How Can the United States Help North Korean Defectors?

A rally celebrating a recent nuclear test is held in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang
A rally in North Korea celebrating a nuclear test (Korean Central News Agency via Reuters)

A dramatic video released by the United Nations shows a soldier from North Korea escaping to South Korea. After crashing his vehicle into a ditch just yards away from the ironically named Demilitarized Zone, he quickly jumps out. As he is sprinting to make it to South Korea, several North Korean soldiers begin shooting at him. He is hit several times and lays wounded on the ground just across the border. Troops from South Korea crawl to him and pull him to safety.

It is better if you watch the video yourself:

After being examined by doctors in South Korea, the defector was diagnosed with hepatitis-B and tuberculosis. As horrible as that sounds, additionally, uncooked corn and dozens of parasitic worms were found in his digestive system. The health of this defector seems like an ominous representation of the conditions North Korean soldiers and citizens are regularly exposed to.

It has always been known that the people of North Korea were subject to poor treatment, but it was not until the occurrence of this dismal event that I felt prompted to explore different ways that the United States and South Korea could assist the political refugees defecting from the regime of Kim Jong-un.

Someone suggested to me that the United States could build bunkers along the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone for defectors to avoid being shot. Had there been a bunker available for defectors, would the soldier mentioned above have averted gunfire? At first, this idea seemed great to me. But it poses more problems than solutions. Constructing these bunkers would be extremely dangerous for the work crew and would not suffice as a long-term solution.

Let’s say the United States successfully worked with South Korea to build the bunkers. Considering Kim Jong-un’s unpredictable nature, we do not actually know how he would respond. I believe that in addition to perceiving this as an act of aggression, North Korea would reciprocate by building a fence or another obstacle to delay the time it takes for defectors to make it across the border.

It is far more difficult to help North Koreans escape their home country than it is to aid them once they get out, but that does not mean we should avoid trying.

While many people from North Korea are able to successfully make it out, much more are afraid to try because of the potential consequences. Just because someone makes it out does not mean they are safe. As Liberty in North Korea put it:

Even if they make it to China, they face grave danger because the Chinese government arrests and forcibly repatriates North Korean refugees. If sent back, they undergo interrogation and are at risk of extremely harsh punishments including torture, forced labor, forced abortions, and internment in a political prison camp. Even if they manage to evade the authorities in China, their illegal status forces them to work in invisible industries and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by sex traffickers and unscrupulous employers. In these dire circumstances, many North Korean refugees do not have the resources or connections to get themselves out of China.

Map of North Korea, South Korea and ChinaCertainly, the United States could establish a resettlement program for defecting North Koreans and convince our South Korean ally to protect these defectors until they can be moved to the United States. But it is far more difficult to escape to South Korea than it is to China.

As you can see from this map, they have the options to go north to China or head south, hoping to make it through one of the most militarized zones in the world. China does not have much interest in working on any United States efforts. They were hesitant to even restrict imports of goods from North Korea and were very adamant about preventing the United States from providing South Korea with a THAAD missile defense system. It would be difficult for the U.S. to come to an agreement with China on a resettlement program, and this cause is not something that the U.S. government would be willing to compromise diplomatic relations for.

At this point, the best thing that the United States can do is assure North Korean citizens that they will be protected if they make it to South Korea. A program for those escaping oppression and tyranny needs to be established so that they can begin new lives. This is not a problem that is going to disappear anytime soon, and we need to think about potential long-term solutions that will help these people.

Comment your ideas below on how these defectors can be helped.

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