South Korea’s worst nightmareImagine this situation in today’s world. Protests start out as small isolated incidents, but grow in strength and number against the dictatorial and out-of-touch government. In order to stop the protests, the government brutally and mercilessly suppresses the people, killing thousands. They cut off food supplies to rebel hotspots. Refugees start to leave the country, telling CNN and other news networks stories about what is transpiring on the ground.
Nine months after the protests start, the regime institutes a communications blackout, cutting all telephone lines. But the people resort to mobile phones and pictures transmitted through thumb drives to record and disseminate news about the violence.
The international community is outraged at the gross human rights violations and seeks sanctions against the regime through the UN Security Council, but China and Russia veto the resolution. Neighboring countries set up camps to accommodate the thousands of refugees coming across the border on the principle of temporary protection - an open border, no forced return of refugees, no limitation on duration of stay, and the promise of food and shelter.
Viewing this as a major threat, the beleaguered regime places land mines along the border to control the flight of refugees. The receiving country appeals to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to play a more active role in stopping the bloodshed and senseless killing of these poor citizens.
To some, these events may sound a lot like a scenario for a collapsing North Korea. Indeed, the description sounds very close to some simulation games that I have participated in about a North Korean refugee crisis. But as hypothetical as this game may sound, it is very real. In fact, it describes the situation on the 560 mile-long Syrian-Turkey border where the Turkish government in November 2011 established a temporary protection regime for Syrian refugees.
Today nearly 100,000 Syrian men, women and children fleeing their despotic regime reside in these refugee camps. There are thousands more fleeing into Lebanon and Jordan. This is a humanitarian crisis of global proportions, which all Koreans should watch closely. Though the outcome of this crisis is far from clear, there are already several lessons for Koreans to think about if the same situation were to occur with North Korean refugees.
First, Koreans must be prepared for the sheer volume of refugees. This will almost certainly correlate with the gravity of the internal situation in the North. In Turkey’s case, the refugees started out as a trickle, but as violence in Syria got worse, the trickle turned into a stream, and then into a flood. Between May and August, for example, the reported numbers flooding into Turkey increased by 81 percent, according to UN Human Rights Council reports.
South Korea may open several camps initially, but Seoul will be compelled to open many more as the numbers swell. Turkey started with seven and quickly expanded to 12 to accommodate the 100,000 now in the country. The cost of maintaining these camps, additionally, is not negligible. Turkey has already spent on the order of over $200 million.
Second, the refugee situation can easily cause an escalation of military conflict between the North and the South. As Syria has done, North Korean authorities will almost certainly seek to stem the tide of refugees and punish those fleeing as a deterrent to others. Syrian forces, for example, have fired on refugees on its border with Jordan, placed land mines along the Turkish border and have attacked refugee camps (on the Syrian side of the border), killing innocent Turks.
Turkey has retaliated against these incursions militarily, including shelling nearby Syrian towns. The lesson here is that a North Korean refugee crisis should not been seen only as a humanitarian situation. It is a highly unstable military situation that could easily escalate into war.
Third, for those countries that would harbor North Korean refugees (South Korea, China and perhaps Russia), there will be strong incentives to seek UN support for setting up buffer zones for refugee camps on North Korean territory rather than on the territory of the receiving country. The purpose would be to prevent a situation where hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding one’s country.
It would also reduce the chance of North Korean military attacks targeting refugee camps in the South. Turkey has tried to seek this solution, but has been frustrated at the slow response from the UN, which has led to the fourth and most depressing lesson of the crisis in Syria.
Sooner or later, countries that help stem a humanitarian crisis eventually are forced to close their borders. The situation becomes unmanageable and starts to impinge on the security and safety of one’s own citizens. Turkey announced this month that it was closing its border, leaving thousands of Syrians stranded on the Syrian side of the border vulnerable to brutal killing by Syrian soldiers.
South Koreans would like to believe that things would be different with their North Korean brethren, but all indications are that the scale of a refugee crisis in the North would be exponentially larger than the current crisis in Syria. Preparation for such a crisis must take place in earnest.
* The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at CSIS. His new book is “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.”
by Victor Cha