelms immigration flows to North Korea from these countries.

North Korea is also known for having kidnapped Korean, Japanese, Thai, Lebanese, and Romanian nationals during and after the Korean War.

Most notably, North Korean Kim Hyon-hui, who was in possession of a forged Japanese passport with the alias of Mayumi Hachiya, carried out a terrorist attack of a Korean airliner on November 29, 1987, after receiving training from abducted Japanese national Yaeko Taguchi. The incident revealed that, during the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea had abducted Japanese nationals to train spies to speak and act Japanese so they could carry out activities in South Korea.

Furthermore, according to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, approximately 80,000 South Koreans were forcibly taken to the North during the Korean War; as of December 2004, approximately 600 POWs were still alive and 486 South Korean abductees still lived in the North.

While Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung and the current leader of North Korea, admitted in 2002 to then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that his country had engaged in kidnappings during the 1970s and 1980s, the abduction issue remains an imperative, albeit sensitive, political issue in current bilateral and six-party talks with North Korea.

Humanitarian Migration

From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, Kim Il-sung's centralized programs of rapid industrialization pushed North Korea to become one of the world's fastest growing economies. In fact, this economic growth, coupled with the effects of a famine that struck China in the early 1960s, prompted many Chinese to migrate to North Korea.

Refugee flows from North Korea began with the economic downturn in the late 1970s and grew larger when floods, droughts, and a famine struck the country in the 1990s, killing between 600,000 and 1 million people, or 3 to 5 percent of the country's population, according to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau.

When the Public Distribution System (PDS) — North Korea's rationing system — could no longer provide food to most of the population as early as 1993 in the northeastern provinces and in 1995 in other parts of the country, North Korea called upon the international community for aid and humanitarian assistance.

The UN World Food Program (WFP), the main organ through which food aid is distributed to North Korea, spent an estimated $1.7 billion on providing 4 million tons of food to a third of the population between 1995 and 2005. In late 2005, it delivered 150,000 tons of food to feed 1.9 million people in the 30 counties deemed most food-insecure.

However, North Korea, which likes to tightly control foreign influence, closely monitors the distribution of food by humanitarian workers and restricts their movement to selected counties. As such, many nongovernmental organization (NGOs) could not verify whether food was reaching those who needed it. Moreover, lack of WFP funding allowed the organization to reach only some of the counties in which it had intended to distribute food in 2005.

Further, in mid-2002, the government's economic reforms led to large-scale layoffs in factories, pay cuts, and inflation, prompting more people to flee. Political persecution and repression have also been key drivers of refugee flows from North Korea. An estimated 200,000 political prisoners are said to reside in North Korea according to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

More surprisingly, North Korea became home to four members of the U.S. military — Larry Abshier, Joe Dresnok, Jerry Parrish, and Charles Jenkins — who defected to the North in the years following the Korean War. After an unsuccessful attempt to seek asylum in the embassy of the former Soviet Union in Pyongyang, the defectors settled in North Korea and were featured as American antagonists in numerous North Korean propaganda films.

North Koreans in China

The mountainous region of North Hamgyong Province, one of the poorest and most food-deficient provinces in North Korea, is the largest source of North Korean migration to China. The provinces of Chagang, where a number of military institutions are based, North Pyongan, which has a relatively active industrial and agricultural economy, and Ryanggang, which produces grain and potatoes, tend to produce fewer migrants.

Total North Korean refugee outflows to China are difficult to gauge, but the U.S. State Department places the figure between 30,000 and 50,000, while other organizations have estimated anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000.

The presence of the tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of North Korean refugees in China is one of the most overlooked refugee problems in the world. North Korea's 1,400-mile long border with China makes unauthorized travel across the Yalu and Tumen rivers a particularly attractive way out of North Korea. But border guards constantly patrol the highly militarized borders, making it extremely difficult for North Koreans to escape alive on their own.

This difficulty has led to the proliferation of smuggling networks. Brokers, who are usually Korean Chinese or former defectors and who work independently or in teams, charge anywhere between US$1,250 and US$19,950 per person to either accompany individuals across the border or to inform them of where and when it is safe to cross. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, approximately 80 percent of the 1,894 defectors who arrived in South Korea in 2004 had received assistance from a broker.

Bribing police and border guards is also an effective, albeit riskier, technique. Between 1997 and 1999, when food shortages were acute, the central government's grip over the provinces began to slip. As a result, the borders of the northeastern provinces became relatively porous, and US$13 could get an individual past North Korean border guards.

