Outward Migration Flows in the Event of Regime Collapse: an Interview with Dr. Go Myong-hyun

By | October 22, 2013 | No Comments

Speculations over China establishing in a "buffer zone" from the border—such as near Dandong, seen here—raises questions of the cost. | Image: Bert van Dijk via Flickr

Speculations over China establishing a “buffer zone” from the border—such as near Dandong, seen here—raises questions of cost. | Image: Bert van Dijk

Bruce Bennett’s recently published RAND report on the “possibility of a North Korean regime collapse” has scholars and specialists alike engaging the scenario. In the event of state collapse in North Korea, one of the most pressing concerns, especially for China, is outward migration flows. How will the millions of people living in the China-DPRK react to the fall of the regime? More importantly, where will they go–north, south, or nowhere at all?

The concluding panel of the September 25-26 “North Korea Conference” at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies addressed the prospects of sudden regime collapse. Dr. Go Myong-hyun, research fellow at the Asan Institute, presented on the outward migration flows that might result from such a contingency. Sino-NK Assistant Editor Darcie Draudt interviewed Dr. Go as a follow-up to that presentation. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Outward Migration Flows in the Event of Regime Collapse: an Interview with Dr. Go Myong-hyun

by Darcie Draudt

Darcie Draudt [DD]: What is the most likely scenario in the event of state collapse in North Korea?

Dr. Go Myong-hyun [GMH]: Any North Korean collapse scenario that involves civil war would be highly unlikely. China and South Korea would be likely to intervene before the North Korean regime becomes unstable. That’s what we saw during the 1990s. South Korea sent money and aid to North Korea and so did China over the last couple of years.

But let’s say, as Bruce [Bennett] had said [during this presentation], something sudden happens, like a coup d’état or an assassination attempt, so the leadership is decapitated and we don’t know what is going on. The most likely scenario is that there will be some sort of power change or regime change, without really affecting the rest of the structure. Maybe after a couple of weeks, or a couple of days of uncertainty, things will go back to normal. That’s what we would see after the death of Kim Jong-un. That’s what we saw after the death of Kim Jong-il, whom many people deemed to be a charismatic leader and for whom there would be no replacement, but the regime was fine. It was stable. So you could expect the same thing.

DD: How do geopolitics come into play for reacting to such a contingency?

GMH: The humanitarian crisis is an issue, but WMDs are the priority. So what happens with the WMDs? We know for a fact that most WMD [materials] are located north of Pyongyang. To give you an illustration, the distance from the Chinese border to Pyongyang is 130 km. The distance from the DMZ to Pyongyang is 260 km. Also, another issue is that there are a lot more barriers for South Korea and the US to reach Pyongyang from the south, because 70 percent of North Korean military power is concentrated south of Pyongyang. So it’s much easier for China to reach Pyongyang, or any area. Yongbyon, for example, is much closer to China than South Korea. Then, the Chinese intervention becomes not an option anymore, because we actually might have to ask China to intervene in that case. A lot of South Koreans believe that China will use that occasion, that excuse, to take over North Korea. That’s where my presentation comes in.

Look at the hard numbers. What’s the population distribution? Say China wants to avoid the scenario where millions of North Koreans cross the border and enter China and become refugees, so they might somewhat preempt this refugee inflow and establish a “buffer zone.” But then the buffer zone—the border area between North Korea and China—is not like the border between the US and Mexico. It’s not a desert; though it’s not densely populated, it is a highly populated area. For my presentation, I calculated the number of people living in the hypothetical buffer zone to be four million. So if the Chinese do that, they will be taking care of four million North Koreans living there and their land.

DD: In terms of migration and population control, what other situation might China face?

GMH: In the case in which China doesn’t intervene and it lets an inflow of refugees, the expected number of refugees is very likely to be much less than the four million or so North Koreans who live in the border near China. So which is more costly to China? We cannot expect an inflow of refugees overnight. Neither is there a preplanned, government contingency scenario, where the North Korean government is pushing people out of the country, like what happened in Cuba.

