Murder, Plain and Simple: North Korean Snipers Killing Refugees Along the Chinese Border

[Updated below with photographs; Digg it here.]

Helping Hands Korea, one of the most intrepid and trustworthy organizations that assists North Korean refugees escape from their repressive, famine-plagued homeland, has written to me with a detailed account of how the North Korean and Chinese militaries have joined forces to prevent North Koreans from escaping their homeland, one where large numbers are people are now starving to death once again because the government won’t feed them and won’t let them fend for themselves.

The most chilling detail: Helping Hands has spotted North Korean snipers stationed in various vantage points along its border with China, ruled by a nominally friendly regime. One Helping Hands member, a U.S. military veteran, has identified the sniper rifles as Soviet-designed Dragunov SVD’s. Helping Hands believes that the North Korean soldiers are under orders to shoot and kill border crossers, most of whom are either refugees or people trying to smuggle goods (increasingly food) into North Korea. Helping Hands has promised to send me photographs of one or more North Korean soldiers carrying Dragunovs. I have also asked him to obtain photographs of the dead bodies of refugees, which he reports can be seen along the banks of the Tumen River.

I am publishing Helping Hands’s complete account here, with no edits, but with a few explanatory notes in brackets:

1. The clear consensus of opinions gathered from field volunteers, as well as my own eyewitness accounts, is that the OG08 [OFK: OG08=”Olympic Games 2008″] has had a clear impact on the daunting challenges currently facing the NKRs [North Korean refugees]. Although I will not be able to develop the topics I’m mentioning here, the information gathered is reliable from trusted veterans.

(a) Border patrols on both sides of the Tumen and Yalu Rivers are being beefed up: more guards and shorter distances between them.

(b) Credible reports of “shoot-on-sight” order given to NK border patrol re: NKRs trying to cross the border illegally. One activist reported that snipers are now being posted at elevated positions above the river, giving them a wider view and a longer time to train their scopes on fleeing NKRs. This same activist reported finding several NKRs floating in the Tumen River with telltale small bullet holes in one side of the body at the entry point, and a much larger hole at the bullet’s exit. Even in the five days I stayed near the river, I saw ample evidence of high-powered searchlights at night on the NK side and was later informed by local CN [Chinese national] residents that the searchlights are used to detect NKRs seeking to approach the river under the cover of darkness.

(c) Another side of the crossing situation–deeply imbedded (& worsening) corruption of NK border guards, who will let certain NK citizens cross to CN upon agreement that when they return, a certain amount of money will be given to the guards (usually Y1,000 or about USD$150). It must be added that there is also evidence that Pyongyang is desperately attempting to root out this corruption, and frequent rotation of border guards may be one of the main instruments to stem this tide of bribe-taking. As usual, the bribe-taking and crackdowns on this behavior follows a cyclical pattern.

(d) Deeply troubling and very recent report of a forced abortion carried out on a repatriated female NKR by a NK government physician in a border patrol facility.

(e) Widespread house-to-house checks by CN police in border areas to ferret out NKRs in CN households as of the past few months.

(f) The work of volunteers has been hindered by an extreme tightening of hotel and guesthouse (H/G) registration requirements. It used to be that if a foreigner was traveling with a local volunteer to a border region, that registration at a H/G could be done just with the name of the local, thereby shielding the foreigner from undue exposure. As of the last few months, rules are strictly enforced that the passport of each traveler must be registered with the H/G, and this data processing is directly accessible by the local police office. In a similar vein, I was startled to be denied use of Internet café’s this time in China, as entry could only be gained by showing a Chinese national ID card. I’d never encountered this restriction in the last 12 years!

(g) Police officials in CN/NK border regions are authorized to use substantial bribes to the local ethnic Korean-Chinese population to reveal the whereabouts of NKRs hiding in their neighborhoods. These bribes have reportedly been increased in recent months. These bribes are especially pernicious as they are designed to undermine the very sympathy that the ethnic Korean Chinese population naturally has for their NKR cousins from across the river. Bribes are also offered in larger sums to inform on any local resident or foreigner who might be helping the NKRs in CN.

2. It’s really quite impossible to ascertain how many are crossing secretly along a two-river border that stretches many hundreds of miles between CN & NK. However, due to the rapidly worsening food situation inside NK (much exacerbated by a recent embargo by the CN government of grain exports due to the global food crisis, the more strict regulation of food aid by the new South .Korean government, declining distribution worldwide by the WFP, etc.), the so-called “push factors” on NK citizens to take these chances to cross are growing. Widespread reports at the border area confirm that food shortages are now critical in the central part of the country and that news of death from malnutrition is becoming more widespread, always with comparisons to the severity of food shortages in the mid-1990’s. A kilo of rice in 2006 was roughly NKWon 1,000, in 2007 it rose to 1,400, now in 2008 the price has skyrocketed to about NKWon 2,600 (more than one month’s salary of a normal worker!) It is also reported that a growing number black marketers inside NK are deliberately withholding the rice to further escalate the price, a particularly pernicious practice in time of famine. A very credible report from someone who travels frequently inside NK and is able to talk with some residents, revealed that from early 2008, Kim Jong Il decreed that for every man, woman and child, .2 hectares of land are to be cultivated in either soybeans or potatoes, both of which are uniquely suited for transport. The decree goes on to say that 90% of the harvests from these hectares are to be sent to Pyongyang for the good of the Revolution and the Party. Some sources inside NK claim that food being sent to the capital is being stockpiled in order to be traded for oil.

