The Complexity of North Korean Migration

Migratory routes taken by North Koreans on their way to South Korea. Map modified by the author © Song Jiyoung.

Just imagine you’re a North Korean living in a small village. You have no one to compare your condition with. One day, you hear about people who’ve fled to China who are now well off. Some even go to South Korea, a place you know about from smuggled DVDs. You know that if caught, you could be sent to prison and beaten by guards. If successful, such migration promises a better life.

In most North Korean migration cases, negative push factors such as absence of political freedom and economic opportunities in North Korea combine with positive pull factors in China of food, temporary shelter by NGOs and Christian missionaries, chances to go to South Korea and refugee status. These push and pull factors, together with factors that facilitate irregular migration, form a self-organizing complex adaptive system, analogous to osmosis in biochemistry. Unlike molecules, however, humans have conscience, norms and identities.

Over 2,000 North Koreans have been arriving in South Korea every year since 2006, with 70% being female.  Most use China-Southeast Asia routes, operated by transnational smuggling networks. Thailand serves as the main transit country, although the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar are also used. The boundaries between human trafficking, people smuggling and the flight of refugees  are blurred. For example, a North Korean woman I interviewed in Bangkok had been sold as a bride to a Chinese farmer. She later paid a group of Korean-Chinese smugglers to move her to Thailand. In Bangkok, she claimed refugee status. Her story of transformation is not unique: the identities of North Korean women migrants shift along their journey.

Contributing to the complex picture are political tensions and trade relations among the countries involved, as well as the involvement of NGOs and missionaries. Still, the key actors are North Koreans themselves. In contrast to the passive victimized image of North Korean defectors, such migrants are increasingly informed, adaptive and resilient.

The complexity of North Korean migration cannot be explained by the linear conceptual frameworks generally used in the field of migration or international relations. Network theory, complex adaptive systems, self-organization or emergence in complexity theory offer better theoretical frameworks and methodological tools for studying irregular migration.

Song Jiyoung is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the School of Social Sciences of the Singapore Management University. Her current book project focuses on the nexus between irregular migration and human security in East Asia, using complexity theory. (jysong [at] smu.edu.sg)

If you enjoyed this memo, subscribe to our e-newsletter for free and receive new memos 2+ times per week via email.

Views: 3973

Tags: GEF, complexity, emergence, migration

Comment

You need to be a member of Global Ethics Network to add comments!

Join Global Ethics Network

Carnegie Council

A Russian Take on the Kurds and U.S. Foreign Policy

A Russian defense news site declared the United States an "unreliable ally" after the the withdrawal of American troops from Northern Syria. Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev connects this characterization to the need for leaders to connect a specific policy action to a larger, understandable narrative for the American public.

The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations, with Michelle Murray

How can established powers manage the peaceful rise of new great powers? Bard's Michelle Murray offers a new answer to this perennial question, arguing that power transitions are principally social phenomena whereby rising powers struggle to obtain recognition as world powers. How can this framework help us to understand the economic and military rivalry between United States and China?

Gen Z, Climate Change Activism, & Foreign Policy, with Tatiana Serafin

Generation Z makes up over 30 percent of the world's population and this group of people, most under the age of 20, are already having an extraordinary effect on society, culture, and politics. Tatiana Serafin, journalism professor at Marymount Manhattan College, breaks down the power of this generation, focusing on climate change activism. How can they turn their energy into concrete action?

SUBSCRIBE TODAY

VIDEOS

SUPPORT US

GEO-GOVERNANCE MATTERS

© 2019   Created by Carnegie Council.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service


The views and opinions expressed in the media, comments, or publications on this website are those of the speakers or authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Carnegie Council.