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North Korean Defectors and Their Reasons


During the course of recent years, the attention of an international community has been progressively more focused on socio-political situation in North Korea, due to the fact that this country’s possession of nuclear weapons poses clear and present danger to geopolitical security in Asia-Pacific. However, there is also another issue, which now causes the levels of political tensions in the area to rise – the fact that the number of North Korean defectors continues to increase in exponential progression to the flow of time. Whereas; in 2002, the number of people who had managed to escape North Korean “workers’ paradise” accounted for 1139, by the year 2008 this number accounted for 2809. The motivations that prompt more and more North Koreans to consider the possibility of leaving the country of their citizenship have been discussed form a variety of political and economic perspectives.

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However, neither of politically or economically based explanations, as to why the number of North Korean defectors had been dramatically increased in recent years, can provide us with the comprehensive insight on the actual essence of this phenomenon. In this paper, we will aim at exposing the true motivations behind North Koreans’ flight form their country as such that relates to the process of Globalization, simply because Globalization implies the elimination of informational borders across the Globe – thus, representing an acute danger to the very existence of North Korean political regime. It is namely due to the rise of informational technologies, during the course of recent decade, that more and more North Koreans now find themselves in position of comparing their essentially animalistic mode of existence to the prosperous living of their brethrens across 38th parallel, even despite the fact that North Korean citizens are often being sentenced to death for possession of even such basic informational gadgets as cell phones and shortwave radios.

Thus, the foremost thesis of this work can be formulated as follows: the continuous increase in the number of North Korean defectors only indirectly corresponds to the particularities of political and economic situation in North Korea – it is namely because country’s governmental officials find it increasingly harder to prevent the information about the outside world from finding its way into the North Korea, which explains why, as time goes by, more and more North Koreans strive to flee from this country. However, it is also due to Globalization that North Korean refugees now experience an increasingly difficult time, while trying to obtain a legal status in China and South Korea, simply because Globalization implies the traditional notion of national solidarity utterly outdated. In the next part of this work, we will aim at substantiating the validity of this thesis by conducting a brief review of the literature, relevant to the subject matter.

Literature review

Nowadays, it became clear to just about anyone capable of logical thinking that the actual reason why political ideology of Communism had sustained an utter fiasco, is because this ideology’s conceptual premise contradicted objectively existing laws of nature. Nevertheless, an orthodox Communist ideology continues to define socio-political realities in North Korea even up to this date, with the apparent signs of its weakening being virtually non-existent. How can this be explained? In his article “Reflections on North Korea: The Psychological Foundation of the North Korean Regime and Its Governing Philosophy”, Kim Hyun-Sik provides us with the partial insight on this seemingly unexplainable phenomenon, by implying that the majority of North Koreans cannot even be considered humans, in the full sense of this word – they are nothing but biological robots, programmed to praise the “great leader” as their full-time occupation: “North Koreans believe that their purpose in life is to glorify, be loyal to, and give joy to the Great Leaders. The entire population of North Korea has become fanatic followers of and believers in the Great Leaders. The people’s absolute belief in the Great Leaders is the strange but unshakable foundation of the North Korean regime, as well as the source of its stability in the face of problems” (2008, 22). As it appears from this article, even in time of North Korean famine in mid nineties, when three million of country’s citizens had died from hunger, it would never occur to the overwhelming majority of North Koreans that their country might not be the best in the world. And, the reason for this is simple – they have never known anything better. This is why the very existence of North Korean political regime directly depends on country officials’ ability to keep citizens informationally isolated from the rest of the world.