In 2005, the going rate to cross the Tumen River increased to between US$25 and US$50. Some women sell their bodies instead of paying their way across, while others are trafficked by marriage brokers and sold as brides to Chinese men.

Hiring a smuggler is significantly more expensive than bribing a border guard because of the relatively lower risk associated with getting caught crossing the border. Families in South Korea, who can afford to pay a broker to smuggle their relatives out of the North, tend to prefer paying the the higher price. Those who cannot pay a broker often ask missionaries and NGOs for smuggling help.

North Koreans who make it to China generally stay in the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Liaoning. For some North Koreans, China has become a country of destination, though most only consider it a point of transit.

According to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, most North Korean defectors intend to stay only temporarily in China and later reside permanently in South Korea. However, the survey found that 83 percent of defectors in China resided there for at least two years.

Some stay in China, particularly in border areas, because they have family or children or other dependents who make it hard for them to continue their journey out of China. Few succeed in finding employment due to their lack of vocational and language skills as well as their inability to acquire Chinese residency permits and ID cards that foreign migrants need to work legally in China.

China's Reaction to North Korean Migration

Instead of recognizing North Korean defectors in China as refugees, the Chinese government regards them as unauthorized economic migrants who must be repatriated to their homeland. On the basis of Article 4 of the 1986 Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order in the Border Areas between China and North Korea, both countries agree to "mutually cooperate on the work of preventing illegal border crossing of residents," which primarily consists of repatriation from China to North Korea.

Many North Koreans say their primary motive for migrating is to seek better economic opportunities. Human rights advocates claim that, because their motive for leaving North Korea is as much political as it is economic, defectors from North Korea should be considered political asylum seekers and accorded protection.

Even if China were to treat defectors from North Korea as economic migrants, it would still be bound by Article 33 of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:

"No Contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

Despite being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention since 1982, China has detained and repatriated thousands of North Koreans back to Pyongyang, where defectors face punishment ranging from two-week terms in detention centers to months in labor concentration camps and even public execution. Women who are pregnant must have forced abortions. Those who admit to defecting on political grounds are given harsher punishments than those who state economic motivations. In 2000, China is said to have repatriated at least 6,000 North Koreans.

In an effort to crack down domestically, China provides rewards ranging from US$400 to US$630 to those who turn in North Korean refugees. The government fines those supporting North Korean refugees up to US$3,600, targeting missionaries and NGO workers who try to assist refugees along the border.

China, which lacks its own system of refugee adjudication, allows refugees to seek assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at its offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, but it does not allow North Koreans to do so. Despite its continuing efforts to persuade China to change its policy toward North Koreans, UNHCR has had little success.

Unable to request a refugee-determination status process from UNHCR, North Koreans in China are obliged to either storm a foreign embassy or consulate in China, or travel to a third country that allows UNHCR to determine refugee status for North Koreans.

Most recently, however, China, in a rare move, announced that it would allow over 40 North Koreans sheltering in foreign missions to move to South Korea or the United States in early 2008.

North Koreans in South Korea

Migration to the South

The South Korean constitution affirms that South Korea consists of the entire Korean Peninsula and, as such, that North Koreans are citizens of South Korea. North Korean refugees, though not officially recognized as such by the South Korean government, therefore have a right to be resettled to South Korea.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, a total of 8,661 North Korean defectors arrived between 1990 and 2006 (see Table 1). The rise in numbers since the mid-1990s, which correlates with the occurrence of floods, droughts, and food shortages and with the proliferation of underground networks, is also a reflection of chain defection. Family members in South Korea and successful defectors pay brokers to smuggle out their remaining relatives from the North.


Table 1. Number of North Korean Defectors to South Korea, 1990 to 2006
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
9 9 8 8 52 41 56 85
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
71 148 312 583 1,139 1,281 1,894 1,387 1,578

Several factors explain why North Koreans do not, or more accurately cannot, move directly from North Korea to South Korea but instead pass through China.

First, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries along the 38th parallel is patrolled by armed North and South Korean soldiers and is laden with active landmines and electrified fences.

Second, human mobility within North Korea is highly restricted, and most North Koreans must obtain permission even to travel to areas just outside of their residence and employment.

Third, North Korea's penal code deters many from taking the chance to defect to any country. As stated earlier, those who are caught attempting to illegally exit the country are charged with treason, and punishments can sometimes result in death.

