07 July 2004

Lankov on the Fate of North Korean Defectors

NKZone contributor Andrei Lankov's latest article on North Korea in this week's Korea Times concerns the Fate of Defectors
In September 1994, a young North Korean named Kim Hyong-dok arrived in Seoul. It was the end of a long trip: he had spent two years trying to secure a passage to the South. He succeeded against all odds and came to Seoul full of expectations.

Two years later Kim Hyong-dok made another escape attempt -- this time he was trying to flee back to the North. He was apprehended and jailed, since an attempt to go to North Korea without proper permission is still a crime under South Korean law. In 2001 Kim Hyong-dok -- by that time a university graduate and a clerical worker in parliament, remarked: "I shall not escape any more. Utopia does not exist anywhere." Alas, comprehension of this fact comes to most North Korean defectors with great pain.

North Korean defectors do not fare well in the South. Between one third and one half of them are unemployed, and most others are relegated to low-level unskilled jobs....

Indeed, the heroes of almost all of the "success stories" of the North Korean defectors come from the elite. There is nothing surprising in this. Members of the North Korean upper crust have a good education and possess leadership skills, they know how to learn and how to manage, and last but not least, they have social ambitions.

However, this does not bode well for the future political transition of North Korea. It appears the only leadership material available in the North will be found within the existent elite. The local Party secretaries would become democratically elected mayors, and will avow their loyalty to democracy with the same zeal they once gave to their professions of loyalty to the Great Leader. The secret police operatives will become successful entrepreneurs, and the children of people who sent hundreds of North Koreans to prisons will graduate from the best universities to lead the sons and daughters of their parents' victims. We have seen it in many other ex-Communist countries.

But what is the alternative? Will it be possible to prosecute all those who played a part in the crimes of the regime? Unlikely: there are far too many of them. And who will become the administrators, teachers, policemen, and engineers in the post-Kim North Korea whenever it arises? And, should unification occur, would not the wholesale replacement of the elite by Southerners be an even greater evil?
I suspect that, when that time comes, smugly superior southern Korean attitudes toward their benighted northern compatriots will resemble smugly superior New England Yankee attitudes toward their benighted southern compatriots--attitudes that still prevail nearly a century and a half after the end of the Civil War! The North will be Korea's Mississippi for decades after unification. And the supreme irony will be that Koreans up north will soon enough begin to welcome investment from Japanese and American firms, their former external arch-enemies, just as southerners in the U.S. welcomed investment from Japanese and German firms only a few decades after World War II.

No comments: