Regime Change by Exit Visa

How to take down Kim Jong Un by taking in his huddled masses.

TOPSHOT - North Korean soldiers patrol next to the border fence near the town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2016.  North Korea has restarted a plutonium reactor that could fuel a nuclear bomb and is seeking missile technology that could threaten the United States, Washington's top spy said.   AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE / AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - North Korean soldiers patrol next to the border fence near the town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2016. North Korea has restarted a plutonium reactor that could fuel a nuclear bomb and is seeking missile technology that could threaten the United States, Washington's top spy said. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE / AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

After North Korea shot its latest missile across Japan’s northern islands, nuclear tensions reached a new height. On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned at the U.N. General Assembly, “We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” The path ahead seems bleak: a dangerous military strike by the United States that could spark nuclear retaliation or the acceptance of a North Korea armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles. But there is another path that has the potential to bring an end to the Kim Jong Un regime — and the nuclear threat — without firing a shot.

The answer lies in getting China to change its policy toward North Korean refugees. While the demilitarized zone that marks the border with South Korea is a literal minefield and few people dare to cross it, North Korea’s border with China is comparatively porous, both to smugglers and refugees. North Koreans regularly cross the Yalu River into China in search of work or a better life in South Korea. But this is a dangerous journey, and one of the main threats is China’s policy toward North Korean refugees. Currently, any North Korean captured by Chinese authorities is extradited back home where they and their families can expect to be brutally punished. The Chinese do this even though South Korea openly welcomes North Korean refugees and would be happy to accept them via China — indeed, South Korean groups often aid them in making their way through hostile Chinese territory to safer ground.

China maintains this policy partly as a favor to its North Korean ally but also because it fears the consequences of allowing North Koreans to enter China freely. China has two principal worries. The first is that allowing North Koreans to transit through the country would result in a refugee crisis as tens of thousands of North Koreans are lured by the promise of safe passage. This is compounded by fears of ethnic Koreans becoming another troublesome minority for China and by worries about interference from international organizations in China’s “domestic affairs” if a crisis resulted. Second, a flood of refugees out of North Korea could cause the Kim regime to collapse, culminating in a unified Korea with American troops on China’s border.

To Americans, the idea that a minor change in migration policy could lead to the fall of the Kim regime may sound fanciful. Nonetheless, China’s concerns have precedent. The reunification of Germany, the other principal example of a country divided between communists and capitalists, was united thanks to a similar shift.

Prior to 1989, the Hungarian government maintained a policy toward East German migrants similar to China’s current policy toward North Koreans. Arguably the Hungarians were harsher, given that they sometimes shot the escapees themselves. But on June 27, 1989, the situation dramatically changed when the Hungarian and Austrian governments agreed to demolish the electric fence separating their two countries.

People, including East Germans, were suddenly allowed to freely make their way to West Germany via Hungary. Thousands of East Germans jumped at the opportunity. As more and more East Germans began leaving the country, the fumbling response of the East German government eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.

Of course, East Germany in 1989 and North Korea in 2017 are not identical. The East Germans were fleeing during a time of political revolution and Soviet retreat, while North Koreans remain, as far as we know, deeply under the thumb of the Kim regime. Furthermore, the East Germans were arguably more squeamish about using force on their own people than the North Koreans would be in similar circumstances. However, not every difference between the two countries is an argument against drawing comparisons. In some ways, North Korea is more vulnerable to emigration than East Germany ever was. Today, North Koreans are roughly four times poorer than East Germans, even if they’ve had far less exposure to the possibilities of the West than the Dallasloving TV watchers of East Germany. That means a shift of policy, although it would take time to filter through the grapevine in North Korea, could tempt far more people to leave.

It is also not certain that the North Korean government would respond more effectively than the East Germans. North Korean border guards have historically been susceptible to bribes. And while Pyongyang might try to head things off by closing the northern border, recent experience has shown Americans that stopping determined migrants is neither cheap nor easy to do.

