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Korea’s Coming Refugee Crisis

Henry M. Seggerman
International Investment Advisers
By Henry M. Seggerman
President of International Investment Advisers


Everybody’s talking about another sinister “OPLAN” from the Bush military, this time “CONPLAN 5029.” This latest plan, revealed last week, was devised in case of a catastrophic collapse of North Korea’s government and would involve a joint US-ROK invasion of North Korea, as well as preparations for a North Korean refugees descending on South Korea.


I find the prospect of a collapse of North Korea’s government highly unlikely. However, I think it is very likely that South Korea will see a tidal wave of millions of North Korean refugees in coming years, with or without a collapse of the government in the North.


I see tell-tale signs of denial of this eventuality on the part of the South Korean government. Ten years ago, Cabinet member after Cabinet member bleated out “Hanbo will not fail.” and “Kia will not fail.” What happened? Both Hanbo and Kia collapsed in massive bankruptcies.


The same thing is happening now regarding North Korean refugees. I asked the Mayor of an extremely large Korean city if there were ANY emergency plans for North Korean refugees and was told flatly that the government’s policy has insured there will be no North Korean refugees. I asked a former Cabinet minister very knowledgeable in unification policy if Korea was planning a patrolled border to keep refugees out after unification (as the US now has with Mexico), and was told “No.” Why did South Korea even launch (and heavily hype) its Unification Ministry, if it expects no refugee problem whatsoever?


The time to start thinking about this seriously is now. That’s because, ironically, nuclear weapons make North Koreamore peaceful. With a bit more of a credible deterrent, North Korea in fact now has the flexibility to loosen up and reform. Did you know that arch-enemies India and Pakistan started playing cricket matches last year? There is only one underlying reason for this: nuclear weapons. Each country has such a fearsome capacity to annihilate the other, they have no choice but to start kissing and making up. Kashmir will just evolve into an annoying irritant for both countries.


A refugee crisis is usually dismissed with rosy talk of the “loose federation.” I have heard the same speech a million times, from URI stalwarts, from DLP firebrands, from think-tank gurus, from NGOistes, from numerous other pundits: “Unification will not be like Germany; it will be a loose federation at first, until living standards in North Korea get closer to South Korea’s.”


Text Box: The moment North Korea’s reformed government stops shooting people trying to leave, millions of them will come to South Korea.Whatever the intentions, whatever the policies decreed by Seoul and Pyongyang, the “loose federation” concept has no power whatsoever to alter basic human nature. The moment North Korea’s reformed government stops shooting people trying to leave, millions of them will come to South Korea. They will come over land, they will swim, they will dig tunnels.


Seoul and Pyongyang are sure to promise North Korea’s people better times are coming. South Korea, China, Europe, and the US are sure to make huge contributions in this effort. Millions of North Koreans will trust these promises, and elect to be patient. But economic improvement, when your per-capita GDP is below $1,000, is a long and arduous process. Twenty million North Koreans may indeed choose to wait. But people want a better life, and they usually want it right away. At least one or two million, most of them young people who aren’t willing to waste their lives, will come to South Korea without waiting for the promise of “better times” in the North.


I have no patience with racial profiling. I do not accept the concept that Asians are more docile, patient, or obedient than Europeans. Spend five minutes in downtown Seoul or Shanghai and you will agree with me. This is why I look at the European example from a few years ago to illustrate what is going to happen in Korea.


Under Brezhnev and Kosygin, people who tried to leave the Eastern Bloc were still being shot. Striking shipyard workers in Gdansk were being shot, Berlin Wall-climbers were being shot, nobody dared move from one city to the next without government approval. Then, in 1985, Gorbachev came to power. The system remained Communist, but totalitarian enforcement was basically finished. East Germany’s government remained brutal to the end, but places like Hungary loosened up right away. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans left East Germany and made the trek through Hungary to West Germany every year. This continued unchecked throughout the late 1980s, when Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc collapsed in a more formal way.


Text Box: There is five times more economic incentive for North Koreans to flee to the South than there was for East Germans to flee to the West.Whatever you may say about Asian obedience, you cannot deny that the economic differential between North and South Korea is five times greater than the economic differential between East and West Germany. West Germans’ per capita GDP exceeded East Germans’ by 400%; South Koreans’ per capita GDP exceeds North Koreans’ by 2,000%. North Koreans have been starving to death. North Korean children are stunted by malnutrition. Entire North Korean families have been incarcerated in gulags. All things being equal, there is five times more economic incentive for North Koreans to flee to the South than there was for East Germans to flee to the West.


I know South Korean police beat up Dr. Norbert Vollersten, to avoid displeasing the North Korean government. However, I don’t believe for one second South Koreans will shoot North Korean refugees, even if they are disobeying orders to stay where they are. I know South Korea heavily downplays human rights violations in the North, again to avoid displeasing the North Korean government. However, I don’t believe for one second South Korea will enter into any kind of “loose federation” with North Korea, if North Korea is still shooting people trying to leave.


My goal here is not to say there has been great progress towards unification. Quite the opposite; the Unification Ministry cannot point to much real progress. With Mount Keumkang, Kaesong, and a soccer match, South and North Korea are as about unified today as France and Kazakhstan. 11,000 North Korean cannons remain pointed at Seoul, still capable of killing a million South Korean civilians in the “ Sea of Fire” in a few hours. It feels like yet another “No Action, Talk Only” exercise.


But this lack of progress will not protect South Korea from the eventual flood of North Korean refugees. North Korea is perfectly capable of reforming on its own, in did China and Vietnam, with or without South Korea. In this scenario, the refugees are still coming to South Korea, the moment the reformed government stops shooting people who want to leave.


Only if there is no reform at all in North Korea, only if North Korea continues to shoot people trying to leave, are they going to stay put. Personally, I believe that reform, unification, and refugees are inevitable. I think this is simple realism, and it is based on ample historical evidence.

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