Defection attempts across the North Korean border with China are on the rise, but there have also been reports of an increasing number of arrests as the authorities intensify their crackdown.
“Two families – 10 people in all – were arrested close to where China meets the borders of Ryanggang and Jagang Provinces. They thought security would be more relaxed due to the New Year’s holiday, so they attempted to cross into China at 3 a.m. on January 1, but were not successful,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on January 7.
According to the source, North Korean border security forces have stepped up demands on informants to monitor residents for signs of defection plans, hoping to mitigate what they expect to be continued waves of attempted defections. A report has emerged of another arrest of an entire family from Hyesan, who “told their neighbors that they were leaving to work in the markets in a neighboring region, but actually hid out in another house for a little over a week before trying to cross the border on New Year’s Eve.” The family was arrested while trying to cross the Amnok (Yalu) River.
The government appears to be focused on preventing defections across both the land border as well as over sea routes, with the central party authorities placing intense pressure on lower divisions that are now hoping to avoid poor performance reviews.
“Residents are hearing warnings from police and inminban (people’s unit, or neighborhood watch) leaders who are saying to be careful even when collecting water or washing clothes in the river near common defection spots. They’re also watching the surrounding areas,” the source said, noting a diversion tactic in which the authorities try to funnel potential defectors toward what they may think are safer spots to cross.
Police searches of homes are also reportedly on the rise. “Police are targeting homes which appear vacant for an extended time, arriving alongside the inminban leader in charge of the home, smashing the padlocks and entering to search the premises. If everything appears to be in order, they may consider claims that they are merely away on business to be true, but they will expand their investigation and attempt to make an arrest if they sense anything odd in the home,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province explained.
“The border authorities seem extremely busy lately as the number of arrests of attempted defectors has increased over the last year. Specifically, there has been at least a 150% rise in arrests over the same period last year in Ryanggang Province.”
He added that “last January, 30-40 people were arrested in the first couple weeks of the New Year, but this year, 20 people were arrested on January 1 alone. Combined with the number of people being caught in China and repatriated, there are reports of insufficient space to hold them all in the prisons and interrogation centers.”
2017 sees lowest number of successful defections to South Korea during Kim Jong Un era
Only 1,127 North Koreans entered South Korea in 2017, the lowest annual number since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2012. Factors contributing to the decrease include an ongoing concerted effort by the North Korean authorities to crack down on border security as well as their strengthened cooperation with the Chinese authorities.
According to a January 5 report from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 189 males and 938 females – 1,127 North Koreans in total – came to the South in 2017. The numbers immediately went down after the first year of the Kim Jong Un era – going from 2,706 people in 2011 to just 1,502 people in 2012. The number has fluctuated but remained low over the years since, with 1,514 people in 2013, 1,397 people in 2014, 1,275 people in 2015, and 1,418 people in 2016. Finally, 2017 saw only 1,127 successful cases of North Koreans making it to South Korea – 291 people fewer than 2016 and again, the lowest number yet under Kim Jong Un.
In addition to physical measures intended to prevent defections along the border, the authorities have also stepped up propaganda maligning South Korean society to scare residents and discourage them from thoughts of defecting.
Speaking to Daily NK recently, head of NK Watch Ahn Myung Chul said, “Surveillance and the border crackdown has continued to intensify since Kim Jong Un came to power. They are hoping to further discourage defections by heavily promoting propaganda using individuals who have returned to North Korea after having defected to the South.”
Cooperation between North Korea and the Chinese authorities is another important factor contributing to the fall in defections, with police on the Chinese side regularly tracking down suspects at the request of the North Korean side.
“Even after individuals pay large sums of money to brokers and finally cross into China, they still have to contend with the Chinese authorities who are trying to send them back to the North, making their travel through China much harder (than before),” Ahn said.
Mr. Lee (alias), a defector now working for a North Korean human rights organization in South Korea, believes “the China factor is the central cause of the drop in defections to the South” and that the first leg of the journey to escape North Korea is “comparably not as big of a problem” as traveling through China.
He added that “the situation is so severe that brokers cannot even attempt to bring people into so-called ‘safe zones’ in China anymore” due to fears over being caught, and that “if China continues to participate in the crackdown, even people who risk their lives and successfully escape the North may never make it any further, and will likely be sent back to the North.”
Women continue to make up the vast majority of defectors arriving in the South, reaching 83% of the 1,127 who entered in 2017. Of the total 31,339 North Koreans that have defected to the South, 22,345 (71%) have been women.