Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – Recent Activity on the Sino-DPRK Frontier (Part 3)

By | March 21, 2012 | No Comments

When the debate about North Korea shifts to outer space, it becomes suddenly easy to overlook the ongoing actions and interactions along the long frontier adjoining China and North Korea.  Jende Huang’s post indicates that, in spite of China’s evident discomfort with North Korea’s recent diplomatic maneuvers, the PRC has in no way relaxed its own vigilance along that frontier, and, if anything, has strengthened linkages with North Korean counterparts to secure the border zone.  Based today upon a comprehensive reading of sources ranging from DailyNK to Good Friends, Huang continues with his series of posts on the theme.  — Adam Cathcart, Editor

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – Recent Activity on the Sino-DPRK Frontier (Part 3)

by Jende Huang

Though there are still tensions between South Korea and the DPRK over the issue of North Korean defectors captured in China (as well as continued protests at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul), the Daily NK reports that the “Tumen 41” have been refouled back to the DPRK, where the fate that awaits them is not likely to be a pleasant one. Despite all of this (including moves by security authorities in the DPRK to create an “atmosphere of fear” along the frontier) the Chosun Ilbo reports that North Koreans are still attempting to enter China.

In an English-language missive dated 8 Feb 2012 (but not released until 17 March 2012) Good Friends notes that orders have been passed down to DPRK border guards not to “use guns in a way that could negatively influence the friendship between North Korea and China.” Additionally, they can no longer “treat poorly any Chinese people suspicious of illegal activities during the preliminary investigation.” While one can assume that DPRK representatives want to avoid creating any friction on the frontier during this time, it could also be that the orders arrive in response to complaints from the Chinese government regarding the treatment of Chinese nationals on the border. Though Beijing continues to strongly disapprove of its citizens helping North Koreans across the frontier, the Chinese also cannot stand aside if their citizens are being tortured, shot at or killed by a foreign government.

If the border guards have indeed been restrained from outright killing on the frontier, the overall atmosphere is still dangerous for defectors. The DPRK’s National Security Agency is still very active on the frontier, as highlighted by two reports from the Daily NK. The first concerns the NSA’s attempts to trap cell phone users on the frontier through a two-pronged method of signal jamming in some areas, while allowing calls to go through in other areas, as a means to locate and arrest users on the DPRK side. These actions by the NSA go along with earlier reports that approximately 50 of their agents were allowed to enter into China to pursue North Korean defectors. The NSA agents “will first work in the main cities of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, before moving to secondary and tertiary stops on the major route out into other areas of China: Shenyang, Mudunjiang and Jilin.”

The View from the Train Tracks about 3 km west of Yanji, March 17, 2012 | Photo by Adam Cathcart

Though the DPRK appears to care very little of international opinion on the defector issue (despite the standard vitriol from KCNA), the timing of this story is of interest. Reported by the Daily NK on 27 Feb 2012, this is after the initial uproar began over captured defectors. Would allowing NSA agents to enter into China (though they appear confined to the Northeast) be something that only required regional approval, or would Beijing have needed to give the go-ahead? But no matter who gave approval, did anyone on the Chinese side give any thought to the timing of allowing NSA agents to move through Chinese cities looking to capture North Koreans?

The Chinese may also be assisting the DPRK in sorting defectors into those who are “illegal economic migrants” who crossed the frontier mainly for food, and those with the goal of eventually going to South Korea. The DPRK treats the latter much more harshly than those simply in search of food, and Chinese interrogators are apparently stamping interrogation papers specific colors to give the tip off to North Korean authorities.

In contrast to the treatment of defectors, the Daily NK reports that the NSA is allowing North Koreans to enter into China to visit relatives, provided they can return with “one ton of food within 40 days”. The food brought back will likely be distributed during celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday on 15 April 2012. The rules are also apparently being bent for traders who are usually only granted one permit a year; those who have already been to China in the past year are being allowed to reapply to go back.

With the defector issue, China is once again put into a difficult position between the DPRK and the international community. It is understandable from the Chinese government’s viewpoint why they wouldn’t necessarily want to be considered a safe haven for North Koreans who have crossed the frontier. The last thing Beijing wants is waves of North Koreans who want to settle in China, or see China as a transit point to an third country. But considering the recent international scrutiny regarding what awaits the “illegal economic migrants” who are returned to the DPRK, Beijing’s claims of dealing with the issue based on “international law and humanitarian principles” rings hollow.


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  1. Whoever allowed the North Korean NSA agents to enter China to conduct their shady business on Chinese soil lshould be tried for treason.

  2. I thought these reports were quite difficult (well, impossible) to prove, but having just been up in Yanji again, with the combination of confirmed North Korean activity to loop in our favorite Current TV journalists 3 years ago (happy anniversary, Oprah fans!), I’m prone to give the reports more credence than I would have otherwise. At the same time, once you start imagining everyone you see is “an agent,” good luck falling asleep. Moreover, the whole point of the Chinese security measures, it seems, is to obviate the need altogether for North Korean official police activity on Chinese soil.

    It would really be helpful to place this in comparative perspective, such as the border with Burma/Myanmar or Vietnam. To what extent is such cooperation precedented?

    Having said all of that, I finally had a chance to watch the entire Unhasu Orchestra concert straight through and was pretty impressed. When it isn’t creating refugees, hauling them back in, or putting them in prison camps, North Korea is a great country with the capacity to do great things. (If you don’t think the ability to pull off a Brahms symphony is indicative of capacity for greatness, I suggest rethinking your view of culture. [“You” being the general reader, not you, dear JCM!]) I totally agree with the propaganda slogan in the DPRK: “Korea does what it is determined to do!” The problem lies in knowing what the hell Korea actually “does.”

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