For ordinary North Koreans, the coming months are looking bleak. This year’s harvest will produce only about 75 per cent of the country’s basic needs. And so far the secretive dictatorship hasn’t asked for help from South Korea since that nation’s new conservative government cut off unconditional aid earlier this year. This summer the UN World Food Program (WFP) warned that the situation would “exacerbate food insecurity for 6.5 million North Koreans already at risk of hunger,” raising the spectre of a famine like that of the 1990s that killed an estimated two million people. Tae Keung-ha, president of a Seoul-based radio station that broadcasts into the North, estimates that more than 100,000 have already starved to death this year
Because the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is impassable, the main migration route for those fleeing the hermit kingdom goes through China to a third country, often Thailand, before ending up in the South. But as numbers increase, and Seoul falls behind in processing them, a bottleneck has developed in Thailand. There, the North Koreans are considered illegal migrants, not refugees, and can be sent back. Last week Reuters reported that Seoul was contemplating building refugee centres in Thailand, though Bangkok rejects the idea.
And for the more than 14,000 North Koreans who’ve made it to the South, adjusting to life in the fast-paced capitalist society has not been easy. Given little resettlement aid, they discover that work is hard to find. Some decide to move on and seek asylum elsewhere. This week Seoul announced a crackdown, including possible criminal prosecution, on those wanting to move abroad. Kim Ho Nyeon of the Unification Ministry states: “We need to curb this kind of fake asylum seeking, which is not desirable and creates room for cross-border disputes.”