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Refugees Might Be the New Administration’s Best Friends on North Korea Strategy

Supporting refugees is a concrete action Washington can take to break the Kim regime’s control over society and bring all North Koreans closer to freedom.

By , a senior fellow in the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, a professor at Georgetown University, and the former National Security Council director for Asian affairs, and
A South Korean man watches a television screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year speech, at a railroad station in Seoul on January 1, 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said he was open to the "highest-level" talks with South Korea as he called for an improvement in strained cross-border relations.  AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A South Korean man watches a television screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year speech, at a railroad station in Seoul on January 1, 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said he was open to the "highest-level" talks with South Korea as he called for an improvement in strained cross-border relations. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A South Korean man watches a television screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year speech, at a railroad station in Seoul on January 1, 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said he was open to the "highest-level" talks with South Korea as he called for an improvement in strained cross-border relations. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

On November 29, President George W. Bush urged the incoming Donald Trump administration to recognize North Korea as a “grave threat.” Bush described the totalitarian state as “a prison, run by a sadistic warden,” and argued that its menace would only be countered long-term by integrating human rights and security policy. The 43rd president also explained that a component of any such strategy should involve supporting North Korean refugees in the United States.

Since the late 1990s, more than 30,000 North Korean refugees have fled their country and resettled in free societies. The majority are now in South Korea, but more than 200 reside in the United States. This is remarkable, not only given the treacherous journey these escapees endure, but for their potential in transforming a regime that threatens all Americans with its illicit nuclear program.

How do refugees play into this scenario? Refugees who become productive citizens are empowered to send remittances and information back into North Korea by unconventional and usually risky means. Some are able to help other family members escape as well. This ultimately chips away at the regime’s control over society. It also creates a cadre of professionals and experts who may one day facilitate change in North Korea.

On November 29, President George W. Bush urged the incoming Donald Trump administration to recognize North Korea as a “grave threat.” Bush described the totalitarian state as “a prison, run by a sadistic warden,” and argued that its menace would only be countered long-term by integrating human rights and security policy. The 43rd president also explained that a component of any such strategy should involve supporting North Korean refugees in the United States.

Since the late 1990s, more than 30,000 North Korean refugees have fled their country and resettled in free societies. The majority are now in South Korea, but more than 200 reside in the United States. This is remarkable, not only given the treacherous journey these escapees endure, but for their potential in transforming a regime that threatens all Americans with its illicit nuclear program.

How do refugees play into this scenario? Refugees who become productive citizens are empowered to send remittances and information back into North Korea by unconventional and usually risky means. Some are able to help other family members escape as well. This ultimately chips away at the regime’s control over society. It also creates a cadre of professionals and experts who may one day facilitate change in North Korea.

Interestingly, the timing may never be better for refugees to affect attitudes inside their homeland. A groundbreaking survey from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Beyond Parallel project polled North Koreans inside North Korea. It revealed simmering frustration toward the Kim regime: 35 of 36 respondents admitted to criticizing the government in private (a crime punishable by imprisonment or death). According to one defector, any type of dissent would have been unthinkable in North Korea only a few years ago.

So how can the incoming administration and Congress empower this community? A recent study by the Bush Institute helps us understand the profile of these individuals living in the United States.

The United States established its existing resettlement program for North Korean refugees under the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. Like other refugees, North Koreans are eligible for a short period of assistance. Afterward, these refugees who have never experienced the freedom to make choices about their lives are expected to make it on their own. They want to integrate into the culture and become productive members of society, but it is a difficult adjustment.

Essentially starting their lives from scratch, the refugees must learn a new language — mastering English on the fly while struggling to make ends meet. Managing finances is also a challenge, including obtaining health insurance, understanding the banking system, finding and keeping a job, taking advantage of educational opportunities, and sending material support back to relatives in North Korea. While many Americans face similar obstacles, North Koreans start from a considerable disadvantage. Many refugees also suffer from a variety of mental health issues; they must cope with the trauma of surviving a brutal communist dictatorship, the guilt of leaving family and friends behind, and the sense of isolation inherent in coming to a country where the language and culture are alien.

North Korean refugees overwhelmingly view education as a means to overcome these challenges. Younger refugees with college potential have the ability to follow numerous career paths, including advanced degrees. However, older refugees, facing greater financial and family burdens, must pursue jobs or opportunities with the potential for career advancement that don’t require advanced English skills or a degree. The Catch-22, of course, is the financial burden and time commitment tied to educational opportunities. As such, educational assistance constitutes one of the greatest needs in supporting refugees.

Another new Bush Institute study, Light Through the Darkness, offers insights on how the United States can seize upon the opportunities presented by refugees and incorporate them into a comprehensive North Korea strategy:

1) Washington must internalize that the success of this community as a potential resource for future unification and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. To help refugees succeed, the government should streamline the resettlement process for U.S.-based North Koreans and increase the numbers beyond the current average of about 20 per year.

2) Washington should publicize the program better so that more escapees realize the United States is a possible destination.

3) The government should seek public and private sector funding for the North Korean escapee community in the United States, and that funding should include educational scholarships and vocational training. The Bush Institute just announced a new scholarship program that will launch in 2017.

4) The United States should consider partnerships with NGOs and the private sector designed to structure additional cultural acclimation support beyond what is currently offered.

5) We should encourage other countries to establish resettlement programs.

A free and unified Korea poses a significantly diminished threat to the United States. Supporting refugees is a concrete action Washington can take to break the Kim regime’s control over society and bring all North Koreans closer to freedom. Successful refugees have the potential to be catalysts of change in their country and facilitate transition in a post-Kim North Korea. As Bush said, “Some argue that the spirit of the North Korean people has been beaten into submission so total that opposition is unthinkable. We don’t believe that here. The desire for freedom, like the dignity of the person, is universal.”

Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Victor Cha is a senior fellow in the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, a professor at Georgetown University, and the former National Security Council director for Asian affairs. Twitter: @VictorDCha

Christopher Walsh is the Program Coordinator for Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute.

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