Over the last year, we have reported on tightening controls on the China-DPRK border, with active Chinese cooperation; the recent flap over Chinese repatriation of refugees is only the most recent evidence in this regard. Border controls emanate from a number of sources, including the secular trend away from economic reform after 2005, ongoing concerns about cellphones and cross-border networks, efforts to clean up corruption among the security units responsible for the border, and an apparent preoccupation with the issue on the part of Kim Jong Un. Most recently, the border was closed altogether briefly in December in preparation for Kim Jong Il’s funeral.
We are seeing a number of stories in recent weeks centered on border controls and cross-border movements, which we collate here. As always, the findings on the ability—or even interest—of the regime in controlling the border are mixed. Despite a general crackdown on defectors, there is ongoing evidence of both official and unofficial efforts to exploit proximity to China, including not only the SEZs– on which my colleague Marc Noland has recently reported—but through labor exports as well.
First, it is worth noting that there is at least some objective evidence of a crackdown. Drawing on Ministry of Unification data, the DailyNK reports that the number of defectors arriving in South Korea in the first quarter of 2012 was off 61% from the totals for the first quarter of 2011 (from 600 in 2011 to 366 in 2012, with half of those joining family already in the South). This could be the result of idiosyncratic factors such as weather or just a random walk. However this looks and feels like a real decline to us.
Second, the blip of hope raised by a Yomiuri Shimbun story that the Chinese might be suspending their cooperation with the North Koreans has generated some high-level skepticism; as we noted when reporting on the story, don’t hold your breath. Apparently, both U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and officials from South Korea’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry have questioned the Japanese story. Communication from SinoNK’s Adam Cathcart in Yanbian reports heightened Chinese security in the border area, perhaps related to the bizaare story of the defection of two border guards that we consider in more detail below.
The crackdown is not just the result of orders from the new leadership; DailyNK also reports a shake-up in the command of border units that seems to reflect broader changes around the new leadership. Control over the border is carried out by brigades of the General Security Bureau, which in 2008 was moved from the National Security Agency (kuk’ka anjonbowibu or “bowibu” for short, sometimes translated as the National Security Department or State Security Agency) to the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces. Stories earlier in the year suggested intense completion between the military, the bowibu and the Ministry of People’s Security over which agency had jurisdiction. But the day after his Day of the Sun speech, Kim Jong Un reportedly gave an order shifting authority back to the NSA. One possible explanation is that the military was less than aggressive in policing its own. Another plausible explanation combines Kim Jong Un’s interest in the issue with intra-elite politics as the new leader assures his control over internal security. The new head of the NSA, General Kim Won Hong, has moved rapidly through the ranks and is believed to be personally close to Kim Jong Un; SinoNK’s Jende Huang has a useful overview. The regime’s focus on the issue is not good news for those seeking to exit.
Yet at the same time, the lure of proximity is by no means limited to defectors; the regime’s explicit or implicit support for labor export continues, including in the border areas. China’s Economic Observer has done a piece that is making the rounds on increasing use of low-cost North Korean workers in Dandong and other border towns. The title of the piece quotes an informant on the benefits of “cheap, obedient” North Korean workers. According to informants, North Koreans have long worked in hotels and construction sites—standard for low-wage immigrant labor—but there has been an uptick in their use in manufacturing as well. The Economic Observer notes that the South Korean processing-on-commission industry dried up following the imposition of South Korean sanctions. The regime subsequently acquiesced to these firms serving as labor leasing entities for Chinese garment and other manufacturers. Once the cash from these activities starts to flow, the regime will face a whole new round of difficulties if it wants to rein it in.
Do we need to say anything about how such workers are likely to be treated? The European organization Human Rights Without Frontiers has a brief but chilling story on the exploitation of North Korean workers in Europe. To say that China is not likely to be any better is an understatement.
Finally, we would be remiss to not at least mention the strange story of two North Korean border security agents from the Hyesan City Defense Security Command. The two men reportedly shot and killed seven of their colleagues before fleeing to China and then being repatriated after being tracked by Chinese and North Korean security forces; the story is being tracked by DailyNK (here, here, and here). If true, this is not the type of development that the new leadership would like to see, no matter how public a show trial and execution the case generates.