North Korean authorities resort to all tactics to catch defectors

Kim Ga Young  |  2017-10-27 14:52

Over the past six years that Kim Jong Un has been in power, the North Korean regime has systematically ramped up surveillance of cellphone communication and border crossings, which has had a dramatic impact on the likelihood of a successful escape out of the country. Those who manage to cross the Tumen or Yalu rivers face Chinese and North Korean authorities in China who cooperate to apprehend defectors. Only after escaping China can they begin to let their guard down.

If caught and repatriated back to North Korea, defectors face severe punishment. Many of those caught have been forced to make tragic choices. Daily NK is reporting on some of these stories , exposing the systematic violations of human rights perpetrated by the Kim regime as it seeks to retain control over the North Korean people.

Escape routes that had previously been considered relatively safe for North Korean defectors are now increasingly subject to surveillance and patrols by Chinese police (Ministry of Peoples Security). Additionally, defectors hiding in safe houses inside China have been subject to sudden raids by the police.  

According to an inside North Korean source, the Chinese police are continuing to discover more and more of the escape routes. In the past, some defectors were caught by guards stationed at outposts as they tried to cross into China, but recently, even the safehouses that defectors use to await transport to Thailand or Laos have become the targets of police raids.  

There are even operations to capture defectors in rural regions near the mountains where there are no police outposts and a sparse population. Last month, Chinese police staked out a group of eight defectors near the Laos-China border before arresting them all. They are now in danger of being repatriated back to North Korea. Previously, the police tended to focus on patrolling areas near their guard posts, but this recent episodes illustrates how their tactics are becoming more aggressive.     

It remains possible that the increased monitoring of defectors is the result of broad orders from the regime to strengthen domestic control. However, sources active in the local area indicate that the North Korean authorities have successfully lobbied the Chinese government to step up efforts to arrest defectors. North Koreas Ministry of State Security (MSS) has been urging the Chinese authorities to do more, even providing monetary compensation as an incentive.

Late last year, Daily NK learned that North Koreas intelligence and security body was providing gold sourced from its mines near the border to Chinese officials in exchange for repatriations. The MSS unofficially partnered with Chinas Ministry of State Security, using monetary rewards to encourage the arrest and repatriation of North Korean escapees, according to inside sources.   

Since the beginning of 2017, the Chinese authorities have been providing money to citizens who report on defectors and have posted signs in the border regions warning people not to help fleeing North Koreans. In addition, Chinese police have become much less willing to accept bribes from defectors and brokers to look the other way. Local sources have suggested that this likely means the compensation that the police receive from North Koreas MSS agents is generally higher than the bribes being offered by the brokers.     

But the North Korean authorities are not only reaching out to the Chinese police to try to clamp down on defections. They are also recruiting provincial-level MSS Conspiracy Research Officers near the border regions to gather streams of information about defection trends. Once the MSS receives the information, they send it along to the Chinese police, who proceed to arrest the individuals in question. 

Furthermore, some North Korean residents (paid off or threatened by the MSS) pretend to be defectors in order to contact North Koreans hiding in China. These residents act as spies on behalf of the provincial MSS. Many were apprehended when trying to defect themselves, and now act as agents for the MSS in order to avoid further punishment. 

When the MSS arrests North Koreans and interrogates them, they sometimes identify opportunities to collaborate. They offer to release these individuals from custody in exchange for their cooperation. Most of the individuals disguise themselves as defectors, and enter into China to meet up with groups of defectors. Eventually, they use their phones to alert the MSS as to their location so that the other defectors are arrested, a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK.

The MSS provides Chinas frontier border guards with photos of defectors, and sometimes openly demand that the guards arrest and repatriate the defectors. Daily NK previously reported that a group of ten from North Pyongan Province was caught in the border region trying to escape as a group. The MSS provided pictures and detailed descriptions to the Dandong frontier guards, requesting assistance in their capture.

According to a September statement released by Human Rights Watch, two missionaries working with networks supporting North Korean escapees told the international NGO that "since the beginning of 2017, they were aware of at least three instances in which Chinese authorities detained North Koreans on the road after receiving an anonymous tip that the group was involved with transporting narcotics."

"The source of these tips to Chinese police is unclear and cannot be confirmed, but many activists told Human Rights Watch that they suspect North Korean government agents were the ones providing those tip-offs about groups of North Koreans on the road," the statement continued.

As the Chinese authorities strengthen their crackdowns against defectors, the options facing defectors have become narrower by the day. For quite some time, it has been official protocol for China to repatriate them. A bilateral agreement signed in 1986 - The Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order and the Border Areas - makes it an obligation for China to arrest defectors and send them back to North Korea.  

However, this puts China in breach of international law. Human rights advocates have insisted that China suspend these repatriations immediately. The 2014 Commission of Inquiry Report by the United Nations on North Korean Human Rights Violations concluded that defectors from the North are refugees and should therefore be accorded the relevant protections. The Commission urged China to abstain from forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees and to extend asylum and other means of durable protection to them. 

China ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on October 4, 1988. Article 3 forbids states from returning individuals who voluntarily escape their home countries if they are in danger of being subject to torture upon their return. China signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1982. Article 33 of that convention states that individuals must not be repatriated if they are at risk of being subjected to human rights violations upon their return. 

However, China has not changed from its position that North Korean defectors are not refugees, but "illegal migrants." Chinas Foreign Ministry regularly states that North Korean defectors are in violation of Chinese law and are not considered refugees. 

A letter sent to the UN COI by the Chinese government on December 30, 2013, stated: It is not true that North Korean residents forcefully repatriated back to North Korea from China are tortured. The UN COI, published the following year in 2014, took the opposite position, and further added that the Chinese government is not living up to its international obligation to protect refugees when it handles North Korean defectors. 

As long as the Chinese authorities do not consider defectors to be refugees, experts believe that there are few ways to prevent the Chinese police from repatriating defectors. The UN Convention on the Status of Refugees allows each host country to make that determination. Annual UN resolutions on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK urge China to cease repatriations, but these warnings lack legally binding force. 
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