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North Korea is unlike anything we can imagine. There is little food and the people are brainwashed into worshipping the leader. The truth about North Korea was a secret for many years, until refugees began sharing their stories. These refugees are using their experiences living in North Korea to make people more aware of the atrocities happening in North Korea. Their experiences are different, yet they are all similar. From their stories we learn about the living conditions in North Korea and finally get inside tales of what the North Korean labor camps look like. They describe the excruciating work and the frequent beatings from guards. Each of their stories has brought awareness about the North Korean way of life. These stories make it possible for people to study the migration patterns of these refugees and give more insight as to how we can help both the refugees and the citizens still suffering within North Korea’s borders.
Books, blogs, documentaries, articles, etc. have been written about North Korean refugees. Their stories frequently make the news and fill up headlines on newspapers. But aside from public media, their stories have inspired many different kinds of research. From political research to psychological research, there’s certainly no shortage of discourse surrounding these refugees. One of the most obscure studies being done being migration studies. There are several theories out there about why or how North Korean refugees migrate, but in this essay, there is only one important theory, and that is distress migration. For this essay I will be explaining how distress migration is a specific form of forced migration because the amount of turmoil a country is in would give people no other option but to flee.
I will begin this essay by introducing the literary pieces I have chosen to define my theoretical lens of the paper. This section of the essay will include the introduction of two main points of the theory along with articles and books to support my reasoning for relating these specific articles to the theory that distress migration is a form of forced migration. After introducing the theoretical lens, I will describe the archive of narratives I will be using. I will expose several patterns in the narrative stories and put them into context with a summary of one of the narratives. Once I have completed the first two sections, I will move on to synthesizing the two sections together to create a conclusive argument to support the original theory. And then finally, I will conclude the essay with a short summary of the information covered.
This study of North Korean refugees is very specific, in that the lens I used to look at this phenomenon is very directed and does not have another side to the argument, because in the case of North Koreans there is only one reason to migrate. This section includes studies surrounding the costs and benefits of migrating and the awful circumstances that would force people to consider migration. In other words, this section will lend a hand into understanding the theory of distress migration. These studies will also help in shaping the lens I used to investigate the minds of North Korean refugees and highlight my reasoning for not looking into the other forms of migration related to forced migration. First, I will consider rhetorical discourses pertaining to the idea of distress migration and forced migration, this will be focused on migration discourse material. Secondly, I will be looking at discourse of countries who are experiences exodus due to extreme circumstances. This will include environmental circumstances, migration statistics, and statements from political officials. By viewing these studies under one lens, I can see how different facets of life can ultimately force a person to migrate.
Much of migration discourse surrounding forced migration pertains to a political push for people to migrate, but for this study it is important to look at forced migration as an equivalent to distress migration- the circumstances pushed the people to flee in order to find a better life. In the book A Short History of Migration, Livi Bacci writes about many different types of migration including the idea of forced migration. In this section of the book, Livi Bacci discusses not only how migrants must consider the labor market in outside countries, but also how receiving countries should be considering how an immigrant can benefit the country. With countries continuously reconsidering the value of immigration it is a gamble for migrants to leave their homes in hopes of changing their life. From this, we can see how difficult migration is and understand that each refugee is making a huge leap of faith while trying to flee the country.
Along with the formal study of migration done by Livi Bacci, there are other smaller studies dedicated to uncovering underlying reasons for distress migration or forced migration. In an article called “Pressure Points: Environmental Degradation, Migration, and Conflict”, the author writes about how migration is affected by environmental problems. The article goes on to explain how environmental degradation in developing countries can be detrimental to development and can cause a mass migration of people. Following this, the author also speaks about the challenges of migrating for people living in poverty and how this may affect the outflow of migrants. Keeping in mind this information, we can see that cost and benefit planning is a key concept when talking about distressed migration. Weighing these cost and benefits in the end can force someone to leave their home because they realize there is nothing good left for them there.
Looking into rhetoric discourse about distress migration is one way of learning about this phenomenon but analyzing related testimonies can also give rise to understanding the theory surrounding distress migration. One such study done by Courtland Robinson explores the political and environmental situation in North Korea in relation with the number of North Korean migrants in the surrounding countries. In this study, Courtland Robinson speaks about many of the problems in North Korea throughout the years and uses them to describe the quality of life North Koreans have. Through this we can deduce specific reasoning for migration. From here we can also understand why they gamble mentioned by Livi Bacci is an absolute necessity for these migrants.