However, the delicacy of international relations in resolving the nuclear conundrum, particularly with regard to Sino-South Korean and South-North Korean relations, makes South Korea reluctant to address the issue of China's policy of repatriation. While it welcomes all North Korean refugees to its country, South Korea does not have a policy of proactively searching for refugees and offering them asylum.

This policy of ambivalence also partly derives from South Korea's domestic concerns. In particular, the South Korean government is well aware that it would not be capable of supporting and absorbing high volumes of people at once.

Instead, the country has viewed gradual integration and unification of the Korean Peninsula by engaging the North through economic and social exchanges as a more realistic and sustainable solution. Former President Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy (in office from 1998 to 2003) and soon-to-be former President Roh Moo-hyun's Peace and Prosperity Policy (2003 to February 2008) reflect this approach. Both presidents publicly stated during their tenures that Korea cannot simply apply the model of German unification to its case.

Integration of North Koreans in South Korea

According to political and social historian Andrei Lankov, who specializes in Korea, the South Korean government, under an adjustment program, has traditionally provided means of support for North Korean defectors upon their arrival.

The prized few who succeeded in defecting to the South during the Cold War often came from the privileged classes and were offered large sums of money and in-kind benefits, such as housing and access to education, in return for their "intelligence" on the North's activities.

However, as the Cold War came to an end and the number of defectors increased during the 1990s, defectors became politically less valuable for the government, and their benefits were cut accordingly. Most of the newer arrivals in the 1990s were also from lower socioeconomic and political backgrounds that were more representative of the North Korean population at large.

Until the end of 2004, a typical defector received US$32,000 in "settlement money," but that amount was cut to US$9,000 in January 2005. South Korea offers additional quarterly payments over the first two years of settlement as well as extra money for renting an apartment.

North Korean defectors are also granted a scholarship covering six to 12 months of vocational training. Those who successfully complete the training and receive employment are rewarded extra compensation.

Under an integration program, North Koreans receive instruction on South Korean culture, history, computer literacy, and cooking, among other things, at Hanawon (an integration center) and are introduced to religious congregations. Those who graduate from the program receive a stipend and public housing.

The South Korean media have often criticized Hanawon for having limited effects on equipping North Koreans with the necessary skills and knowledge to successfully integrate into South Korean communities. Importantly, North Koreans are known to experience higher unemployment rates and perform worse in schools than their South Korean counterparts.

North Koreans in Other Countries

Southeast Asia and Mongolia

While the 6,000-mile trek is dangerous, the precarious nature of living in China as an unauthorized economic migrant has pushed many North Korean defectors and members of their families to hire brokers to smuggle them into Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, where they can legally access UNHCR offices; some also go to Mongolia, which is closer geographically than countries in Southeast Asia. Driven by a strong desire to be reunited with family members in South Korea, word of mouth about the relative success in using brokers to reach Southeast Asia has contributed to the expansion of these lucrative underground networks.

Thailand, known among smugglers for having looser border controls and higher chances of sending North Koreans to South Korea, is a more popular destination than Vietnam, Laos, or Burma.

Moreover, even if arrested and charged as illegal immigrants, North Korean defectors in Thailand still have access to UNHCR's refugee-status determination process and are likely to be resettled to South Korea. Vietnam is also a relatively popular destination among smugglers, though the Vietnamese government increased border controls following a well-known case in which it resettled 468 North Koreans to South Korea in July 2004.

The United States

The United States passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, stating that "North Koreans are not barred from eligibility for refugee status or asylum in the United States on account of any legal right to citizenship they may enjoy under the Constitution of the Republic of Korea."

This particular clause was largely a response to UNHCR's identification of North Korean defectors as "persons of concern" rather than refugees. (In order for dual nationals to be considered refugees, they must have a well-founded fear of persecution in both countries, but North Koreans, as citizens of South Korea, do not have a well-founded fear of persecution in South Korea.)

Though it does not impose any quota on the number of North Korean refugees, the United States, fearing North Korean spy activities, remains cautious about resettling a large number of refugees on security grounds. Since the passage of the law, the country has resettled 37 North Korean refugees: nine were admitted in fiscal year (FY) 2006, 22 in FY 2007, and six in FY 2008 (as of December 31, 2007).

The European Union

Several countries in the European Union, particularly Germany, but also Britain, Denmark, and Sweden, have granted political asylum to North Koreans since the late 1990s. While they have generally been reluctant to release statistics on North Korean refugees, it is said that European governments have granted asylum to several hundred North Koreans.

