A surge of North Koreans tried to flee the prison state over the New Year, hoping security would be lightened during celebrations, according to sources in Ryanggang Province, in the northeast of North Korea.
Many of them were arrested.
Defections from the hermit kingdom have plummeted under Kim Jong Un since 2012 as border security has been ramped up, dramatically reducing the number of North Koreans managing to escape through China, according to the South Korean government.
But according to North Korean sources reached by Daily NK, a Seoul-based news service that specializes in reaching sources inside North Korea and North Koreans in China, arrests spiked over the holiday as North Koreans trying to cross the border were captured.
Unlike the soldier who ran across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the heavily guarded border between the North and South in late 2017, taking five bullets in the process, most North Koreans flee through the less guarded border with China.
China’s communist regime has taken flak from human rights groups for decades over its forced repatriation of fleeing North Koreans. Leaving North Korea without permission is considered a serious crime and can result in incarceration in the regime’s brutal labor camps.
According to sources that spoke with Daily NK, defection attempts have recently surged, resulting in a rise in arrests.
“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 Jan. 1, but were not successful,” a source in Ryanggang Province, in the northeast of North Korea, told Daily NK on Jan. 7.
North Korean border forces have been increased, alongside the use of informants to catch out residents who are considering fleeing the country, said the source.
Some families try to keep authorities from uncovering their defection for as long as possible by pretending to be migrating within North Korea.
One family told neighbors they were leaving to work in the markets in another region, said the source, but actually hid in another house for a little over a week before trying to cross the border on New Year’s Eve.
They were arrested while trying to cross the Yalu River into China.
Pressure to clamp down on uncontrolled border crossings has increased across North Korea, affecting smugglers as well as would-be defectors.
The result has been a dramatic fall in North Koreans seeking refuge in South Korea, and the near extinction of small-time smugglers that once fueled North Korea’s black markets.
While those smugglers once operated in a pseudo-legal status, paying bribes to soldiers and officials along the border, Kim’s strict directives and increased punishments for unsanctioned border crossings have scared border guards from taking such bribes, reported the Japan Times.
While smuggling continues, it is largely limited to a few large Chinese companies, according to the Times.
For average North Koreans, crossing the border has become much more difficult.
According to Daily NK, central party authorities have put intense pressure on lower cadres to crack down on would-be border crossers.
“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,” the source said.
Police have also ramped up searches of homes that appear to be vacant, an effort to ferret out defectors who may still be en route to China.
“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 percent rise in arrests over the same period last year in Ryanggang Province,” claimed the source.
Around 30-40 people were arrested over January last year, the source claimed, while 20 people were arrested on Jan. 1 alone this year.
South Korea disclosed in late 2017 that the number of refugees from North Korea had dropped continually since 2012, coinciding with Kim’s rise to power and increased border controls.
In 2017, the number of refugees fell to 1,127 North Koreans arriving in South Korea, a 21 percent drop from 1,418 in 2016, according to preliminary data from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, reported by The Korea Herald.
That number is less than half what it was in 2011.
Border surveillance has increased under the new Kim, as has China’s efforts to capture North Koreans trying to cross into China. Reports from inside China indicate increased patrols, surveillance, and arrests along the border.