Furthermore, North Korea must worry about more than just people crossing the border. Already, items like cell phones and USB drives loaded with South Korean TV shows are entering the North. If China were to end its repatriation policy, smugglers would have a safe place to stage their operations, and this trade in information — and in people, brought back the other way by enterprising Chinese snakeheads — would grow. Thanks to USBs, and particularly cell phones, a virtuous cycle could begin: As more information entered North Korea, more people would choose to leave, and as more people left, more information would get in. Just as East Germans were drawn by the supermarkets, glamorous American TV, and lack of Trabants in West Germany, greater knowledge of the prosperous lives of modern South Koreans could spur North Koreans on.

However, perhaps the best argument for believing that a change in Chinese migration policy could lead to the fall of the Kim regime and reunification of the peninsula is China’s own fear of such a scenario. Given the two countries’ alliance, China arguably has a better understanding of the internal workings of North Korea than either the United States or South Korea; the fact that it is legitimately terrified of a regime collapse sparked by emigration speaks volumes.

All this makes it imperative for the United States to find a way to shift China’s policy. Fortunately, unlike sanctions, which China has been averse to enforcing, a proposed change in refugee policy might receive a more welcome hearing in Beijing.

While China doesn’t want to cause the North Korean state to disintegrate, China does have an interest in regaining influence over its rogue neighbor. One benefit a change in refugee policy has over sanctions is that it wouldn’t force China to publicly break with its ally, which China believes reduces its influence.

A change in refugee policy can be done quietly. The laws on the books wouldn’t even have to change; authorities could just begin to look the other way. China could then vary its level of enforcement depending on North Korean behavior, giving China leverage while not looking like it is caving to Western pressure. Moreover, the Chinese public is generally sympathetic, as even state media has noted, to the plight of the North Korean people, even though they dislike the regime. Sanctions can strike them as cruel — and set a dangerous precedent for use against China — but if made aware of the refugee problem, the public would most likely back a policy that allowed North Korean refugees to go to South Korea. Even though China is not a democracy, the government still cares about public opinion, making a change in refugee policy a relatively more attractive option than sanctions.

Nonetheless, the United States cannot expect the Chinese to change their migration policy out of kindness. Beijing’s concerns about refugees and American troops on their border are legitimate. Washington should therefore do its best to assure Beijing that if it helps resolve the North Korea problem, the United States will return the favor.

The U.S. Congress should approve a large contingency fund to deal with any North Korean refugee crisis and prepare to financially support reunification. In addition, America should publicly commit to removing troops from a unified and democratic Korea. A unified Korea’s security and other American interests in the region could be adequately secured with U.S. bases in Guam and Japan. Further carrots could be offered as well.

However, the United States should pair any sweeteners with a reminder to the Chinese that a nuclear North Korea will inevitably produce a more assertive and militant U.S. presence in East Asia. If nothing changes, at a minimum, China should be told to expect more sanctions, more military exercises in its backyard, and ever greater deployment of missile defense systems. When elected, South Korean President Moon Jae-in gestured toward dialogue with the North and a possible rollback of plans to deploy THAAD, the U.S. anti-missile defense system much hated by China. After the tests and launches, talk of dialogue is dead, and THAAD may be extended. China fears destabilization on the peninsula above all, and it is the role of American diplomats to make China understand that, in the long run, a unified and democratic Korea will be better for China than a divided peninsula filled with ICBMs.

The course of history is strewn with painful ironies. Voltaire famously said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh,” and in that way the biggest crisis of the Trump administration could be solved by him convincing a government to open its borders and allow in refugees. Thankfully, nobody does a better job of marketing a newly shifted stance than the deal-maker-in-chief. If Trump could pull off this pivot, North Korea’s story might end in hope rather than tragedy.

Photo credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images


Robert Nelson is a graduate student at Stanford University studying international policy and East Asia. He is currently doing research at the Sejong Institute, a leading security think tank in South Korea.

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