Detention facilities for North Korean defectors caught in China are reportedly at full capacity.  According to a source, arrests of North Korean defectors have increased as more North Koreans cross the border due to economic difficulties at home. However, North Korean authorities have refused to abide by China’s request to extradite the defectors to their home country in the name of COVID-19 prevention.

“[The Chinese police] have been arresting more and more defectors in China since the beginning of last year, so the detention facilities in Dandong are full,” the source said. “An unusually high number of North Koreans crossed the border into China last year and at the beginning of this year.”

The North Korean authorities recently installed surveillance cameras and electric fences along the border to prevent defections. As COVID-19 continued to spread, the authorities also instructed border guards to open fire on anyone who enters the border area without permission.

Despite the increasingly strict border control, North Koreans have continued to put their lives on the line by crossing into China. The North Koreans likely became motivated to risk their lives and cross the border after encountering severe economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

“Even though the North Korean soldiers shoot at them, the people cross the border because they are hungry,” the source said. “Here [in China] they are saying that the food situation [in North Korea] is as bad as the mass starvation period [in the mid- to late 1990s].”

North Koreans living in border regions who primarily relied on trading and smuggling to make a living are reportedly facing severe financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 border blockade. Regular people are also reportedly suffering from frequent citywide lockdowns and orders to self-quarantine at home. 

A detention facility in Jilin Province. / Image: Daily NK

In addition to regular North Korean citizens, the Chinese police have even caught North Korean border guards in the act of crossing the border for economic reasons. In the past, border guards made a living by taking bribes from civilians in return for turning a blind eye to illegal smuggling, border crossing, and trade. However, after the authorities began enforcing the border blockade, their primary source of income quickly dried up. Additionally, some soldiers are reportedly suffering from starvation due to the failure of the authorities to provide enough food supplies.

As recently as January of this year, the Chinese police captured two armed North Korean border guards who, unable to withstand their hunger, deserted their posts and crossed into China. 

In this challenging situation, some North Koreans are electing to go to China in search of food. One of the main routes used by border crossers is the Supung Dam, located upstream of the Yalu River. The source explained that many border crossers use this relatively easier route because the river freezes due to the region’s frigid winter temperatures, making it possible to cross. 

After realizing that North Koreans were using the dam to cross into China, the Chinese government began using boats to break up the ice on the river last winter in an attempt to stop border crossings.

“After the weather warmed up and the ice started melting, defecting from North Korea has become more difficult,” the source said. “Also, many North Koreans stopped even trying to cross the border after the authorities strengthened control over the border.”

The North Korean authorities have been investing higher-than-usual amounts of manpower and equipment in the border region, where they began installing concrete barriers and high-voltage wires in March. The authorities are also adding more barriers to existing barbed wire fences with the goal of preventing defections.

Meanwhile, the North Korean authorities have reportedly claimed that COVID-19 prevention is the reason why they continue to refuse China’s request to extradite North Korean defectors.

“Even though the Chinese government is trying to transfer the North Koreans [back to North Korea], the North Korean authorities are not accepting the request because of COVID-19,” the source said. “It appears that North Korean defectors will stay in detention until COVID-19 dies down.”

In addition to refusing to accept extradited defectors, North Korean authorities have also delayed the return of North Koreans working in China due to concerns about the influx of COVID-19.

*Translated by S & J

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.