DD: During the Muriel boatlift, something like over 100,000 people were quickly moved out of Cuba.

GMH: Yes. The Cuban government kicked the refugees out of the country. That’s also what happened with the Hutus and the Tutsis. When it looked like the Tutsis were taking over the country, the government took all the Hutu people out of the country. But something like this is unlikely to happen here, because we’re talking about a collapse scenario, in which the North Korean government would cease to exist. There would be a natural flow of people out of the country.

DD: So what factors play into the North Koreans’ decision to stay or leave?

GMH: For most people, essentially it’s a decision-making model. People have to weigh two things: the risk of staying and the risk of leaving. So for most people, the risk of leaving is much higher than the risk of staying. Unless you are witnessing some sort of massacre right next door, you want to stay home, because you can protect your property; you don’t want to risk dying on the road by taking your family out to a crisis. There are a lot of unknowns. You can try to reach China, but what happens when you reach China, unless you have relatives there? That’s the reason why there won’t be a major refugee crisis in North Korea, even if there’s a major contingency.

Then following this small decision model, the one factor that people can actually control—they cannot control the risk—but the one thing they can control is the minimization of the risk. One decision variable was the distance. So the further away you are from the safe haven, your risk of leaving is actually higher. The number of people who leave their homes and become refugees would be smaller as you get further and further away from the border. So you can model the staggering probabilities. The closer you are, the more likely you are to leave, and the further away you are, the less likely. If that’s the case, you’ll see staggering waves of people leaving the country. You won’t see a sudden jump in the number of refugees on the first day. Using that logic, you can actually calculate the potential number of people who might leave home.

DD: Can you explain the methodology used to calculate the number of potential refugees?

GMH: I looked at the database called LandScan. What it does is analyze satellite images and settlement patterns. You can come up with some sort of idea of how many people might live there. Another source of data is light pollution. But there’s the famous picture of North Korea being dark at night. So North Korea would be an exception. In North Korea you cannot use light pollution. You can also use census data. So you combine all different layers of information, and you come up with some figures for population density per square kilometer.  That’s the data I used. Based on that, I used this geospatial software called ArcGIS. Then you can calculate the number of people living in an area.

Then regarding the number of people who might leave—the refugees. For my calculations I just used linear decay. Given the distance—the idea is that the further away you are, the less likely you are to leave your homes. So that’s the logic behind the model.

I also assume the people south of Pyongyang might just stay home or become an internally displaced person (IDP), because it’s really hard for them to leave their homes. In a civil war scenario, we expect that area to be especially volatile because most of the concentration of the North Korean military is there.

DD: In conjunction with geography—Pyongyang, small cities, rural areas, borderlands—could you talk about the issue of refugees and IDPs? How might the different areas impact the likelihood of migrating?

GMH: In my model the individual has only two options: stay or leave. But you can actually have a third option: become an internally displaced person. The third option is where you’re too scared to leave but at the same time you have to leave.

Of course, in order to estimate the actual outflow of refugees, you have to look at the actual propagation of civil war. One way to start out this kind of thought experiment is to look at Syria. Usually, civil war happens in urban areas. One faction is trying to take over another. And if you look over the geography of North Korea, North Korea is a highly centralized country—not just in terms of society and the social system, but also in terms of logistics, communication, and resources. Pyongyang becomes the crown jewel for any faction that wants to control the country. That’s why I think there might not be that much fighting across smaller cities. An easier way to put it is that the level of violence might be proportional to the size of the city in North Korea, and there are not that many cities in North Korea. I think that’s another reason why most people would choose to become IDPs rather than refugees, because the actual violence might not reach them. In North Korea, many people don’t live in the cities. They live in the countryside.

DD: What about the case of the border regions? Outside of this idea of a buffer zone, would you expect any movement from North Koreans who are living in China? Would you expect them to come return to North Korea?

