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The U.S. recently deployed the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea to …Read more Read more

That is why China has been treating the North Korean nuclear situation so delicately. U.S. President Donald Trump has, until very recently, accused Beijing of not taking the threat of a Pyongyang nuclear attack seriously; until he changed his tune, that simply was not true. China has much more to lose than the United States in the long run.

As it stands, China still supports North Korea, but does so begrudgingly. The same power Beijing had over Pyongyang in 1953 does not exist in 2017. Sure, it has official diplomatic ties with the North’s leadership, but the issue of nuclear weapons and the geopolitical dilemma they would cause complicates matters. North Korea is a powder keg of geopolitical problems and China can be directly impacted by all of them—and in the most severe manner. For now, the humanitarian crisis is one that really scares Beijing.

The Refugee Crisis In The Making

A mass migration of refugees trying to enter China through its northern Liaoning and Jilin provinces would present complex economic, infrastructure, and cultural and political challenges. Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at MIT’s Security Studies program and one of the few Americans to travel to North Korea to speak with officials about nuclear issues, told me a North Korean government collapse could potentially threaten China’s political stability.

“If your number one national interest is social stability, economic growth in order to hold on to social stability, having six million foreigners into provinces that have already had economic hardships before (won’t help),” said Walsh, who is also a board member at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

He added: “And from a social stability standpoint—refugee camps with millions of North Koreans? Are the Chinese living there going to be thrilled about that in a context in which the economy is taking a hit because there’s been a shooting war? The Chinese are going to be overly sensitive about this and will err on the side of caution.”

Foxtrot Alpha spoke with experts who have been researching what could happen if an armed conflict broke out between the U.S. and North Korea and we broke down the scenarios below.

Keep in mind that most of this is hypothetical, but now is as good a time as ever to think through the humanitarian lens what a war between the U.S. and North Korea could mean for China and South Korea.

Is China Even Set Up To Absorb Millions Of Refugees?

Generally, no. It also depends if millions of people will flood China at all. Most of the experts I spoke to say the Chinese have long feared such a scenario and would proactively reinforce the border with troops to minimize massive population flows.

Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said we have to keep in mind the issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs), too. Not everyone in North Korea will flee to China. Some may travel from one city to avoid conflict or search for food and shelter. It would be nearly impossible to cross into South Korea through the DMZ because intense fighting would likely be happening there.

For those North Korean refugees who live near the Chinese border and attempt to cross over, Scobell says they will likely be stopped by the military.

“They’re quite likely to see the movement of Chinese forces across the Yalu River to establish a buffer, whether it’s 10 kilometers, 20 kilometers, something along those lines to protect China,” Scobell said. “That’s where they would attempt to set up an infrastructure to take care of refugees. In other words, [the military] would rather they’d not get into China in the first place. That would still be a major undertaking and a challenge. But I think the preference of the Chinese government would be to set up refugee camps south of the border.”

Let’s start off with the fact that the term “refugee” is a blurry term in China to begin with. Yun Sun, a senior associate at The Stimson Center, a nonprofit global security think-tank, told me China, for example, doesn’t work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on refugees in China.

“In fact, China does not have a record of recognizing ‘refugees’ in China,” she said. “The term, for China, has political implications and could invite foreign interference on how China handles them. The refugees in Myanmar are called ‘residents along the border.’ And the defectors from North Korea are called ‘People who left the North.’”

Beijing’s relationship with UNHCR is complicated, Yun says, because it sees the body as having played supportive role to Uyghurs—a Muslim ethnic group who suffered under Chinese rule—who fled that country for other parts of Southeast Asia.

Part of the issue, as Foreign Policy wrote last year, is that China lacks the infrastructure to even handle mass immigration—the Chinese government doesn’t even offer assistance to refugees.

How Would South Korea Deal With Refugees

It seems most logical to outside observers that North Korean refugees would head to South Korea; the two were once the same country and they share an ancestry and language. That all makes sense on paper. But it too would be burdened with a bevy of cultural and political challenges massive numbers of North Korean refugees would pose.

Let’s say China ends up taking in the vast majority of North Koreans, as most experts I spoke with believe. It is very likely that Beijing would ask the United States and South Korea to share the economic burden of caring for them.

Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul who has researched North Korean refugees in South Korea, told me it is likely that China would persuade South Korea, the U.S., and the international community to share the economic burden of supporting them. From Go’s standpoint, Seoul would struggle to deal with a high number of refugees.

“South Korea’s population is around 50 million,” he said. “A sudden influx of North Korean refugees is going to be incredibly stressful to the social service infrastructure and the labor market in South Korea,” he added. “North Koreans are entitled to the same rights and benefits as South Koreans by South Korean law, so there is no way the government can prevent North Korean refugees from demanding and receiving social benefits.”

The Culture Clash

Go conducted a study of North Korean refugees in South Korea and found that many of them bring issues of PTSD, a lack of adequate education and poor health. For example, North Korean middle and high school kids dropped out at a range between 4.2 and 7.5 percent between 2010 and 2013 compared to 1.2-1.3 percent among South Korean students during the same time frame.

Attitudes towards South Koreans in the workplace isn’t much better, according to his report:

A survey by the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI) (2013) showed that out of 429 elementary and middle school North Korean refugee students, 10.7 percent of them reported being discriminated against or socially ostracized due to the fact that they were from North Korea. Fifty-four of them also reported that they would not let their South Korean peers know they came from North Korea if they were given the chance to transfer to a different school.

Experts also point out that teachers who most interact with North Korean refugee students most are more often than not inadequately trained to handle their needs, and as the result they tend to cause more harm than good.

Similarly, North Korean refugees in the workplace report having similar experience of social discrimination by their co-workers and superiors. For example, one employer whose employee is from North Korea expressed fear that his employee might kill others if provoked emotionally (Choi and Park, 2011). This prejudice stems from hearing or watching news that in North Korea, public executions are common. Even after taking into account the inevitable cultural misunderstandings in when dealing with recently arrived North Korean refugees, South Koreans’ strong prejudice and stereotyping of North Korea and its people are widespread and well entrenched.

Yun said a lot of South Koreans suspect North Koreans of being spies. This is a very real fear, as North Korea does send spies to the south to gather intelligence. That’s why South Korea’s National Intelligence Service holds North Korean defectors for up to six months to determine if they are spies or not. They are then placed in a re-education facility for three months to learn how to adjust to South Korean life.

So far, 30,000 people have defected from North Korea. Imagine the cultural and infrastructure challenges that even double that number of refugees can pose. Or, say, hundreds of thousands, in the event of an armed conflict that forces Pyongyang to fall.

That would be a lot of people for the South’s intelligence agencies to assess and its social services to integrate into South Korean society. And, given the current Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance, it is likely America would not be enthusiastic about taking many North Korean refugees either.

What is important to consider in all of this is that nothing good will come of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. If the U.S. attacks first, that will likely trigger a military offensive against South Korea and a full-scale war will follow.

An interesting read via Gizmodo