Slave to the Blog: Border Control Edition

February 18, 2015 7:00 AM

We recently covered the Chinese detention of Peter Hahn and Kevin and Julia Garratt (see early coverage on the Hahn case from August Reuters) and argued that these moves were symptomatic of a broader crackdown on both sides of the border. But of course such claims are always difficult to verify given the paucity of data. In this post, we review some recent stories that are at least suggestive of the complex dynamics that are currently at work along the border.

One important component of this story has to do with crimes committed by North Koreans crossing into China, including military personnel. At the very end of last year, a North Korean soldier stationed in Chongjin deserted, crossed over to the village of Nanping near Helong City in Yanbian and ended up killing four Chinese citizens and injuring another, apparently in robbery attempts.

On the North Korean side of the border, the incident triggered greater surveillance not only of these criminal activities, but of the integrity of the entire border control system (DailyNK here). The General Security Bureau has responsibility for guarding the east and west coasts as well as the border regions; it was under the State Security Department [SSD], then under Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, but in 2008 shifted back. An ongoing issue is not only such border crossings but soldiers'  and officers' participation in bribery that allows smuggling and trafficking networks to operate in the first place. The incident appeared to trigger dismissals in the relevant units.

The incident tested the patience of Beijing. According to a story in the South China Morning Post, citing reporting by the Chinese Southern Weekly, there have been no fewer than 14 murders by North Koreans in the wide border region since 2000 and over 100 incidents of plunder; the story goes so far as to say that depopulation of smaller border villages could be traced to these incidents. The China Defence News, via Reuters reports that the government has established a civilian-military defense system in Yanbian replete with civilian patrols and the installation of video surveillance to guard border villages. Jane Perlez has an excellent follow-up story reviewing the aftermath of the incident for the New York Times.

These events unfold against a wider backdrop of preoccupation with securing the border since Kim Jong Un came to power, a development also noted in the UN Commission of Inquiry report. Human Rights Watch has a short but useful analysis based on interviews with nine defectors that provides context. According to HRW, Kim Jong-Un gave a speech in 2014 to a conference of party officials concerned with ideology that drew an analogy to a mosquito net: “we must set up two or three layers of mosquito nets to prevent the poison of capitalism from being persistently spread by our enemies across the border into our territory.” The mosquito net analogy is meant to capture the idea that the regime would attract foreign direct investment (oxygen) while screening out news, culture and ultimately ideas.

Among the findings of the HRW report:

  • Networks of North Korean brokers assisting the exit of refugees are being disrupted on both sides of the border, with the arrest of over 40 North Koreans by the Chinese in the summer of 2014;
  • Those caught are receiving not only harsher physical punishments, but incarceration in the political prison camps (kwanliso) rather than the labor training camps that had previously been used for this purpose;
  • And, as we speculated in our work on the penal system in Witness to Transformation, bribe prices are going up correspondingly as risk increases.

The breakup of these networks ultimately extends to the South; the Jahn and Garratt cases no doubt reflect trouble for South Korean NGOs. But thanks to LINK’s useful NK News Brief we have a story that suggests how dense—and pivotal—these networks are (VOA in Korean). 59% of defectors polled in the VOA story stated they have sent money back to their families in NK, with 36% of them sending back as much $900 to $1,800 USD. The story reports that the majority of those polled (71%) reported that brokers take 20-30% of their remittances as fees.

The South Korean government’s stance toward these networks has been ambiguous; it has been cautious in adopting any policies that suggest an active effort to get refugees out. But Yonhap reports that may be changing at the margin. The government now funds an entity called the Korea Hana Foundation that assists refugees who have experienced abuses. This would seem to us to be just about everyone trying to get across. But the human rights angle may provide a cover for the operation, which was funded at National Assembly insistence and is associated indirectly with the Ministry of Unification.

In another important development, The Chosun Ilbo reports that China and Seoul have reached a new consular agreement that could have wide-ranging implications. The agreement reached last summer but only now being finalized for submission to the National Assembly allows a ROK consular official to meet with South Korean citizens promptly (within four days) of their arrest or imprisonment in China (and vice versa for Chinese citizens in South Korea). But an important issue is whether the agreement extends to North Koreans who claim South Korean citizenship, as they are entitled to do under the ROK constitution. According to other Korean sources, the agreement appears to apply to “individuals with unsubstantiated declarations of their citizenship to a country.” The effects of the agreement will depend on implementation, but implementation will depend on whether South Korea—or an aggressive NGO—decides to bring a test case.

In the interim, the wider effect of the crackdowns on both sides of the border extends beyond refugees to the actual movement of goods. RFA reports on how the crackdown affects bribes for goods smuggled from China into North Korea, again, an excellent indicator of the heat coming from Pyongyang.

Finally, the DailyNK reports the first evidence we have seen that the regime’s concerns about The Interview are not just diplomatic, but extend to fears that the lampooning of the North Korean leader will be viewed at home. The story reports that “a recent speech for members of the Party declared that while the viewing of South Korean media content has been tacitly tolerated for some time, going forward, anyone caught watching foreign films that malign the Supreme Leader will face severe penalties.”

These crackdowns have historically been cyclical as the regime confronts the costs of trying to close the border. But taken together, these stories do support the claims that getting people out is facing constraints on both sides and that as in China, there is heightened anxiety about ideological penetration.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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