What the first systematic survey of North Korean refugees tells us about life inside the Hermit Kingdom, and about whether the regime might be ready to fall.
The authors partially got around the representation problem through statistical modeling. They created projections of the views of the general population based on the refugees’ characteristics—age, gender, and occupation, as well as life experiences such as receipt of food aid or arrest and detention—offering a remarkable glimpse into the closed state.
Since the famine in the 1990s, humanitarian do-gooders and policymakers have tried unsuccessfully to alleviate the plight of North Koreans even as they hope to persuade Kim Jong Il to give up his nuclear weapons and join the community of nations. Their attempts have included engagement known as the “Sunshine Policy,” six-party talks, and the donor aid of the late ’90s. More importantly, however, the world needs to push China to change its refugee policy. China has a policy of repatriating North Korean defectors because it recognizes them as “economic migrants” and therefore not refugees under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, to which China is a signatory. But China’s assertion rests on an inconsistency. One legal basis for claiming refugee status is a fear of persecution upon return to the fatherland—a stipulation that should make refugees out of nearly all North Korean defectors. Still, North Korea and China remain stubbornly impervious to blandishments and change.
What, then, might lead to a collapse of North Korea? Andrei Lankov, a prolific historian of the country, told me that three factors will be needed for revolt: a way for the dissidents to communicate with each other and with the outside world, a reasonable alternative to the current government, and a chance that the revolt will succeed. A better government is certainly possible for a country at rock bottom, and a chance for victory may be there. As this year’s North Africa protests have shown us, an angry populace can topple strongmen with little forewarning.
The third aspect of communication seems to be gaining a hold, an assertion backed by the data in Witness to Transformation. The protests against the currency reform in 2009 were scant and disorganized, but they revealed that the government was willing to reverse policies when it faced opposition. Giving more reason for concern, North Korea appears to be experiencing yet another food shortage—an embarrassment after it asked charities and foreign governments, including famine-struck Zimbabwe, for assistance last spring. The recipe for discontent is brewing, and even if the regime does not lose its hold on power, some North Koreans will continue to subvert Kim Jong Il’s agenda in simpler, quieter ways.
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