Looking away from North Korea for a minute, there are other countries that are also going through, or have gone through, periods of exodus caused by distress migration. For example, during the drought in India many people lived facing food insecurity and loss of their livelihood. Because of this many people fled to the cities or other countries to escape not only the drought, but the financial instability that the drought caused. (Mishra, Archana) India’s own exodus may be due to drought, but it shows how desperate people become before they migrate. For the farmers in India during the drought, they lost everything before giving in and moving away. Thus, this testimony certainly supports the idea that distress migration is seen as a last resort for people trying to escape unideal circumstances.
With all different countries having problems with migration and distress migration, it has certainly garnered attention from around the world as well. Jose Graziano da Silva, the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, spoke at the UN in 2016 to address the problem of distress migration and how important it is to focus on the root of the problem. Graziano da Silva elaborates throughout his speech about how developing rural areas have had increased migration levels. He goes on to say, “Migration should be an act of choice, and not a desperate last resort,”. This powerful sentence explains what distress migration really looks like. It is not about a person’s choice to leave their homeland because they did not like the conditions there, but rather it’s about how the conditions in one area can be so bad it can push out all the people living there. This is the lens that I will be using to analyze the narratives of North Korean Refugees.
Although these literature pieces have little in common in terms of main ideas, they are all part of the theory of forced migration and they all elaborate on the idea behind distress migration. Livi Bacci wrote his book solely to focus on migration and migration theory, so his book alone could not create an acceptable lens for the North Korean refugee crisis, but when you take Livi Bacci’s initial theory of forced migration and throw it into a mixing bowl with the other articles I will be using in this essay, it creates a suitable theoretical lens. And so, with this newly created lens, I will be highlighting how North Korean refugees are forced to migrate out of North Korea not because of a political push to migrate, but rather due to unlivable conditions.
The Narratives of North Korean Refugees
The literary pieces mentioned in the last section were used to create the theory that I will be using to analyze the following North Korean refugee narratives that I have chosen to create my archive. In this narrative section I will be looking at written and spoken accounts from people that escaped North Korea through crossing the border into China. After introducing my archive, I will highlight the patterns that I noticed within the narratives. Following this I will choose one narrative to put into the spotlight and talk about their story.
North Korea is a place that is unimaginable to most people. The quality of life is poor for most people, and all people fear the regime; breaking the law is not an option. The people stay quiet for fear of being sent to a labor camp and taking three generations of their family with them. The archive I will be using includes the narratives of people from all walks of life within North Korea, but there are two key points that relate all the narratives together. The first, is that all the refugees escaped into China rather than attempting to go directly to South Korea. The second is all the refugees had done time at a labor camp. Since North Korea is one of the last countries that still condones the use of labor camps, I wanted to include the narratives of people that had experiences wtih those conditions so to inform others about the atrocities labor camp workers have to live through.
Patterns in Narrative
While reading and listening to narratives of North Korean refugees I noticed several patterns. The first was how much the narrators talked about food. Their diets were made up of corn, and whatever they could catch out in the fields while working. There was little food and all they could dream of was being able to eat as much as they wanted and eating whatever they wanted. One refugee, Charles, told of how he once ate vomit of the side of the road because he was hungry, and he could see the rice kernels in it. At that time the guards beat him while he ate, but food was more important to him than the pain of the beatings (Charles). This need for food was stated as one of the reasons that each refugee chose to leave.
Another pattern I noticed within the archive is the theme of bodily pain. Within the labor camps people are worked all day with no breaks doing extraneous work such as mining, lumbering, or hauling large loads. Working like this causes so much physical pain to the body and could easily kill a person with that pain alone, but work isn’t the only pain afflicted on the bodies of these North Korean laborers. The guards are known for beating people daily. Whether it be because they slacked off or simply because the guard was in a bad mood. Every narrator relayed their experiences being beaten by the guards and how sore their body felt every day. On one extreme occasion, a laborer shared a memory of a time while he was in school- the younger kids in labor camps received education until the age of 12- and the guard hit a girl so hard on the head she died the next day (Shin, Donghyuk). This story reflects the most extreme examples of the pain that laborers experienced while living in the labor camps. But even after they leave the country, the pain does not end until they find safety. Hours and days of travel through rough terrain trying to hide from the Chinese guards would certainly take a toll on the human body.
