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Anti-defection tactics add to disillusionment with regime

Kim Ga Young  |  2016-12-13 13:45
This year saw a number of interesting defection cases, including group defections by overseas laborers and a high ranking diplomatic official who was granted asylum. Meanwhile, the regime has invested significant resources in attempting to crack down on defection attempts. 

Tightened border controls, surveillance, and restrictions on movement have been implemented to block would-be defectors from leaving the country. In parallel, the authorities have tried to induce defectors overseas to come back to North Korea in return for lighter penalties for their families. 

Daily NK recently learned that orders have been issued to border guards to shoot residents caught fleeing the country on sight, without issuing a warning. Residents are also being offered five million KPW (approximately 600 USD) for informing on others who are planning to defect. 

Chinese public security officers are also eligible for financial rewards for tracing and apprehending defectors. It is currently believed that there are 38 defectors being held in Chinas Liaoning Province. There are also North Korean agents living in China who identify and apprehend defectors after pretending to assist them. 

Due to these preventative measures and crackdowns, those in the border areas are becoming increasingly uneasy. The authorities are known to cover up any reports of successful defections.

The most striking change relates to the treatment of defectors families. In the past, the families of defectors were deemed guilty by association and subject to punishment or demotion to the hostile class, - the lowest rung on the social ladder. However, although the authorities are still likely to place families under surveillance, severe punishments are in decline. 

For example, the high profile defection of North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho from his post in England did not damage his elder brothers reputation. His brother, Thae Hyong Chol, remains the president of Kim Il Sung University, according to the Dong A Ilbo newspaper. Moreover, the authorities have not informed the public about Thae Yong Hos defection. When former Party Secretary Hwang Jang Yop received asylum, he was widely ridiculed by the authorities and an order was handed down to annihilate three generations of his family. The situation has changed significantly since then.

The strategy of using the defectors families as an enticement to get defectors to return to North Korea represents a change in tactics. In the past, defectors were labeled as traitors by the state media. However these days, the defectors family members are shown making tearful pleas for their relative to return, or making accusations that their family member was the victim of kidnapping by South Korea. 

Indeed, North Koreas state security agents are reportedly visiting defectors families and promising clemency if they are able to entice their family members to return home, according to sources inside North Korea.

The fact that the regime is employing these various methods is proof that threats alone are no longer sufficient to stem the tide of defections. If Kim Jong Un were to punish and purge the family members of all 30,000 defectors who have thus far arrived in South Korea, a large proportion of the North Korean population would be under threat. Moreover, such an approach would also likely lead to a further rise in defections. 

It can be reasonably expected that we will see a continuation of border tightening, surveillance, and crackdowns in the border regions in future. Last month, two North Koreans were shot without warning for trying to escape into China across the Tumen River (story here).

Despite the regimes aggressive use of a diverse range of tactics, it will be difficult to slow the growing number of defections. Tight controls in the border areas can temporarily bring down the numbers, but as long as the root cause of the problem remains--dissatisfaction with the regime-- it will be difficult to resolve the issue.

Surveillance and controls were tighter at the beginning of the Kim Jong Un regime compared to the present day, but the decrease in the number of defections that are occurring is slowing, and the trend is reversing, a high ranking defector said on condition of anonymity during a conversation with Daily NK on December 9. 

Right now, defectors arent leaving because they are hungry. They are leaving in search of freedom. The measures that the regime is using to prevent these defections is only increasing the peoples disillusionment with the regime. Because of this, they will not succeed in the long run.   

North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity Chief Kim Kwang In added, As long as North Korea does not solve its economic problems, they will never be able to use force to fix the situation. For example, if the border guards tasked with keeping people from leaving the country are not paid properly, they are more likely to accept bribes to allow people to escape. 
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