September 28, 2016.
Prof Bob Huish has spent much of the last two years listening to North Korean defectors and studying what is literally a black hole on the satellite map – largely through detecting its ripples. Like who is trading with North Korea, following the flow of sea traffic into Nampo Port and investigating how different companies, governments and individuals get around the substantive international sanctions banning business dealings with DPRK.
He spoke of the Songbun ‘caste’ system, where unbiased loyalty to the Kim dynasty buys favours while those classed as hostile are punished for political crimes by being sent to political labour camp – a punishment then inflicted on their children and grandchildren. Satellite photography suggests 150 – 200,000 North Koreans are currently in these camps.
Defectors mainly escape through China. Mostly during winter, when the river border is frozen. Their only chance of statehood is getting South Korean citizenship via SK’s embassies in either Bangkok or Mongolia. This secures them six months’ rehabilitation and three years of services from psychological therapy to dentistry but the suicide rate is still around 20%.
Among the “celebrity defectors” is a political camp duo – one a former prisoner, one a former prison guard – who travel the world giving talks about their former homeland. Another is Shin Donhyuk, the only defector who was born into a labour camp, who recently caused controversy after changing some details of his story. Hardly surprising mistakes are made sometimes, says Huish, considering the level of absolute trauma they have suffered.
The “glass hammer of sanctions” counts for little, he says, as the theory that sanctions lead to behaviour change relies on the country being sanctioned having some desire to join the international community. And the international community enforcing them.
But since March, Prof Huish has tracked some 60 vessels mooring in Nampo Port, the majority with a “tangled web” of offshore links. Enforcement is loose, he says, because China is so close to North Korea, the US doesn’t want to annoy them and there’s no major economic resource to motivate monitoring or enforcement by anyone. North Korea’s main exports are counterfeit dollars and cigarettes and it is the largest producer of methamphetamine in the world.
25% of their GDP is spent on nuclear proliferation – revered to the point of iconography and one very important mechanism of control.
After three generations of personality cult (each Kim bringing a new crop of miracles with them), how could change be triggered? With difficulty, Prof Huish admits. The entire top level of North Korean politicians know they would be off to The Hague International Criminal Court if they were ever overthrown.
But dissent is growing, the regime’s options are limited and he believes they are getting “very close to the line” in terms of being a sustainable nation. If it were to fail, the economic, cultural, linguistic and psychological disparities between North and South Korea would see DPRK’s 26 million people heading not south, but north to China.
“That would be one of the biggest refugee and economic crises in the world.” And that is a very good reason for China to keep on tolerating its rather pesky neighbour.
Dr Bob Huish was visiting New Zealand as the Ron Lister Fellow in University of Otago’s Geography Department. He is Associate Professor in International Development Studies at Dalhousie University and the recipient of an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada.