China intensifies security along Sino-North Korean border

CCTV camera in Jilin Province on the China-North Korea border
CCTV camera in Jilin Province on the China-North Korea border. Image: Daily NK

Chinese security officials are stepping up efforts to combat smuggling and illegal migration in the Sino-North Korean border region. Closed-circuit television cameras and electrified chain-link fences have been installed in the area to deter such activity.

Chinese officials began installing the new CCTV cameras and fences across the region in June, including in the Jilin Province cities of Hunchun and Tumen.

Some of the newly-installed fences have been electrified, raising concerns about the safety of defectors crossing the border. Many would-be defectors may pass through the North Korean fences only to be stopped in Chinese territory by these new electrified ones.

While the electrified fences are only present in some areas of the border region, they have been installed along major defection routes.

The Chinese authorities have also intensified their monitoring of train and bus stations in the region. A Daily NK source in the area said that the number of defectors arrested in the region has increased dramatically due to the more thorough inspections and searches being conducted by the Chinese authorities.

Crackdowns on defectors in the area have been heightened as part of efforts to eliminate robberies perpetrated by defectors and in response to international attention on the smuggling and illicit trade occurring across the Sino-North Korean border. Chinese officials are ramping up surveillance not only targeting defectors but for other visitors to the region as well.

The source said that foreigners who approach the fences on the Sino-North Korean border are carefully watched by locals who find such activity suspicious. The Chinese authorities encourage locals to report any suspicious activity, including those who film or photograph sites in the area, and even offer monetary rewards to informants. There are an increasing number of local Chinese in the region who are working as “professional informants” for the government, the source said.

“There are rumors that the Chinese authorities will use facial-recognition technology currently in use in China to identify defectors,” a human rights activist residing in the Sino-North Korean border region told Daily NK. “It is becoming more and more difficult for North Koreans to defect.”

The Chinese government is also shutting down “unaccredited” churches in the region, which has made it harder for them to provide shelter to defectors. “Defectors have fewer and fewer places to hide in China,” said the activist. “I expect to see a reduction in the number of defections aided by religious groups.”

The Chinese government’s efforts are seen as controversial among ordinary Chinese in the region. A Chinese citizen of Hunchun told Daily NK that “those who really want to defect [from North Korea] will continue trying to do so” and that “the electrified fences could kill them. I don’t agree with that.”

Another Chinese citizen living in the Sino-North Korean border area told Daily NK that “during the ‘90s and up until the early 2000s Chinese and North Koreans would cross the border freely and eat meals together, but tensions rose along the border from the late 2000s and now there’s no exchanges like those in the past.” He also said that he missed his childhood when he could go to North Korea to have meals and make friends.

There are, however, many local Chinese who support the Chinese government’s new, harsher policies.

“There’s been an increase in illegal immigration ever since North Korea’s economic problems have gotten worse. Three years ago, a North Korean person entered the house of an elderly couple in my village and threatened them with a knife. He stole money and food before running away,” one Chinese citizen told Daily NK. “There’s a lot of Chinese people in the region who are living in fear because of the defectors.”