This said, however, and despite these growing push factors, the combined tightening on both side of the Tumen & Yalu rivers has resulted in some reduction in the successful crossings of the NKRs into CN. It is very clear that Beijing has put a high priority on keeping the NKRs out of its country while it’s on the world stage. Again, it’s very difficult to put a numeric characterization of this reduction. The bottom line is this: it’s currently harder to cross the Tumen and Yalu Rivers, and it’s harder to survive on the Chinese side. It’s too early to tell if this is a temporary condition, whether the border regime will relax after the OG08.

The best estimate I’ve heard from experts right on the border is that roughly 30% of the NKRs are caught by the CN and sent back at present. One recent and reliable report indicated that the gruesome practice of forced abortions on some pregnant NKR females who are repatriated is still in use. How widespread I do not know. A testimony heard on 5/12/08 regarding a NKR mother of two small children (ages 6 & 7) was repatriated to NK the previous day without her children, i.e. the authorities paid no heed to the mother-children relationship and callously repatriated the mother only. The activist said that this indicated a new level of hardening of the CN position in such cases. As we passed the Tumen Detention Center, one knowledgeable resident who was driving the vehicle stated that the there are currently 600 NKRs being held by Chinese authorities in that one detention center alone. They are repatriated systematically once a month, according to this well-placed source.

As for punishment inside NK, one very reliable source stated that there are a number of indications that punishments on repatriated NKRs for leaving NK without permission are getting heavier these days. One could easily speculate that CN may be providing incentives to the NK government for doing so, to assist Beijing in its quest for a ‘harmonious’ ) G08, but I do not have proof of this.

Moreover, the previous and relatively widespread practice of bribing prison officials and using ‘inside connections’ to get some NKRs out (usually by their family members) of severe punishment is being systematically eliminated. This would seem an obvious attempt to deter people from leaving NK when it becomes clear that any loopholes used to escape punishment are being systematically removed. I don’t have details on systematic changes within the prison camp system, etc. But I was told that some repatriated NKRs in the NK town of Hoeryong are being forced to walk up to 40 km. to a worksite and the same distance back in a work camp, as part of their punishment for fleeing their homeland. How widespread such a practice is would be hard to ascertain.

[E-mail message from Helping Hands Korea to OFK, 23 May 08]

The United Nations and its cowardly South Korean General Secretary have done nothing for the people of North Korea. The Human Rights Industry says next to nothing for them. The Bush Administration has betrayed them. By default of inaction, non-violence has been eliminated as an option. We cannot even give them food without the regime stealing it from them. The North Korean people cannot survive unless the regime is destroyed. To survive, they need guns and the courage to use them. Is there any humanitarian assistance but guns and ammunition that we can give to the North Korean people?

Update: Helping Hands sends these three photographs of North Korean troops patrolling the border area with dogs. The rifles, however, are not Dragunovs; they appear to be standard wooden-stock AK’s. The pictures appear to have been taken several months ago, before the famine really hit. The border is easier to cross when the rivers are frozen over.

Click the thumbnails to see the full-size images.

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Helping Hands has told me that it has better photos, and I hope I’ll get a chance to publish them.

Update 2: The Korea Times picks up the story.

Afterthought: I wonder if Charles J. Hanley would consider this newsworthy. Place your bets….

Update 3: UPI, on the other hand, isn’t so big on attribution; instead, they attributed the story to the Korea Times reporter, who actually did have enough class to attribute OFK (and from what I’m told, made Page One, so congrats to Michael Ha of the Korea Times). It’s probably petty of me to really care about this; after all, it’s the brave people in Helping Hands who are actually gathering the information and taking the risks to do it. Still, after the Voice of America horked my story through a remarkably unlikely coincidence, reported on North Korea’s undergound airfield just one day after I put up this post, this sort of crap is starting to wear thin. I do this stuff on my own time and at my own expense, and I’ll never see dime one of it again. I don’t have a personal or financial interest here other than to be able to bring more attention to this and other newsworthy things that the media pay insufficient attention to. Is a little attribution and a link too much to ask? Evidently. @#$%^! UPI thieves ….

If any of this causes you to feel any sympathy — for the poor refugees, that is, not me — then please help bring some attention to their predicament by digging this post.

Update 4: The Joongang Ilbo is also reporting it.


  1. It wouldn’t surprise me if snipers were in fact shooting refugees and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Chinese were doing it as well considering their past behavior of using snipers to shoot Tibetan refugees crossing the mountains to India.

    However the three pictures you have will not be enough to convince outsiders looking in at the problem. Helping Hands needs to get better images which I’m sure is quite dangerous work which is also why I admire what they are doing.

    It was also good to see the Korea Times at least gave you credit for the report but I think a link on their article to your piece would have been helpful as well since your report provides much better details then the KT piece for readers interested in learning more about this issue could check out.