Many have forecast North Korea's political collapse. Few have explored the human flight that might result. Yet the timing, patterns, and external responses to civilian flight in the event of major instability in the DPRK are critically important to Northeast Asia. Nearly every estimate of regime collapse anticipates that large refugee flows will prompt countervailing interventions from China and South Korea and the US. Most of these estimates are unfortunately more akin to guesses than serious calculations. In order to improve our forecasts, this paper uses quantitative data and a most-similar comparative case (Syria) to estimate North Korean human flight propensity and travel patterns. Significantly, we find that most scenarios thought to cause governmental collapse, cross-nationally and cross-historically, usually do not do so. Next, limiting our analysis to only those scenarios likely to inspire flight, we find that substantially smaller numbers of refugees are likely to flee to China, and that they will flee more slowly than most other estimates suggest, implying significantly lower refugee-based, regional escalatory pressures. Instead, most flight will remain within North Korea, generating internally displaced persons (IDPs). These internally stranded civilians would pose a greater international humanitarian problem than anticipated to date.
Bridget L. Coggins is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests lie at the intersection of domestic conflict and international relations, including studies of secessionism, rebel diplomacy, civil war and terrorism, maritime piracy, illicit trafficking, and refugees. Coggins' first book is Power Politics and State Formation in the 20th Century: The Dynamics of Recognition (Cambridge 2014). Her second major project examines the international security consequences of state failure, combining large N data and detailed case studies of Somalia, North Korea, Colombia, and Afghanistan. Coggins scholarly work appears in Foreign Policy Magazine, International Organization, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Global Security Studies, Journal of Peace Research, and at various university presses. She speaks Spanish, Mandarin, and a bit of Korean, and taught previously at Dartmouth College.