The final pattern I noticed while looking through the archive is the danger each narrator fights through within North Korea and after they have gotten into China. Once a person has been deemed missing within North Korea, they must stay hidden from the police until they have crossed the border. Once inside of China’s borders they must steer clear of the Chinese guards. In China, North Koreans are not seen as refugees and if found they will be sent back to North Korea, if returned they could be sent to death camps, labor camps, or publicly executed depending on the person. From the moment a person leaves their normal life in North Korea they are in danger. Apart from having to hide to avoid guards, North Koreans also put themselves in danger because many of them have no food and no money. They are roaming around China trying to find a safe place to declare refugee status with no food, and so each refugee could die on the road to freedom, but this is all a gamble each person must take in order to leave the horrible life they had in North Korea.
The Story of Kang Chol-hwan
Kang Chol-hwan grew up in an affluential family in the capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang. His grandfather worked in the government building in Pyongyang and Chol-hwan spent most of his childhood not ever knowing of hunger or poverty. North Korea was still running smoothly and had enough rations for all its people, in the city at least. Chol-hwan was a happy kid, until the day the guards came to his house. His grandfather had disgraced the regime. When you disgrace the regime up to three generations of a family can be sent to labor camps and held there until they die or are deemed eligible to re-enter society. Chol-hwan spent many years of his life slaving away in the labor camp, getting beat, and was also close to starving to death. Eventually he was released and found himself living the life of a farmer. Soon after this he decided to leave North Korea. He run to China and after many months avoiding the Chinese government he made it to South Korea and found his freedom (Chol-hwan, Kang). From this summary of the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang all the patterns mentioned above are put into context and the life of a North Korean refugee becomes even more clear.
Viewing the Archive Through the Theoretical Lens
Now that I have established the theoretical lens and the archive that this essay will focus on, I will focus on how the narrative supports the main ideas of the theory. During this section of the essay I will be taking the patterns mentioned in the narrative section and the two main concepts of the theory and synthesizing them to accurately explain how the narrative and theory work together. The two main points from the theory that I will be looking at are the idea that distress migration is a form of forced migration and how leaving from North Korea is a life gamble that each refugee must make.
The moment a North Korean goes missing their life becomes a battle. Simply making it to the border could be the most dangerous part of the whole journey. The defector will have to dodge the North Korean police for days or even months to reach the river that creates the border between China and North Korea. If the defector is found they can be sent to a labor camp or in extreme cases, publicly executed. Because of the consequences, once a North Korean decides to leave, they understand that there is no turning back; turning around means death. These extreme consequences do not force people to migrate per se, but rather it forces people to stay away once they have left. So, for those who change their minds, they have no choice but to continue migrating thus taking away a person’s ability to change their mind and forcing them to go on.
For the narrators of the archive, the dangers of escaping mean nothing to them when they think of all the pain and suffering they already go through. In his book, Kang Chol-hwan vividly describes the pain his body went through just doing work every day. His back would ache after just a few hours of carrying timber down the mountain. The soreness caused by intensive labor alone would be enough to send people running but adding regular beatings into the mix would drive anyone away. All the narrators told stories of being beaten around by the guards, and many of them gave this as another main reasoning for wanting to escape. Being tortured day in and day out with labor and angry guards with sticks was difficult to deal with, and the bodily pain eventually drove the distressed North Korean laborers out of the country, forcing them to leave their homeland, family, and friends behind.
According to the article “Pressure Points: Environmental Degradation, Migration and Conflict”, environmental degradation plays a huge part in causing distress migration because of the food shortages and mass poverty that it creates. The phenomenon that the article explains reflects the pattern that I saw within the narratives of North Korean refugees. The narrators in the archive all speak about the disparity for food they lived through and witnessed everyday of their life, this was always mentioned as a main cause of deciding to leave the country. Both discourses highlight how the quality of life impacts a person’s choice to migrate and thus supports the idea that distress migrants are pushed or forced out of the country.
While discussing food disparity that North Koreans face it is important to mention that after leaving North Korea, most refugees still experience food disparity. One narrator, Charles, recollects how he was found passed out in China due to hunger and dehydration, close to death (Charles). Many refugees face starvation while trying to get out of China, and many may die from it. Starvation is an outcome all North Korean refugees must consider before the decide to leave. Livi Bacci talks extensively of the costs and benefits migrants must think about, most of the costs on either side leading to death. With this idea in mind it is easy to see why migration is considered a gamble with your own life, especially for those already living in poverty.
