From the Shadows: Defections, Abductions, and Murder

The last month has seen several stories about border crossings that could have been ripped from the pages of a geopolitical spy thriller.
Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)
May 13, 2016 7:00 AM

On April 6, thirteen North Korean restaurant workers defected to South Korea from Ningbo China, the first case of a group defection from North Korea’s international restaurant industry. The details of the escape are murky (a few articles offering different accounts can be found here and here). But what is striking is the capacity for a group of this size to coordinate given the assumption that minders are pervasive among North Korean workers abroad. Who was complicit in the escape?

Needless to say, the North Korean authorities are spooked by the fact that its labor exports—according to some estimates totaling above 80,000 workers—could become the proverbial hole in the fence. In a typically preposterous claim, North Korea said the workers were abducted by South Korean intelligence operatives. However, the Hankyoreh argued at least somewhat more plausibly that the speed of processing the defectors could only have occurred with prior knowledge. The entire process moved at a rapid clip; the defectors managed to get out of China—with what exit documents and tickets, exactly? —landed in Thailand on April 6 and were fully processed and landing in Seoul on April 7.

The MOU was quick to claim that the North Korean defectors had “voluntarily decided to leave and pushed ahead with the escape without any help from the outside.” But the messaging from the ROK was a little edgier than that, arguing that the defections were the result of outside information penetration, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the effects of recent sanctions on the DPRK’s international restaurant industry. Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se warned that “If North Korea persists in its wrong path, like its nuclear weapons development, this kind of incident will continue to happen in the future.” Prediction or threat?

The Telegraph via Radio Free Asia reported that after the defections twenty North Korean students were recalled to the DPRK.  But the case reveals the bind the regime is in. Labor exports yield cash and students yield skills. But as the numbers rise can they all be appropriately monitored? This is yet another reason why countries importing North Korean labor should be attentive to rights issues. (A few past blog posts on North Korea’s export of labor can be found here and here.)

Just four days after the restaurant workers arrived in Seoul the South Korean government revealed that a senior colonel from the DPRK Reconnaissance General Bureau had defected to the South several months earlier. He would be one of the highest-level North Korean officials to ever defect to the South. The opposition challenged the timing of the revelation about the defection, coming only two days before the general elections. But if the announcement was politically timed to benefit the ruling party, the strategy clearly didn’t work.

These [North Korean defection] stories are not just curiosities, they are linked and could well be portentous.

The general North Korean nervousness about the porousness of the border was revealed in yet another story last week: a report that North Korean security agents murdered an ethnic Korean Chinese priest who was found dead in a Chinese border town. Han Choong-ryul, a priest at Changbai Church in Jilin Province, was known for aiding North Koreans who had escaped across the border to China. In an even more ridiculous claim, North Korean website Arirang Meari suggested that it was South Korean intelligence agents who murdered the priest, in our view pretty close to an admission of guilt.

If North Korea did murder Han Choong-ryul—a Chinese national—it once again raises the question of Beijing’s tolerance of North Korean behavior. Studies of Weibo posts suggest that North Korean treatment of Chinese nationals, such as abducted fisherman, is more explosive to the social media public than nuclear weapons and the future of the Six Party Talks. A possible outcome: a rupture in cooperation between North Korea and China in border security and law enforcement. After last month’s group defection North Korea’s Uriminzokkiri offered veiled criticism of China for allowing the North Koreans to escape: “We have a firm grasp on which government overlooked their duties and let the South Koreans abduct our people.” China coolly deflected the criticism, claiming that all North Koreans entered and exited the country with valid passports.

These stories are not just curiosities; they are linked and could well be portentous. As Mary Sarotte shows in her stunning account of the fall of the Berlin Wall, big historical events unfold as a result of small and highly contingent events: a border guard that looks the other way, the willingness of citizens to push the edge of the envelope, people observing lapses in control. If South Korea pushes the defection issue as part of its greater North Korea strategy, these episodes could spell serious trouble for the regime.

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