GMH: We’re talking about a political situation that’s highly volatile: civil war. I don’t think Korean-Chinese or Chinese people would cross into North Korea. Technically if people want to come back, they can already do that, right? It wouldn’t change anything. The flow would just be in one direction. People just leaving North Korea.

The humanitarian crisis resulting from migration following a sudden collapse contingency would be compounded by North Korea's cold winters and mountainous terrain. | Image: Bert van Dijk via Flickr

The humanitarian crisis resulting from migration following a sudden collapse contingency would be compounded by North Korea’s cold winters and mountainous terrain. | Image: Bert van Dijk

DD: If this were to occur, what do you think are the humanitarian issues that would come into play? How will the migration issue come into play with humanitarian assistance concerns?

GMH: It’s going to be disastrous. I think the humanitarian crisis might be the worst outcome. Even more so than the violence of civil war. I said that in the worst-case scenario you might not see waves of refugees leaving the country, but rather a huge number of IDPs. The distribution of food aid is a really difficult point, in that the population pattern of North Korea is really spread out. There are a lot of people living in hard-to-reach places. If people are in hiding, how will you reach them? In Syria, there are multiple access points. You can reach Syria from Jordan, from Iraq, from Turkey, from Lebanon. But, in North Korea, you only have two ways to reach inland: one is from the forth, from China; the other is from the south. As I told you, the southern approach is pretty much blocked because of the DMZ. You can only reach the North Koreans from China. But that means that the hypothetical aid columns might not be able to reach deep into the country. That won’t be possible if you have a civil war going on. I think if there’s a civil war in North Korea, the humanitarian crisis might be much more acute than what we have seen in Syria.

Another reason is the weather. Syrian weather—I don’t think it’s as extreme as North Korea’s. So if things were to happen in the wintertime, when people are displaced in the mountains, you can imagine the situation in getting them the resources that they’re lacking, including sources of heat. I think the humanitarian crisis might be even more serious. Violence would be very high, and the scale of humanitarian crisis would be worse, compared to Syria.

DD: There certainly seems to be less direct solutions.

GMH: That’s right. In the case of Syria, we’re talking about the geography, right? You can reach potentially more people. Sure, in Syria you can’t reach everyone who are in need, but in North Korea it’ll be even harder. You face different constraints. It would be much harder for an aid organization or intergovernmental committee to reach the people in need. This is hypothetical. But the reason why we engage in this kind of mental exercise is because it’s useful for scenario planning.

I think the one thing that we can glean is that the North Korean contingency might be just as bad as having Kim Jong-un in power.

Or it could be worse. With Kim Jong-un in power, we know there are huge human rights violations, and people are starving and suffering, but then in the contingency scenario, things might get even more hairy, at least in the short term.

Actually, one thing I want to emphasize is that the North Korean contingency might not be a short-term thing. It might be a long-term thing, like what we are seeing in Syria. But then another point is that in Syria, you have a lot of excellent pathways and actors who are getting involved in Syrian internal affairs, giving money to these different armed groups [and] prolonging the situation. Whereas in North Korea, that might not be the case, because I think both China and South Korea want stability in North Korea, first and foremost. I think there will be safeguards, and I think I spoke sufficiently that there is some agreement between China, South Korea, and the US that actually we don’t want to have North Korea as a nuclear state; but, on the other hand, we don’t want the North Korean state to collapse. We don’t know how to control it. We have all these safeguards, but nothing’s perfect. Something might go wrong.

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  1. South Korea has been waiting since the Armistice was signed for the collapse of North Korea. It appears the collapse is closer now than ever before. NK can’t keep its people in the dark forever with the digital age on top of them. We may not have a handle on how much information is getting to the NK people with digital devices, but it is happening. Ultimately, sooner than we might expect, a segment of the NK people will rise up. SK just has to keep its eyes and ears open to the cracks that develop and be very cautious about their approach to this situation.

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