In Germany, where 1,900 North Koreans reside, close to 300 have applied for asylum, but primarily only those individuals with a military background have been approved.


Russo-North Korean relations improved after President Vladimir Putin took power and warmed bilateral relations with Kim Jong-il based on a "personal friendship." In his visit to Russia in 2001, Kim Jong-il, inspired by the performance of the Mariinsky Theater Ballet, asked Russia to accept five North Koreans as students at the Vaganova Ballet Academy despite long waitlists for foreign students. After initial resistance, Russia allowed two North Korean students to attend the academy.

North Korea sent students to study abroad in Russia in the 1950s. Subsequently, however, Kim Il-sung, wary of foreign influence and disgruntled by dissenting students who failed to return to North Korea upon completion of their studies, sought to lower the number of students studying in the former Soviet Union.

By the late 1950s, most North Korean undergraduates studying abroad had been repatriated. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some North Korean students defected to the former Soviet Union, and many others who had studied there or in Eastern Europe were imprisoned or "reeducated" about North Korean principles after returning home.

The Russian Ministry of Education awarded 10 scholarships for North Korean students in 2000 and 35 the following academic year. A number of partnership agreements have been signed between the Far-East State Technical University and Pyongyang Kim Chaek Polytechnic University as well as between the M.V. Lomonosov Moscow State University and Kim Il-Sung University to enhance cooperation in science, technology, and education.


According to Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a specialist in Japanese politics, society, and history, Japan has had an interesting and widely unknown history regarding migration to and from the Korean Peninsula. During its colonial period, Japan brought over hundreds of thousands of (mostly South) Koreans primarily to fill its labor needs. Then, beginning in the late 1950s, many of them left Japan for North Korea.

Under a closely coordinated mass repatriation program, which Morris-Suzuki recently chronicled, Japan and North Korea, among other actors, were involved in "repatriating" 93,340 people — most of whom were originally from South Korea — from Japan to North Korea between December 1959 and 1984. Of the remaining "returnees," approximately 6,700 were Japanese, who were mainly married to Koreans, and six were Chinese.

The program began after the Japan Red Cross Society and the Red Cross Society of the DPRK signed the so-called Calcutta Accord Relating to the Return of Koreans Resident in Japan in August 1959. Though the migration flows slowed down after 1962, the accord was renewed annually until 1967.

Official accounts state that "returnees" — many of whom did not share the communist ideology of North Korea or knew anything about the country — made a declaration of free will to relocate to North Korea. But other factors also influenced the mass movement of Koreans and Japanese living in Japan to migrate to the North during the height of the Cold War.

One reason was Japan's treatment of Koreans. In conjunction with the implementation of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan stripped Korean and Taiwanese residents of their Japanese nationality in April 1952, making them ineligible for many social benefits, such as public housing and public employment.

Further, in 1956, the Japanese government cut welfare payments for Koreans residing in Japan and subsequently excluded them from the national health insurance and pension schemes that were introduced in 1959. Moreover, after losing their Japanese nationality, Koreans and Taiwanese lost the right to enter Japan based on family reasons.

Japan supported the repatriation program mainly for political reasons. The Korean presence in Japan was one of the few issues on which the main political parties could agree, and some government officials stressed that Koreans were a social burden on public benefits.

North Korea also had a hand in the mass repatriation scheme. Wishing to gain knowledge about South Korea, from mid-1958 onward, it embraced the thought of welcoming Koreans living in Japan who had originated from the South.

Further, Kim Il-sung hoped to fill labor shortages to realize his dreams of economic progress and do so in a way that would prove to the world that communism was the superior ideology. To promote the scheme, North Korea established in 1959 the Returnees Welcoming Committee, which created reception centers; offered education programs, housing, and jobs; and informed the North Korean public about the expected arrival of "compatriots" from Japan. North Korea, through Chongryun, an affiliated Korean association, also actively marketed these services by distributing propaganda and promotion material in Japan.

As many enthusiastic, and not-so-enthusiastic, "returnees" in search of a better life and opportunities in North Korea would come to learn, life in the North turned out to be starkly different from what they had expected. Though many wished to return to Japan, the Japanese government had made it hard for them to reenter the country as their residence permits were collected as they left for North Korea.

