People's Exit in North Korea: New Threat to Regime Stability?


  • Kyung-Ae Park

    1. University of British Columbia
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      A different version of this article will be published as “People's Exit, Regime Stability, and North Korean Diplomacy,” in Kyung-Ae Park, ed., New Challenges of North Korean Foreign Policy (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).


As suggested in a growing literature that securitizes the phenomenon of refugee migration and analyzes it as a national as well as a regional security issue, the growing number of North Korean border-crossers has far-reaching political implications for both North Korea and the international community. Studies have argued that refugees could contribute significantly to democratic change in their home countries by assisting and actively participating in the struggle of the domestic opposition, even sparking regime instability and eventual regime breakdown. Much of the North Korean refugee research has focused on the human rights issues faced by the refugees, but a largely unexplored area of the refugee research concerns the political consequences of the refugee flight for the current regime in Pyongyang. This article examines whether North Korean refugees are expected to play the role of political opposition in exile by raising the following four questions: (i) Are the refugees political dissidents? (ii) Are they a resourceful critical mass? (iii) Does exit always lead to regime instability? and (iv) Would China and South Korea encourage exile politics against the current North Korean regime? The article contends that the North Korean refugee community does not currently represent a critical mass that can trigger instability of the Pyongyang regime. Most of the North Korean refugees are not political dissidents, nor have they organized into any resourceful critical mass capable of generating a threat to their home country. In addition, people's exit does not necessarily destabilize the regime as it can sometimes yield a positive political effect by driving out dissidents' voices. Furthermore, several of the receiving countries, in particular, China and South Korea, would not encourage exile dissident movements against North Korea for fear of Pyongyang's collapse. The North Korean regime's stability does not seem to be threatened by the current refugee situation, although the potential of refugees becoming a critical threat should not be discounted should people's exit ever reach the point of developing into an uncontrollable mass exodus.