Organized crime has had a corrosive effect on democracies around the world. Now, North Korea, long an actor on the trans-national criminal scene may become a victim of it. The Washington Post reported yesterday on the growth of organized networks that smuggled North Koreans into South Korea for cash. Previous escapees were prominent regime members for whom the escape was relatively easy. The networks were run by human rights groups. But now ordinary North Koreans are paying cash to get out. Of course North Koreans don’t have much cash, but South Korea pays a stipend to North Koreans who can make their way south. So a North Korean with a relative in the south might receive sponsorship, knowing that there will be funds to repay their expense if the journey is successful. Although the crime rings are growing, the escape journey remains a harrowing touch and go affair.
Still, it is becoming a cause of concern for the regime. People attempting to escape used to be assigned to a labor camp for a a few years. Now being caught can lead to a life-time of forced labor deep in the country’s interior. Officials who are caught facilitating these escapes are being executed.
But these harsh penalties are unlikely to staunch the flow, and as more officials become dependent on the human smuggling business they will become more able to bribe higher-ups and escape punishment. Could this phenomenon eventually hollow out the regime from inside? In addition, the more things smuggled out – the more things will be smuggled in.
This is a unique case where a trans-national criminal network might be able to do some good. Of course these networks could also become the safety valve that allows the loathsome North Korean regime to stay in power. At this point the networks are tiny (about 2000 people are smuggled out annually) but hopefully South Korea and other concerned nations are monitoring this development carefully.