As was discussed in-depth nearly precisely a year ago on One Free Korea, the North Korean border with China tends to be a place where memory goes to die. That is to say, when it comes to news reports about the border, a tabula rasa among readers is commonly assumed. Whenever the DPRK’s malignancy needs to be reproven, when a shock is needed to the torpid bodies politic in Seoul or Washington, D.C., the pregnant word “escalation” is employed, usually over time, without context, and with reference to a specific North Korean figure. Documents are discovered, or forged for the Wall Street Journal, when video footage would do the trick quite sufficiently. Books by so-called journalists who cross over the border and are incarcerated in Onsung, the buckle on the gun belt around northern North Hamgyong, give virtually no fresh data about the North Korean security forces on the frontier. When dealing with unverifiable sources (such as Daily NK dispatches based on interviews with one or two cell-phone sources in the unreachable cities of Hyesan or Hoeryong), one can nevertheless attempt to piece together patterns, or find rare times when Chinese media actually agree and describe why North Korean border guards, or border jumpers (the talbukja / 脱北者), are a threat to small towns in the PRC. Since the North Korean media almost never report from the northern frontier — unless it is about colorful lights in Samjiyeon (tomorrow’s Rodong Sinmun) or celebrating the nativity 94 years ago of queen-mother-meets-Annie-Oakley, Kim Jong Suk, in Hoeryong — and the editors of Sino-NK are unable to spend, say, half the year in Yanji, we have to look at the aggregate sourcing. Naturally, the question of Kim Jong Un’s role in securing the northern frontier will be a point of continuing analysis here. Jende Huang, Sino-NK’s Border Security Analyst, appears with his third essay, surveying the relevant sources, questions, and action along two frozen rivers. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop—Recent Activity on the Sino-DPRK border
by Jende Huang
If reports are to be believed, Kim Jong-Un has been interested in the Sino-DPRK border long before his recent elevation into the top echelon of the DPRK’s leadership. As far back as August, reports surfaced that Kim Jong-Un ordered the creation of “Storm Trooper” units in Yanggang and North Hamgyung Provinces. The goals of the units were to prevent defections and curtail smuggling on the border, and were apparently given the authority to execute people as necessary. This is a far cry from the border guards who could be paid to look the other way, or who actively took part in smuggling. Reportedly only in place for a month, the “Storm Troopers” were themselves accused of bribery as they were being pulled back, leading to more irateness from people living on the border.
Before the official announcement of the death of Kim Jong-Il, it was reported that the borders were closed and that troops were deployed on the streets of the border town of Musan, North Hamkyung Province. With grieving North Koreans returning across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, the DPRK announced they would not accept foreign delegations at the December 28 funeral.
In early January, reports stated that Kim Jong-Un ordered executions for people caught crossing the border into China without permission. The orders were carried out by a “special security squad of the Korean People’s Army under his direct control.” If these were the Storm Troopers that had been previously used, perhaps their August activities were a trial run so Kim Jong-Un could be assured of their effectiveness when they were needed again.
Currently, North Korean households in a county across from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture are being forced to build meter long barricades with nails sticking out, and additional barbed wire is being put up in the vicinity of Musan. This emphasis on the border could suggest that the DPRK leadership lacks confidence that their assertive statements of a smooth leadership transition will be believed by ordinary North Koreans. A crackdown on the border will make it difficult for North Koreans who want to hedge their bets and escape to China during this uncertain time. Additionally, if a large amount of information were to emerge from defectors regarding the mourning period and what went on inside the country, it could lead to further embarrassment for the DPRK leadership (a KCNA commentary piece angrily denouncing claims that the mourning seen over Kim Jong-Il were forced or faked is a sign of their sensitivity regarding the issue).
Alternatively, Kim Jong-Un may simply have taken a special interest in the Sino-DPRK border and wants to directly play a hand in its oversight. Though, with the approach of the Lunar New Year, it seems traders are undeterred by recent curtailment efforts. As a source from Musan told the Daily NK, “People are saying that ‘If his dad couldn’t stop it, what is the young one going to do about it?’ and ‘As long as the Tumen River keeps flowing, they can’t stop the Yuan, the smuggling, or the defection.’ ”
Timeline of Recent Events:
-10 Aug 2011 / The Daily NK reports “Storm Troopers” deployed to Yanggang and North Hamgyung provinces on the orders of Kim Jong-Un, to prevent defections and contain smuggling. They are given the right to on the spot executions, and are especially targeting border guard units. They will be in place for a month.
-17 Aug 2011 / The Daily NK reports that “Storm Troopers” have exiled fifty families from Hyesan, Ryanggang Province to the countryside. The “Storm Troopers” are cracking down human and drug smuggling, using Chinese cell phones, and people associated with defectors.
30 Aug 2011 / Though the Daily NK had previously reported that the “Storm Troopers” would only be in effect for a month, sources now tell the news site that the reason for the withdrawal is due to clashes with North Koreans living in the border areas. The “Storm Troopers” are said to be inflexible and brutal.
2 and 15 Sept 2011 / According to sources speaking to the Daily NK, the “Storm Troopers” ended up being not entirely different from the people they were cracking down on. Reports had surfaced that near the end of their month long tour, “Storm Troopers” are taking bribes from smugglers before leaving the border area. One defector was quoted by the Daily NK saying “Kim Jong Eun might as well just make more anti-socialists. North Korea’s inspections just teach people to ignore the laws of the land.”
19 Dec 2011 / KCNA reports the death of Kim Jong-Il and announces that foreigners will not be allowed to attend the funeral. The Daily NK notes that the border was closed before the announcement was made, and that troops were quickly deployed on the streets of Musan.
20 Dec 2011 / The Mainichi Daily News reports North Koreans returning to the DPRK through Dandong, under possible threat of punishment for those who don’t go back for the mourning period.
28 Dec 2011 / KCNA reports on the funeral of Kim Jong-Il
29 Dec 2011 / The China Daily reports flower sales are up in Dandong.
5 Jan 2012 / The Korea Joongang Daily reports Kim Jong-Un ordering executions for people caught crossing the border into China without permission
12 Jan 2012 / The Daily NK reports that households in a county in Yangkang Province are being ordered to make one meter long planks with nails, to be buried in areas of shallow water and riverbanks on the border, to serve as a barrier. Reportedly, this has been going on since the fall of 2010 in North Hamkyung Province.
17 Jan 2012 / The Daily NK reports that in Musan, North Hamkyung Province, barbed wire fences are going up to prevent smuggling. Previously, there had been fences up in the rural parts of Musan County, but now, the barbed wire extends to the area facing the core of the city.
18 Jan 2012 / The Daily NK reports from sources in Musan and Hyesan in Yangkang Province that trade in the jangmadang, along with the Yuan exchange rate and rice prices, are all rising.