Thursday, March 24, 2005

How Can You Keep Them Down On The Farm Once They've Seen....Beijing?

An article in today's New York Times discusses a rather interesting phenomenon that is occurring in the border region between China and North Korea. Over the past decade or so, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have braved death by drowning or shootings by North Korean and Chinese border guards in order to slip across the border into the relatively prosperous Chinese mainland.

Once safely in Chinese territory, many North Koreans (some 200,000 according to some estimates) find work and when they have built up a store of money and goods, return to the North to sell their wares. Neither country is particularly pleased with this ongoing emigration.

Some of the refugees want to migrate to other countries, particularly South Korea, which they perceive as being hugely wealthy and hospitable. Others want to disappear amid the two million ethnic Korean Chinese in this border region. But increasingly, the refugees plan to shuttle secretly back and forth between the countries, coming to China to supply their petty commerce back home, to take care of health problems or to see relatives before returning to the hardships of their homeland....

The refugees pose challenges for China and for North Korea. Chinese officials fear that a flood of North Koreans across their borders would not only pose a huge economic strain on the region, but could eventually stoke a territorial dispute because of historic Korean claims in the region. For North Korea, the refugees' flight to China offers a pressure valve, allowing the poor to earn desperately needed money. But it also allows them a glimpse of the richness of the outside world, and that could be destabilizing. [emphasis added]
That last sentence is what struck me as particularly noteworthy. In some ways, China may play the role that the US and Western Europe did for citizens of Eastern European nations and the USSR who became disillusioned with the Communist regimes that were unable to deliver the same standard of living as their capitalist neighbors. Despite Kim Jong Il's vice-like grip over travel and the flow of information, rumblings of a better life in China and South Korea are starting to permeate North Korean society. These sojourns to Chinese territory are only hastening that process, and the once sacrosanct cult of personality built up around Kim Jong Il is starting to fray around the edges. Puncturing this myth is a requisite first step for long term change on the Korean peninsula.

In interview after interview, they spoke of the huge shift in perspective they experienced upon entering China. "When I lived in Korea, I never thought my leaders were bad," said one woman in her 50's, a farmer who had brought her grown daughter to Yanji recently from her home not far from the other side of the border for treatment of an intestinal ailment. "When I got here, I learned that Chinese can travel wherever they want in the world as long as they have the money. I learned that South Korea is far richer, even than China."

"If we are so poor," she continued, "it must be because of Kim Jong Il's mistakes," she said referring to North Korea's leader....

North Korea's oppressive control of its citizens through policing and propaganda could be felt through the words of another woman. "Until the end of the 1980's, we were convinced we were the greatest country on earth, and in fact, many people still believe this," the woman said. "We've always been taught that other countries are poorer than we are. They say that South Korea is full of beggars and that people can't afford even to send their children to school."

"If we are so poor," she continued, "it must be because of Kim Jong Il's mistakes," she said referring to North Korea's leader. The woman said her daughter had decided to stay in China, but that she would soon return home, after illegally earning money doing piecework for a factory here.
Of all the accounts reprinted in this article, one stood out to me for a seemingly casual observation that might come as a surprise to most Americans. A 42 year old North Korean woman told of her travails in China as an illegal immigrant and noted: "But I have no ID card, no residence permit. I am in a free country, but I am not free" [emphasis added]. By North Korean standards, China is a free country. I guess it's all relative.

(cross-posted at Liberals Against Terrorism)

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