Starvation is probably the most likely cause of death for these migrants, but the strain they put on their body while fleeing can also cause death. Before leaving most refugees don’t know how long they will have to travel to find their way to a country that will receive them as refugees. Some may spend weeks wandering around, and others may take months. Living in the woods and always on the run, your body will become tired and weak. Bodily pain is no stranger to the refugee. Everyday becomes a gamble with your life.
From all this information it is easy to see just how dangerous migration can be for North Korean refugees. As Courtland Robinson showcased in his study of North Korean life, the people constantly are in danger of offending the regime and being sent away or executed. The life they live in North Korea is difficult, but outside the country they face many more dangers on their path to freedom. Starvation and fatigue plague their bodies every day, all they can do is hope to save themselves. By escaping each refugee understands that they may die. Therefore, distress migration from North Korea is a gamble. People bet their lives so that they can have freedom.
This study is an in depth look at why North Korean refugees inevitable run. Using the stories of North Koreans that lived through labor camps and escaping into China we can begin to understand the many perils they each go through before and after their escape. Their lives in North Korea are haunted by hunger, fear, and pain, causing them to live in a constant state of distress and eventually forcing them to move out of the country to find freedom and a better life. Their lives outside in China after escaping isn’t much different than before; they are still hungry, tired, and living in fear. Not knowing if they will ever make it to a country of freedom, they push on and tempt death as their body nears its limit. Despite the danger they still run because there is nothing left for them in North Korea, it’s already taken everything away from them.
For people with no food and no rights, leaving becomes their only option for a good life. No matter how much they love their home, the idea of plentiful food and freedom will always draw them out. That’s exactly what happened to the North Koreans talked about in this essay. The harsh conditions they were living in, again explained by Courtland Robinson in the article “The Curious Case of North Korea”, were enough to drive many North Koreans to the edge, the border between North Korea and China that is. Just like in India during the flood, the North Koreans left the country not solely by their own choice, but because the circumstances did not allow them to stay. This is why distress migration should be considered a type of forced migration.
The lives of North Koreans are unimaginable to most, but with this essay I hope that an idea of what it’s like not only living in North Korea, but also escaping North Korea must be like. Everyday people die of hunger or are beaten to death in the labor camps, but still there is nothing being done on their behalf. For years refugees have shared their stories and raised awareness for their cause, but attacking North Korea is not a possibility. So then why raise awareness to make feel helpless? Because there is one problem that can still be solved. In all the narratives in the essay the dangers of China were explained vividly. The Chinese government still holds a treaty with North Korea promising to return any defectors they find, this leads to the death and torture of so many North Koreans. The Chinese government needs to remove their treaty so that more lives can be saved. Sharing the narratives of these refugees is the best hope these people have at gaining enough attention to force China to help them. Please help the suffering people of North Korea by saving them from the cruel Chinese government.
- Chang, Yoonok, et al. “Migration Experiences of North Korean Refugees: Survey Evidence from China.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2008, doi:10.2139/ssrn.1106323.
- Charles. “I Survived North Korea.” YouTube, SoulPancake, 17 May 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ziqq5gUXu8g&t=320s.
- Mishra, Archana. “Distress Migration: A Calamity Worse Than Drought.” Factiva, GovernanceNow, 2016, global-factiva-com.ezp2.lib.umn.edu/ha/default.aspx./!?&_suid=1545103848998007924575547095558.
- Robinson, Courtland. “The Curious Case of North Korea.” Colombia: Durable Solutions for the Forcibly Displaced | Forced Migration Review, Forced Migration Review, May 2013, www.fmreview.org/fragilestates/robinson.
- “Roundup: FAO chief underlines need to address root cause of ‘distress migration’.” Xinhua News Agency, 19 Sept. 2016. Student Edition, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A463977536/STOM?u=mnaumntwin&sid=STOM&xid=6c71e9d9. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.
- Shin, Donghyuk. “North Korea Camps.” Danmark Radio, 23 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUhj4JQkqAs. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
- Suhrke, Astri. “Environmental Degradation, Migration, and the Potential for Violent Conflict.” Conflict and the Environment, 1997, pp. 255–272., doi:10.1007/978-94-015-8947-5_16.
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