Today, Korean nationals in Japan make up the bulk of Special Permanent Residents, a status awarded by the government to "any foreign national whose Japanese nationality was taken away as the result of the peace treaty concluded with Japan and to those who lived in Japan before the end of war, as well as descendants of such foreign nationals."

The Korean population in Japan today, which numbered 598,219 in 2006, largely has its roots in South Korea, but some have maintained political ties with North Korea for ancestry and other reasons. The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryun, is a de facto embassy of North Korea in Japan, while the Mindan organization serves primarily those affiliated with South Korea.

Although many members of Chongryun have no affiliation with the North Korean government, their organization has often been the target of harassments and attacks, especially when North Korea engages in provocative behavior, such as when it fired a missile over Japan in 1998.

Chongryun, which also played a large role in the repatriation scheme, has several functions. In addition to running approximately 150 Korean schools in Japan, it facilitates the transfer of remittances — one of North Korea's largest sources of revenue — from Japan to North Korea. Japan's Liberal Democratic Party estimated the level of remittances at US$85 million a year in 2002.

Japan has not accepted refugees from North Korea through the normal asylum process. However, since the late 1990s, the Japanese government has quietly accepted approximately 150 former "repatriates" who fled from North Korea, some of whom are Japanese and some of whom are Korean.

Exportation of Labor, Tourism, and Trade

Exporting Labor

North Korea has adopted two primary mobility strategies aimed at raising money for the government. The first is to send temporary workers abroad, and the second is to promote tourism to North Korea.

Kim Tae San, a North Korean defector and former diplomat who had arranged for North Koreans to work in the Czech Republic, said in his testimony to the European Parliament in March 2006 that the North Korean government was sending workers abroad to raise revenue. North Korean workers, who are typically on three- or four-year labor contracts, channel a large proportion of their earnings to the North Korean government and are only allowed to keep a fraction of their wages.

According to Kim, an estimated 70,000 North Koreans are working in countries such as Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Mongolia, Iraq, Qatar, and Kuwait. Approximately 10,000 to 20,000 North Koreans have worked in the logging industry every year in the Russian Far East, the result of an agreement dating back to 1967. Those in Qatar, whose employment and travel were arranged by agencies in China, mainly assume plastering and bricklaying jobs in the construction sector.

As of November 2006, about 400 women and less than 20 men from North Korea were employed in the Czech Republic. Many work in garment and leather factories in remote Czech towns and are supervised by North Korean embassy officials who are also responsible for remitting earnings back to North Korea.

The female workers, who are paid minimum wages, are popular among Czech employers for their discipline and high productivity. Most come from families in Pyongyang loyal to Kim Jong-il and are therefore deemed less likely to defect while abroad.

While the Czech Republic, under pressure from individuals such as former president Vaclev Havlek, stopped issuing new visas to North Korean workers in June 2006, those who had been accepted to work under a previous visa were permitted to continue working in the country until their contracts expired. According to news reports, the Czech Republic will send home all North Korean workers by the end of January 2008.

Critics of North Korean contract labor, not least of whom is Jay Lefkowitz, U.S. Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea, point out that such temporary labor agreements are likely to be pumping large sums of money into the North Korean government — which contradicts the spirit of the UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea in October 2006.


Kim Jong-il's regime has also tapped into the tourism industry as a key source of income. While mostly targeting tour groups from China and South Korea, the country has also attracted visitors from Europe and the United States.

North Korea announced in early 2007 that U.S. citizens would be allowed to visit the country between April 15 and May 15, 2007, and between August 15 and October 15, 2007. In 2008, the North Korean government published available upcoming trips to its country, but barred U.S., Japanese, and South Korean citizens from applying due to a "special protocol in bilateral relations."

Those from the West seeking to visit North Korea must generally make arrangements with travel agents, such as Sweden-based Korea Konsult, and obtain their visas in Beijing. However, these tightly regulated tours do not expose the poor face of North Korea that documentaries and defectors have revealed. Instead, tours are limited to flaunting the country's restaurants, privileged quarters, and renowned spectacles, such as the Mass Games, a highly regimented performance of thousands of people.


Finally, according to Lankov, the North Korean government has allowed some North Koreans to apply to make regular visits to China since 2003. For example, it grants the chogyo (North Korean citizens permanently residing in China) and the hwagyo (Overseas Chinese) freer access to its country. Individuals who fit one of these two categories have become pivotal in stimulating legal and illegal cross-border trade.

