It’s time to start considering what a North Korean refugee crisis would look like

May 18, 2017, 10:49 AM

There’s an undeveloped strip of land on the Korean peninsula where nature thrives, but wild animals occasionally explode. Walking across it would be a bad idea.

Known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ), it divides South Korea and North Korea, nations that technically have been at war since the 1950s. Running 240 km (150 miles) across the Korean peninsula, and measuring about 4 km (2.5 miles) wide, it is heavily guarded by two of the world’s largest militaries, strewn with landmines, and arguably the most fortified border on the planet.

If you want to flee North Korea, this is not your recommended route. It makes much more sense to head north instead toward China, where the Yalu and Tumen rivers straddle Mount Paektu to create a 1,420-km (880-mile) border. The Yalu is the deeper of the two rivers, but neither is all that hard to get across. In the winter, both can freeze over.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing of late over North Korea and its erratic leader Kim Jong-un, with much of the world rightly alarmed over its ongoing tests of missiles and nuclear bombs—including a missile test on May 14. There’s been hope that China will apply more economic pressure against North Korea to help bring about a change.

But it’s impossible to game out scenarios for the region without taking into account the reality of North Korea’s borders. For most of the 25 million people contained within them, life is already harsh. Should central authority be replaced by civil war and competing factions hoarding resources, it would get even worse, causing potentially millions of desperate (and in many cases starving) people to head straight for China.

Today Beijing considers fleeing North Koreans “economic migrants,” meaning it doesn’t have to offer them protections it agreed to under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. It routinely returns North Koreans to their country, knowing that many will be tortured or executed, in part because Beijing worries that a more lenient stance might only encourage more North Koreans to cross the border.

Of course, in a crisis, they’ll cross the border in any case, in numbers that will draw the world’s attention. It would be a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, and the brunt of it would be shouldered by China—similar to Turkey’s role in handling the refugee crisis originating in neighboring Syria. While it remains to be seen how closely Beijing will work with the US and others in addressing North Korea, it’s clear that the potential for mass migration directly into China will be a key consideration in how it approaches the problem. Logistical challenge

China does have field experience with refugee crises. In 2009, over 30,000 refugees from Myanmar’s Kokang region flooded into the southern Yunnan province, escaping the fighting between government troops and local rebels. Many of them were ethnic Chinese who spoke Mandarin, which no doubt helped matters. China won moderate praise from the international community for providing food, emergency shelter, and medical care to the refugees.

“You could really see China’s emergency-response system kicking in, and see how China might deal with North Korea,” says Carla Park Freeman, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.

The fighting in Kokang flared up again in March, sending more refugees China’s way, and giving the country further experience in what might be a warm-up exercise for a far larger crisis in the northeast.

In the event of a North Korean refugee crisis, the logistical challenge will require new solutions from China. Besides trying to fortify its border, it might seize control of some North Korean territory in order to create a buffer zone, in which case it would probably first try to get approval from the international community. “I think China would look for some kind of UN authorization before moving in,” says Freeman. But, she adds, “In a crisis, China would move very, ...