June 19, 2011: South Korea has an expensive problem with North Korean refugees (who usually arrive via China and Thailand). It costs South Korea over $100,000 per refugee in resettlement expenses. This includes an initial payment of $6,000. Professional people smugglers in China have noted this and will get North Korean from northeast China, to the South Korean embassy in Thailand for $6,000. You cannot stiff these snake heads (as they are affectionately called by their customers and next-of-kin) because they have operatives everywhere. If you don't pay, they can get to you, or kin in China or even North Korea. So, increasingly, that initial resettlement payment goes straight to the snake heads, leaving the refugee broke. South Korea will not supply more money, partly because spending nearly $300 million a year on North Korean refugees is not particularly popular in South Korea, where the government is trying to keep its promises to cut back on spending. But the South Koreans also know about the snake heads, and believe that if the refugees are given more money, the snake heads will just raise their prices. South Korea is also nervous about what is going on up north, and fear that there will be a flood of refugees if the communist government up there collapses. This would lead to some major problems.
At the moment, South Korea and the United States do have a disaster plan for this. It is called Operational Plan 5029, and lays out who (between U.S. and South Korean forces) will do what if things go south in the north. The plan calls for the United States to mainly take care of securing North Korean nuclear weapons, while the South Koreans deal with refugees, and sending forces north to restore order. The details of the plan are classified, so it is not known what role China is expected to play. China is believed to have its own ideas about how to handle this chaos, and it might involve Chinese troops going in to make sure a communist government comes out of it all. China does not want North Korea absorbed into South Korea, although most Koreans would prefer a united Korea. China does not want a prosperous democracy on its border.
A united Korea is not universally popular in the south. South Koreans sees the collapse of the North Korean government as a catastrophe for itself, economically and culturally. That's because of the grim experience it has had so far with North Koreans who have managed to escape the harsh police state to the north. In the last twenty years, several hundred thousand desperate refugees have managed to get out of North Korea. Most are still in China, where nearly all the refugees go initially. That's because of the long (1,386 kilometers) border with China, demarcated by rivers, is relatively easy to cross. To the south there is the heavily fortified and mined DMZ (the five kilometer wide Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea). But even the Chinese border is getting harder to cross. Six years ago, China began building barbed wire fences along portions of its North Korean border most frequently used by refugees, and smugglers. Both are bothersome to China, if only because they increase the crime rate on their side of the border. Yet the North Korean refugees keep coming, often by bribing Chinese and North Korean border guards.
Many of the current North Korean refugees in China want to reach South Korea, where they are guaranteed asylum and financial support. This means travelling through China to a third country, then contacting a South Korean embassy and claiming asylum. There are smugglers, some of them provided by NGOs or religious groups, who specialize in arranging this long, difficult, trip. But the most efficient, and easily obtainable smuggling services can be obtained from the snake heads (who will do it on credit).
Currently, there are over 20,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea. Over 70 percent of them are unemployed, through a combination of culture shock and lack of useful skills. North Korea is run like a prison, with initiative and innovation (essential skills in the South Korean market economy) considered criminal behavior. The South Koreans were appalled when they began to note how ill-prepared North Koreans were to cope with freedom and democracy. Apparently many North Koreans have gotten the word as well. While more North Koreans are reaching South Korea (nearly 3,000 a year, versus about 500 a year in the late 1980s), most of them are women. Two decades ago, less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. But women are more adaptable, and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea.
Northerners are regarded as damaged goods in the south, and stand out by the way they walk (with a bit of fear in their step) and how they talk (the northern accent is easy to recognize and hard to lose). But the worst problem for northerners is living in a society where your every move is not dictated by some government official. It's been very difficult for the refugees to overcome these cultural constraints and fit in, or even just get a job. So most of the refugees are unemployed and basically living on the dole.
If the North Korean government were to collapse, South Korea would be honor bound to do something. To further complicate matters, China does not want North Korea merged into a democratic South Korea. But if the government collapses in North Korea, China will either have to occupy the place (which might result in fighting armed, and angry, North Koreans who would rather unite with their prosperous brothers in the south.) Whatever happens, the vile culture that has developed by over 60 years of communist police state rule in the north, is going to be an expensive problem for someone to clean up.