Further, all ethnic Koreans living in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in the easternmost part of China's Jilin province that borders North Korea, are permitted to freely cross the border to enter North Korea. These legal cross-border movements to and from North Korea are largely for conducting trade in merchandise and for making family visits.

Toward Unification of the Korean Peninsula

The landmark Joint Declaration between South and North Korea on June 15, 2000, marked a new beginning for cooperation toward economic integration and political unification. Under former President Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy and the former President Roh administration's Peace and Prosperty Policy, the North and South have boosted the movement of people across their common border through a number of economic and trade initiatives.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification has played a lead role in promoting these programs. Following the second historic meeting of the leaders of North and South Korea in September 2007, both countries have increased efforts to stimulate joint economic activities.

For instance, the two Koreas decided to reconnect railways and roads to improve transportation and facilitate the movement of people for tourism to Mt. Geumgang, a resort area in the picturesque mountains of North Korea, and for work in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex (GIC), an area set up to promote economic cooperation between the two Koreas.

The Mt. Geumgang tourism project, a private sector initiative of the Hyundai Asan Corporation, has encouraged inter-Korean exchange and cooperation. Between the site's opening in 1998 and 2005, Mt. Geumgang attracted a total of 1.1 million tourists. In August 2007 alone, 32,515 tourists visited Mt. Geumgang, up from 26,505 in July 2007.

By locating South Korean businesses in GIC, the governments of North and South Korea aim to encourage small-to-medium enterprises to take advantage of low labor costs and favorable tax rates to create employment opportunities for North Korean workers and economic advantages for South Korean businesses. GIC is located in North Korea close to the DMZ, an hour from Seoul. In April 2007, 13,045 North Koreans worked for South Korean companies in GIC.

These joint economic initiatives have contributed significantly to the rise in visits between the North and South. The number of South Korean visitors to North Korea jumped from 146 in 1996 to 1,016 in 1998 and reached a record-breaking 87,028 in 2005. The number of individuals traveling between North and South Korea in 2005 (88,241) was greater than the total number who had traveled across the border since 1945.

Social and cultural exchanges have also increased. In 2005, approximately 7,000 South Koreans visited Pyongyang to explore cultural sites and watch the performance at the Arirang Mass Games.

While trade volumes between the two Koreas amounted to only US$19 million in 1989, this figure had grown to US$723 million in 2003 and surpassed US$1 billion in 2005.

Finally, following the June 15 Joint Declaration in 2000, separated family members living in the two Koreas began to visit each other for the first time since 1985. The Unification Ministry reports that 12,695 separated family members in the South and North have participated in 13 large-scale government-sponsored reunions.

Private-sector efforts have also allowed for 1,556 family reunions involving 2,877 individuals to take place in third countries between 1990 and April 2006, and for 26 family reunions involving 76 individuals to take place in North Korea.


The meeting between the two Korean leaders in September 2007 largely promoted further economic integration between their countries, and cross-border movements are likely to grow although no discussions about migration-related effects have taken place yet.

Moreover, North Korea's use of economic migration, albeit in extremely restricted ways, may also lead to an increase in overall migration inflows and outflows. North Korea also seems interested in opening up to more cultural exchanges and visits. In February 2008, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is scheduled to perform in North Korea for the first time.

However, South Korea's president-elect, Lee Myung-bak, who was born in Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea, may change the dynamics of current economic cooperation between the two Koreas. He has pledged to place the nuclear issue ahead of economic exchanges in dealing with the North.

Furthermore, getting North Korea to liberalize its migration policies likely will take a very long time, and potential hurdles abound.

First, the North Korean government pays extreme caution in allowing foreign influences into the country.

Second, while North Korean contract laborers may be cheap and efficient, governments could decide to prohibit their employment, as the Czech Republic did, to block revenues from flowing to North Korea.

Third, some human rights advocates criticize North-South initiatives, such as the GIC project, for not enforcing local and international labor protection standards. Some, for instance, have argued that North Korean workers in GIC should receive direct payment instead of indirectly through the North Korean government. Others have criticized the fact that North Koreans lack the right to form unions.

In the shorter run, however, the international community could address other more immediate concerns, such as the precarious status of North Korean refugees in China, especially as Beijing gets ready to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, and the integration of North Koreans in South Korea.

Amid the uncertainty regarding the security of the Korean Peninsula and the desperate economic conditions in North Korea, migration flows to and from North Korea — both desperate and opportunistic in nature — are likely to grow.


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