In his article “North Korea Under Kim Jong-Il”, Sharif Shuja contemplates on the actual reasons behind North Korean regime’s longetivity, while rightly suggesting that it is namely due to country’s informational isolation, which allows Kim Jong-Il to rule North Korea in a way he does: “The DPRK regime is over fifty years old, which means that almost the entire population has known nothing but the political and ideological norms set by the KWP” (2003, 203). Therefore, we cannot agree with author’s another suggestion, contained in the same article, which refers to economic hardships as the actual root of growing discontent with Kim Jong-Il’s dictatorship among ordinary North Koreans: “While chronic shortages of raw materials, energy, capital and technology have crippled industrial productivity, the failure to supply consumer goods has demoralized the population breeding the seeds of potential social instability” (2003, 204). There has always been a chronic shortage of just about anything in the North Korea – yet, it is namely during the course of recent years that citizens began to recognize it as the actual shortage, simply because despite government’s efforts, the integrity of country’s informational isolation is now being increasingly undermined. In her article “Chinese Cell Phone Breaches North Korean Hermit Kingdom”, Rebecca MacKinnon explains how such situation has come into being: “In 2003, Chinese cell phone companies began building relay stations along the North Korean border. According to accounts by North Korean defectors and Chinese traders, Chinese cell phones – and the prepaid phone cards needed to use them – are now a hot black market item, despite government efforts to ban them… Now, as many as 20,000 North Koreans are believed to have access to Chinese cell phones” (2005). Slowly but surely, more and more people in North Korea get to learn about the outside world. And, the more they become aware about the realities of living in other countries, the faster they grow to recognize the “great leader” as to what he really is – a regular dictator, who goes about ordering freshly caught lobsters to be flown directly to him by planes, in time when millions of ordinary citizens are being left with no option but to eat grass and trees’ bark, while trying to survive.

Nowadays, many naïve people in Western countries genuinely believe that eventually, Kim Jong-Il would be forced to liberalize country’s economy, because otherwise it will simply stop functioning. Yet, if this happens, it would automatically result in the overthrow of Communist regime in Korea, with Kim Jong-Il ending up facing a firing squad, as it happened to Romania’s “great leader” Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989. This is exactly the reason why North Korean government’s foremost priority continues to be the prevention of as many ordinary citizens as possible from gaining an access to objective information about the outside world.

In his article “The World’s Most Isolated Country”, Bruce Swaffield tells the recent story of a North Korean being executed for making international calls via cell phone: “A North Korean factory boss accused of making international phone calls was executed by a firing squad in front of 150,000 people, it emerged today. The manager was gunned down in a sports stadium in South Pyongan province after authorities claimed he’d installed 13 phones in a basement to reach the outside world” (2009, 35). Once people get to learn about the meaning of the concept of freedom, previously unknown to them, they begin striving to attain such a freedom. Unfortunately, North Korean defectors’ flight towards the freedom is not being welcomed by countries where they hope being granted a political asylum, including South Korea, which despite its officially proclaimed commitment to the idea of both Koreas’ unification, actively resists such a prospect. And, the reason for this is simple – if the regime of Kim Jong-Il collapses, South Korea would be left with no option, but to feed twenty millions of essentially useless North Koreans, who will never be able to benefit South Korea in any respect, whatsoever, simply because they are nothing short of being creatures from another planet.

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This is exactly the reason why South Korea often acts as Kim Jong-Il’s best ally, whatever the illogical it might sound. In his article “North Korean Gulag Survivor Speaks”, Charles Ganske states: “Now is not an easy time to be a North Korean refugee speaking out in South Korea… Views of defectors in South Korea began to change as the newly elected government of Kim Dae Jung began its ‘Sunshine Policy’. Refugees who openly discussed the horrors of the North Korean gulags began to experience harassment, often from radical students who had been taught that their country was divided in a war instigated by America, and not Stalin’s protégé Kim Il Sung” (2005). Despite the fact that South Korea and U.S. do criticize North Korean regime on the level of diplomacy, they both are being interested in preservation the status quo on Korean peninsula. The same can be said about China and Russia.

