North Korean authorities surprised by defections during politically sensitive period

A North Korean border guard in North Pyongan Province (taken in February 2019).
A North Korean border guard in North Pyongan Province (taken in February 2019). Image: Daily NK

Despite heightened efforts to tighten control in the absence of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un due to the second US-North Korean summit in Hanoi and the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) elections on March 10, a number of North Korean families have defected from the country, report sources in China and North Korea.

The authorities have set up various checkpoints in the border region and are preventing the movement of people due to the upcoming SPA elections.

Two separate sources in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, reported that a family of three from Pochon County, Ryanggang Province defected to Shenyang at the end of February but were arrested by agents with China’s Ministry of State Security and are now in danger of being repatriated.

The family received assistance from a broker to escape to China but were arrested while moving to another area. They defected at a very politically sensitive time for North Korea, which means that they could face serious punishment on their return to the country.

Another family of four disappeared from their home in Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province, on February 19 and local police are viewing their disappearance as a defection and trying to ascertain their whereabouts.

“While the circumstances are unclear, the family had suffered financially for some time so they likely made the decision to leave,” a source in Ryanggang Province said.

Their defection was a slap in the face for Ministry of State Security (MSS) officials who are charged with controlling the local population. The officer in charge of the area where the family is from failed to identify their whereabouts for more than 10 days and was reportedly questioned by the local county MSS office to explain the failure.

Other MSS officials are much more vigilant these days in their districts because a defection case can lead to serious consequences, an additional source in Ryanggang Province reported.

“MSS officials are making sure the people in their district know that this is a sensitive political period and are even conducting house searches in the middle of the night to prevent issues from occurring,” she said.