China’s just-announced trade sanctions against North Korea are to be welcomed and applauded, but look for disappointment in the near future. The new measures — in reaction to the hermit kingdom’s latest round of nuclear tests and threats against the United States — will reportedly restrict the export of coal, iron ore, gold, titanium, and rare earth metals from going to China, a big move from North Korea’s biggest client.
But China’s cooperation on sanctions has been reliably disappointing over the years. Although it towers over its next-door neighbor, China cowers before a key piece of leverage held by North Korea: the prospect of millions of refugees streaming northward across the border, either pulled in by regime collapse or pushed out by North Korea itself as a form of retribution. Especially in light of the Syrian crisis, the threat of a mass out-migration from North Korea could mean China’s cooperation on any sanctions with South Korea, Japan, and the West may be limited at best and unfulfilled at worst.
China now fences off large parts of its border and even engages in military simulations based on a hypothetical flood of migrants from North Korea.
At the core of China’s reluctance in upsetting the status quo with North Korea is avoiding what Drew Thompson and Carla Freeman of the US–Korea Institute call the “Mariel scenario.” Named after Cuba’s manufactured exodus of 125,000 Cubans to the U.S. in 1980 (which fans of the movie Scarface will know included thousands of inmates released from Cuban prisons), such a scenario would entail, according to the scholars, the expulsion or encouraged departure of untold thousands of “problem citizens” from North Korea across its northern border into China. The use of “coercive engineered migrations” by corrupt governments as a “safety valve” is a practice that’s been closely studied by Harvard professor Kelly Greenhill, whose book, Weapons of Mass Migration, details dozens of such migrations in the post-war period, including one from North Korea. According to a report from the Asian security–focused Nautilus Institute, North Korea engineered an exodus into China in 1998, “likely as a safety valve to alleviate some of the problems of population hunger and hardship” with a disproportionate number of refugees reportedly being members of “hostile classes.”
#share#Due to its previous experience, China now fences off large parts of its border and even engages in military simulations based on a hypothetical flood of migrants from North Korea. In the early 2000s, China completely panned efforts from the George W. Bush administration when it joined up with numerous NGOs to both promote mass North Korean defections and urge China to grant defectors refugee status (official Chinese policy labels all illegal aliens from North Korea as either economic migrants or “illegal transgressors”). Said one worried government advisor, “If we gave them refugee status, millions would pour over our doorstep.”
China’s worries are understandable. According to a 2007 study by the Bank of Korea, a total collapse of the North Korean regime could trigger an exodus of as many as 3 million people (of a population of 23 million) crossing over its northern border (with some crossing over its heavily mined border with South Korea). The Chinese province of Jilin, which borders most of North Korea, hasn’t transitioned well in the country’s rush to economic deregulation. As the local and central government fears, flooding the already challenged labor market will only further harm the region’s most vulnerable citizens. As an alternative, Thompson and Freeman see China taking a tack similar to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. with regards to today’s Syrian crisis — namely to establish and fund relief camps in areas outside its borders rather than actually taking in migrants. China, the analysts say, sees mass migration from North Korea as “potentially undermining law and order,” “threatening social stability,” and “potentially contributing to population pressure on the environment and local economy,” all concerns they say are “particularly valid.”
Years ago, Foreign Affairs magazine warned that North Korea’s nuclear politics will be intrinsically tied up with Chinese concerns about North Korean migration. “Pyongyang,” the magazine wrote, “enjoys an inherent advantage in any waiting game: Beijing.” To prevent North Korea’s collapse, it stated, China will allow “food and fuel (sanctioned or unsanctioned) to move across its border with the North.” What Beijing fears is that, should sanctions destabilize the Kim regime, a large-scale migration of North Koreans into China would ensue. If China faces a choice between enforcing/supporting the sanctions and securing its border, Western experts had better temper their hopes.
— Ian Smith is an attorney who works for the Immigration Reform Law Institute.