In his book “Nuclear Endgame: The Need for Engagement with North Korea”, dedicated to the exposal of nuclear threat, posed by North Korea to countries of Asia-Pacific as being of essentially mythical nature, Jacques Fuqua comes up with a perfectly good point, while stating: “North Korea’s nuclear program—its plutonium-based nuclear weapons, suspected highly enriched uranium program and ballistic missiles—constitutes its only geopolitical bargaining chip. Without this, the regime perceives it would stand little chance of exercising any leverage within the world community for extracting necessary concessions” (2007, 11). However, despite the fact that Fuqua’s book contains many valid suggestions, its author had still proven himself as lacking an insight onto a simple fact that South Korea, U.S., Russia and China are being interested in Kim Jong-Il’s possession of the weapons of mass destruction just as much as “great leader” himself, because it provides these countries with a legitimate justification for supplying Kim Jong-Il with money, so that he would never loose a control over North Korea’s population, since this population is being perceived by governmental officials of these countries as a demographic burden. And, no country wants to deal with such a burden, including South Korea.

Theoretical argument

The review of relevant literature, conducted earlier, provides us with the insight onto the fact that the situation with divided Koreas cannot possibly be compared to the situation with divided Germanys, which were able to unite peacefully, after the collapse of Berlin Wall in 1989. Whereas; in East Germany, Communism was only skin-deep, in North Korea this ideology was able to root itself deeply into people’s subconsciousness, while altering even their physical appearance – the average height of North Koreans is 20 cm lesser then that of South Koreans. Apparently, most South Koreans do not even think of North Koreans as belonging to the same nation with them.

In its turn, this explains both: the policy of nuclear harassment, pursued by North Korea, and the policy of an appeasement towards North Korea, pursued by U.S. and South Korea. Despite Kim Jong-Il’s appearance, he can be the least referred to as a fool. While knowing perfectly well that he cannot possibly allow the liberalization of North Korea’s economy, Kim Jong-Il is being left with only one option for generating money – turning the whole North Korea into geopolitical equivalent of a petty money-extorter. By developing nuclear weapons and by testing ballistic missiles, North Korea simply strives to gain an attention, on the part of international community, so that this community would keep supplying Kim Jong-Il with yet another millions and millions of dollars in economic aid, in exchange for “great leader’s” willingness to halt the program of nuclear weapons’ development. However, once the money run out, we get to hear the news of North Korea testing its rockets again. And so it goes on and on.

The reason why North Korean refuges are now being often turned back to North Korea by Chinese and South Korean authorities is because, in a Globalized world, such concept as national solidarity ceases to represent any significance, whatsoever. All that matters in Globalized world is money, and since South Koreans have gotten a taste of money, they are being increasingly deprived of any illusions as to the fact that they might have any obligations towards their countrymen to the North.

Research design

The subtleties of our choice for the literature to be reviewed correspond to paper’s foremost thesis, which has been outlined earlier – North Korean defectors flight to freedom should be considered as a direct consequence of an integrity of informational wall, built around North Korea, being increasingly undermined. This is why, while researching a subject matter, we focused our attention on reviewing online and printed literature that discusses the effects of information about the outside world becoming available to more and more North Koreans. Given the fact that it is namely during the course of Kim Jong-Il’s reign that the number of North Korean refugees began to increase rapidly, we hypothesized this phenomenon to be of clearly informational essence, because it is Kim Jong-Il who had unwillingly created preconditions for country’s informational blockade to become increasingly weakened. In its turn, this situation can be explained by the fact that, ever since he acquired a political power, Kim Jong-Il had to deal with an acute shortage of money, technical equipment and natural resources, simply because by beginning of nineties Russia had cut off financial, economic and military aid to North Korea. While trying to earn hard currency, Kim Jong-Il had no choice but to risk the chance of North Korean citizens being exposed to foreign-based information. This explains the qualitative properties of our literature review – while reviewing relevant sources, we aimed at both: presenting readers with a three dimensional insight onto the analyzed subject matter and also revealing the fact that there is a direct link between the phenomenon of North Korean defectors and the process of informational Globalization.

