A North Korean broker helping North Koreans attempting to defect, along with North Korean border guards who received bribes, were arrested at the end of August, North Korean sources have reported.
“A male broker in his late 40s who had been helping North Koreans defect for the past ten years was arrested in Onsong, North Hamgyong Province,” said a North Pyongan Province-based source.
“A female defector who was arrested in China in late August was taken back to Sinuiju and she told authorities the name of broker, leading to his arrest.”
He added, “The broker bribed the Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents who arrested defectors he had helped if they were forcibly repatriated back to North Hamgyong Province. He had helped this particular female defector several times in the past. But this time she was forcibly repatriated back to Sinuiju (in North Pyongan Province) so he couldn’t help her.”
The North Korean authorities also arrested the border guards who were bribed by the broker along with an MSS agent who had turned a blind eye to what had been happening. The developments indicate that an entire defection network has been taken down.
The broker faces up to 10 years in a correctional labor facility, in accordance with North Korean criminal law.
North Korea’s criminal code states that those who commit “crimes involving the concealment of a crime against the state and people” (Section 71) are subject to up to four years in a correctional labor facility, while those who have committed “crimes involving the failure to report a criminal act against the state or people” (Section 72) are subject to up to three years in a correctional labor facility. Meanwhile, those who commit “the crime of [willfully] neglecting [to report] a crime against the state” are subject to up to three years.
There are many cases where North Korea does not follow its own legal procedures, however, and the broker may face even more severe punishment. There are concerns that the North Korean authorities may seek to “make an example” out of the broker by handing down severe punishment.
“The atmosphere in Onsong right now is really tense. The trial is set to be held at the end of this month, and MSS officials say that the broker will be sentenced to life in prison or may even be executed,” a source in North Hamgyong Province said.
“The rumor is that the border guards and other accomplices may face up to 20 years or more in prison. The MSS agent [who was arrested] will likely be removed from his position.”
The Ryanggang Province MSS branch strengthened its monitoring and surveillance efforts over the Sino-North Korean border in 2015, but this did not lead to a reduction in defections. In an effort to dissuade attempts, the branch executed five North Koreans who had helped a total of 400 people defect (80 people each) by firing squad.
However, the crime of aiding a defection does not fall under the country’s 19 crimes that may lead to execution. These crimes include “attempting to overthrow the government,” “seizing critical state assets,” and “stealing critical state assets.”
Given this situation, if the arrested broker is executed or receives a life sentence, this would very likely be considered a violation of the right-to-life and the right to receive protection from the law as guaranteed by Article 3 and Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respectively.
The arrest of the broker has led to a strengthening of border security, with concerns that the costs of defection will increase significantly.
Security along the border has continued to increase since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2012, with the cost of defecting over the rivers between China and North Korea increasing from 2-4 million won in 2012 to 12-15 million won in 2018.