Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop—Recent Activity on the Sino-DPRK Border (Part 2)

By | February 21, 2012 | No Comments

Does the North Korean National Security Agency roam the Manchurian frontier to retrieve defectors? Chinese and Korean troops and security personnel crisscrossed the Sino-Korean border with great ease during the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War, but the pretext then was much more extreme: armies of threatening enemy soldiers existed, not handfuls of refugees.   Although collaboration between China and North Korea most certainly takes place when repatriating “economic migrants,” much about the contemporary security relationship thus remains speculative. Jende Huang, Sino-NK’s Border Security Analyst, takes apart recent trends in the border area, focusing on assertions of close security cooperation between the PRC and the DPRK, food aid, contingency planning, and trade. – Charles Kraus, Managing Editor

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop—Recent Activity on the Sino-DPRK Border, January 19, 2012 – February 17, 2012

by Jende Huang

Food security in the DPRK is an issue which cannot be separated from the broader security architecture in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. As food shortages push North Koreans to cross into China, it is unsurprising that Beijing resorts to negotiations for food aid to the DPRK which, presumably, will staunch (or prevent an increase in) the flow of refugees. At the beginning of February, a Japanese newspaper reported that China was sending 500,000 tons of food aid and 250,000 tons of crude oil to the DPRK. If true, this amount of aid would have been slightly greater than the immense 414,000-ton food deficit in North Korea reported by the World Food Programme for 2012. Such food aid, if properly distributed to those who need it most, would almost certainly reduce the numbers of Koreans needing to cross into China. However, Stephan Haggard at the Witness to Transformation blog casts some doubt on the reports, and posits an alternative theory that the food being shipped across the border was simply the result of a bottleneck of supplies following the death of Kim Jong-Il.

Border controls have also been tightened through reported consultations between the North Korean National Security Agency (NSA) and their Chinese counterparts, negotiations which may have resulted in NSA agents gaining the authority to cross the border in pursuit of defectors and smugglers. Though the Chinese government hardly appears sympathetic to the plight of these so-called illegal economic migrants, it is one thing for Chinese soldiers, security operatives, and police to capture and send North Koreans back to the DPRK, as they apparently did to a group of 19 North Korean defectors captured in Shenyang on February 9, and entirely another for North Koreans to take this responsibility. (Regarding the regular stream of assertions that North Korean agents have free rein in the Chinese Northeast, Adam Cathcart runs down a list of relevant open sources here.)  Another group of 22 North Koreans were supposedly captured by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS) on February 12 in various locations near Shenyang and Changchun. The plight of these defectors, many who reportedly have family in South Korea, led to a protest at the Chinese embassy in Seoul (an event covered and photographed by Dan Bielefeld, who notes that South Korean celebrities are lending their efforts to the protest).

Is it possible that the DPRK’s NSA and China’s MPS are forming a real “lips and teeth” relationship? Even if true, there’s an important distinction between the two security agencies working closely together in large population centers to capture defectors and for the Chinese to allow North Koreans on the borderlands to be dragged back by DPRK security agents. What happens if an NSA agent mistakenly kills a Chinese national? Or, what should Chinese border guards do if they come upon a group of North Koreans who are fighting each other? Leave? Wait to see who emerges victorious and arrest them if they appear to be defectors? The situation on the border is already precarious, and granting NSA agents permission to to cross the frontier would add an additional level of unneeded messiness.

Taking the notion of cross-border troop movements to a new level, recent Japanese newspaper reports asserted that the Chinese PLA has made contingency plans if there was ever a need for the Chinese to enter into the DPRK, and would supposedly be able to reach Pyongyang (likely from the Shenyang Military Region) in “a little more than two hours if necessary.” The North Koreans disputed the Japanese article, quoting extensively from the Chinese Ministry of Defense, which stated that it was “impossible” for the Chinese to have planned for needing to enter the DPRK.

Far more to the liking of officials from both sides is the news on the economic side of the ledger.  In terms of trade, there is apparently no objection from the DPRK on the 10,000 tons of fruit that has reportedly been exported from Dandong during the past year, which is worth approximately 16 million USD. According to the same report, this has led the local Dandong government to set up an agency specifically responsible for the shipment of fruit into the DPRK. The fruit story goes along with a reported increase of Sino-DPRK trade, up to 5 billion USD, which is triple the 2005 trading levels between the two nations. Reports also noted that the China National Tourism Administration reported 152,300 North Koreans entered China in 2012. This number, of course, does not represent any of the so-called illegal economic migrants, which the government surely tracks the number of, but is unlikely to publicly release.

Between North Korea and China: The Tumen River — Photo by Charles Kraus

Timeline of Recent Events:

19 Jan 2012 / The Korea JoongAng Daily reports that Beijing was thinking of providing “hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid” to the DPRK before March or April, to ensure the stability of Kim Jong-Un’s government.

23 Jan 2012 / An article in the Asahi Shimbun quotes a unnamed Chinese military source, speaking on PLA contingency plans regarding the DPRK, as saying that “We will be able to enter Pyongyang in a little more than two hours if necessary.”

31 Jan 2012 / The Daily NK claims that the DPRK’s National Security Agency would be discussing with the Chinese the possibility of allowing NSA agents to cross the border in pursuit of defectors and smugglers.

1 Feb 2012 / The Daily NK and Korea Times both report on an article in the Tokyo Shinbun (in Japanese), claiming that China was giving the DPRK 500,000 tons of food aid and 250,000 tons of crude oil.

1 Feb 2012 / KCNA takes umbrage at the 23 January Asahi Shimbun article, and quotes from Chinese defense officials to refute the idea that Chinese troops would ever need to enter the DPRK.

6 Feb 2012 / The Dong-A Ilbo reports that during the past year, 10,000 tons of fruit have been exported from Dandong into the DPRK. Worth approximately 16 million USD, this has led the local government to set up an agency specifically focused on the fruit shipments.

9 Feb 2012 / The Chosun Ilbo reports that Sino-DPRK trade levels have reached 5 billion USD,  tripling the amount since 2005.

10 Feb 2012 / Reports appear that the China National Tourism Administration released the figure of 152,300 as the number of North Koreans visiting China in 2011. This does not include the number of “illegal economic migrants” who also cross the border.

14 Feb 2012 / Arirang TV reports that 10 North Korean defectors captured in China have appealed to South Korean authorities to prevent possibly repatriation to the DPRK. There are also angry protests at the Chinese embassy in Seoul, to protest China’s willingness to return any North Korean defectors to the DPRK.

17 Feb 2012 / The Daily NK reports that 22 North Korean defectors were captured in Shenyang, by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, which was working with the DPRK’s National Security Agency. This is in addition to the 19 defectors supposedly rounded up on 9 February, in Changchun and Shenyang.

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