Test cases

The information, contained in reviewed sources, does not only strengthen the theoretical premise of this paper, but it also provides us with an insight on purely technical aspects of how North Korea’s informational blockade is being weakened. As it appears from the reading of Rebecca MacKinnon’s article, the fact that the increasing number of North Koreans are now being given a chance to learn about the outside world directly corresponds to the rapid progress in the realm of informational technologies, closely associated with the process of Globalization. It is namely the fact that Chinese mobile companies now operate along North Korea’s border, which poses a direct and immediate threat to the very existence of this country’s political regime. This is exactly the reason why in today’s North Korea, citizens are being often put to death, simply because they happened to be caught with cell phones in their pockets, as it has been illustrated by Bruce Swaffield’s article. It is important to understand that people can be absolutely content with being able to eat only a handful of rice per day, as it is the case in North Korea’s rural areas, for as long as they think of such state of affairs as being normal. The reading of Kim Hyun-Sik’s article substantiates the validity of such our suggestion.

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However, once these people get to realize that South Koreans have a plenty of rice (most North Koreans have never tasted anything but rice), they become predisposed to have thoughts about escaping from “communist paradise”. And, this is something Kim Jong-Il cannot allow to happen, because if the number of defectors from North Korea reaches a critical mass, he will loose control over the country. The same can be said about South Korea’s government – it simply cannot afford facing a risk of North Korean government’s collapse, which explains why Kim Jong-Il’s atrocities are now being actively downplayed by South Korean Medias, as it has been pointed out to in Charles Ganske’s article. Thus, the cases analyzed in literature review strengthen this paper’s argument even further – it is not economic hardships and not the abuse of human rights in North Korea, which drives more and more people out of there, but the fact that they have grown to realize their own existential stratus as being essentially the same with that of lowly slaves. And, the reason why it happened is because Kim Jong-Il’s is now being increasingly deprived of practical tools of exercising a complete ideological control over society.


The review and the analysis of relevant literature, conducted earlier, allow us to come up with the following set of suggestions, in regards to what causes the ever increased number of North Korean defectors to seek a political asylum in other countries and to the possible implications of such a situation:

  1. The phenomenon of North Korean defectors is best discussed within the context of informational Globalization. It is not because the majority of citizens in North Korea have to struggle with a starvation on daily basis, which causes many of them to consider the possibility of defecting from their country, but because they have grown to realize such state of affairs as being unnatural. And, the reason they came to such a conclusion, is because at some point of their lives, they had been exposed to information about what is the life look like in other countries. Ever since the invention of Internet and mobile telephony, governmental institutions in Western countries have been finding it increasingly harder to exercise control over the lives of citizens. Apparently, the same suggestion applies to a situation with a governmental control over citizens’ lives in North Korea.
  2. The fact that the number of North Korean defectors who come to South Korea as asylum seekers is increasing every year, does not make the prospect of both Koreas unification more probable. On the contrary – the more North Korean defectors are being allowed to settle in the South, the more native-born South Koreans come to realize that they are being utterly alienated from their Northern brethrens. In its turn, this intensifies anti-Northern sentiment within South Korean society. Moreover, this sentiment is not being concerned with the form of political governing in North Korea, but with ordinary North Koreans as maliciously-minded barbarians, who could not possibly benefit South Korea with their presence. Therefore, as time goes by, the idea of both Koreas’ unification becomes ever-more improbable.
  3. The form of North Korea’s political governing (Communist Monarchy) is likely to remain unaltered into an indefinite future, simply because geopolitical players in the area of Asia-Pacific are being interested in preserving such a state of affairs. This can be explained by: a) The fact that North Korea does not posses substantial amounts of any strategically important natural resource, b) The fact that North Korea’s population does not represent any biological or professional value, c) The fact that China and Russia would never allow the unification of South and North Koreas, because it would result in the expansion of America’s geopolitical influence in the area. Yet, there can be little doubt as to the fact that both Koreas will unite eventually, although it is highly unlikely that Koreas’ unification might occur naturally.


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