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PoliticsNorth Korea

How North Korea is trying to keep citizens from defecting

December 4, 2022

Pyongyang claims extensive new fortifications on its border with China and a "shoot-to-kill" policy for anyone suspected of attempting to flee are measures to keep the coronavirus at bay.

North Korean soldiers stand guard at a border post along the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas
North Korea's entire northern border stretches for more than 1,300 kilometers and also includes a short stretch with RussiaImage: Lee Yong-Ho/dpa/picture alliance

North Korea has dramatically increased security on its northern border with China, constructing new fences, walls and guard towers under the pretext of stopping anyone with the coronavirus from entering the country.  

A human rights group has documented the work and has concluded that the primary reason for the new fortifications is to stop North Koreans fleeing worsening hunger and political repression at home.  

Published on November 19 by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the report makes use of extensive satellite photography of around 300 kilometers (186.4 miles) of the border with China. North Korea's entire northern border stretches for more than 1,300 kilometers and also includes a short stretch with Russia.

Fences and guard towers 

Analysts have examined the development of facilities on the frontier since the first cases of COVID began to be reported in China in late 2019.

"Preliminary analysis indicates that, since early 2020, the authorities have constructed new primary fences in several areas, set up secondary layers of fencing, upgraded pre-existing primary fences, improved or widened patrol paths, and built new garrisons, watchtowers, and guard posts along the border," the report stated.  

HRW carried out a particularly in-depth examination of a stretch of the border close to the city of Hoeryung, on the Tumen River and opposite Jilin province in China.

This part of the border has long been used by smugglers and defectors as the river is broad and shallow, making crossings easier. In 2019, the 7.4-kilometer section was nearly fully fenced and had five watch towers.

In April 2022, new satellite images show an additional 169 guard posts have been constructed, with 9.5 kilometers of improved primary fencing and a further 9.2 kilometers of new secondary fencing. 

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In January 2020, North Korea became the first country in the world to completely seal its borders to the outside world, claiming it was acting to halt the spread of the virus.

In August of the same year, Pyongyang also announced the creation of "buffer zones" in the border regions, with soldiers under orders to "unconditionally shoot" anyone found within the zones without permission. The directive is understood to still be in force.  

Repression of North Korean citizens 

"The North Korean government used purported COVID-19 measures to further repress and endanger the North Korean people," said Lina Yoon, a senior researcher at HRW.

"The government should redirect its energies to improving access to food, vaccines, and medicine, and respecting freedom of movement and other rights."

Do Kyung-ok, director of the peace research division at the Seoul-based Korea Institute of National Unification, said revisions to the Emergency Communicable Disease Control Act were passed in Pyongyang in October 2021.

It states, for instance, "Citizens and foreigners must not come into contact with filth in the border area," while article 63 of the law says anyone who "comes into contact with unknown objects, such as balloons, that are suspected to have crossed the border" can be fined up to 50,000 North Korean won (€54, $56), he pointed out.

"The addition of border-related regulations in the law shows that the North Korean authorities are very concerned about an influx of coronavirus through the border," Do told DW. "But I am not sure that the provisions sufficiently explain why the North Korean authorities are establishing additional barriers on the border.  

"It is reasonable to assume that they have the purpose of both preventing the virus entering the country and also preventing defections," she said.

The barricades have not stopped the virus getting into the North, but they are proving effective in reducing the number of people who defect. In 2019, government figures show that 1,047 defectors safely reached South Korea, but that figure had fallen to 229 in 2020, and to just 63 in 2021.

The number for all of 2022 is expected to hit another record low. Just eight defectors completed the journey in the second quarter and groups that assist defectors estimate that the figure for the full year will be below 50.

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'Complete control' 

"These new walls and fences are there to keep people in," said Song Young-Chae, an academic and activist with the Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea. 

"The North has been building fences for years because they want to have complete control over all their people," he underlined. "The regime has learned that defectors speak out about their experiences in the North and those stories are never positive.  

"They also do not want their people to get out and see how people in the rest of the world live — the plentiful food, the ability to say and think whatever they want, the chance to travel freely," he added. "They will do anything they can to maintain their control because if that begins to weaken, then that is a threat to the regime." 

Pointing out that the cost of the fortifications "must have been considerable," Song said the resources should have instead been spent on ensuring food and medical assistance to the nation's impoverished citizens.

"Whatever its cost, that money would have been better spent on the people who are struggling to survive because there is not enough food," he said. "And for the regime to claim that the border is being reinforced is simply a lie. It is to control their people even more."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea