Kim Jong Un’s border crackdown is a case study in how trade can help isolate, starve, and terrorize the North Korean people.

Rimjingang and the Daily NK have been running a stream of bleak reports on the dramatically worsening situation along the border between China and North Korea. In the six-week period since the purge of Jang Song Thaek, North Korea has virtually sealed that border by ordering border guards to shoot would-be defectors, increasing its use of cell phone detectors, torturing and bribing people into revealing the names of others, and flooding the zone with the most insufferable petty despots the human mind can conjure — university students with authority:

“Ministry of Public Security inspection teams made up of political university students are conducting checks targeting the people; of late four families have been arrested in the Tapseong-dong district of Hyesan alone for the crime of aiding defection,” a source in northerly Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on the 22nd. “They are in possession of the residents’ ledger from the local MPS office and are using it to conduct checks.” [….]

According to the source, the presence of the teams of political university students on the banks of the Yalu River alongside MPS agents and border guards have made it such that any person deemed dubious in any way, as well as families moving as a unit, are being treated as targets. An imprudent glance across the river into China or walking along the levees above the river is also enough to attract unwanted attention. [….]

“The atmosphere along the border itself is really intense. You can see people being taken in or questioned by the inspection teams all the time,” she concluded. [Daily NK]

Rimjingang calls them “censorship units,” but its report is from the same city, and it’s clearly talking about the same people:

We have received information that large scale crackdowns by the state are taking place in the northern city of Hyesan, which shares a border with Jilin Province of China. These crackdowns are being carried out by the massive “Censorship Unit”(???) dispatched from Pyongyang. [….]

“At the beginning of the year, in Hyesin-dong, there was a case where the border guard fired on two women attempting to cross the river and defect into China. No one died in the event, but one woman was captured while other managed to reach the Chinese side. She escaped after she reached the riverbank, getting into a car which appeared to have been arranged beforehand.” [….]

Guards are known to fire at suspected defectors as long as these people are on the North Korean side. Once they start to cross the river, however, guards refrain from discharging their weapons. [Rimjingang]

The old and reliable patterns of corruption that had prized open the border and ended the Great Famine are breaking down. Border guards have been terrorized into shooting the people they collected bribes from a few months ago. Defectors and smugglers are being terrorized away from their survival strategies of last resort.

“Security has been beefed up and the locals are all on edge. Above all, stricter punishment for guards and brokers who aid defectors has led to an increase in the number of betrayals. People are losing money, and occasionally their lives; they are seeing their hopes and dreams disappear.”

Moreover, “When frequent border-crossers or traders get caught, they’re released as long as they pay the right bribe. But this doesn’t work for border guards who help people defect. There are guards facing punishment after smugglers they previously helped ratted them out.” [….]

“Would-be defectors are being arrested after being betrayed by the guards they sought help from. These people are hauled straight to the State Security Department and are beaten and tortured harshly.” [Daily NK]

As a result, “[i]t is simply a matter of time before those operating along the river are caught. It might be a year; it might be two. But they will eventually get caught,” interrogated, and if contradicted by other suspects, sent to a camp.

North Korea is sending the families of defectors to remote internment camps near the border with China. A source on Wednesday said the State Security Department has set a target of exiling all families of defectors to collective villages before April 15 and has started executing the plan. The measure apparently targets only family members of North Koreans who defected after leader Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012. [….]

The camps are in mountainous areas where temperatures dip to -20 degrees Celsius in winter. [Chosun Ilbo]

Border-crossing often relies on the use of illegal cell phones to arrange meetings and pick-ups of goods and people. That has also become much harder:

A source from North Hamkyung told Daily NK on the 23rd, “Supplementary mobile phone jamming gear recently arrived in Musan, Hoeryeong and Onsung.  As a result, people are reluctant to use Chinese mobile phones.  The equipment used to be carried around in security service vehicles or just in backpacks carried by agents.  Everyone knew that as long as they avoided these it was possible to make calls. Now, however, unfamiliar agents from other areas are using the equipment.” [Daily NK]

Agents are being promised promotions for discovering illegal phones. The only bright spot in this bleak picture is that North Koreans have found a way to evade detection by using Chinese international calling cards. Why a call made with a calling card is undetectable is beyond me. If you know, kindly drop a comment.

As you read this, remember that the Great Famine ended when North Koreans learned to survive by trading, and that much of North Korea’s nascent market economy depends on illegal or quasi-legal cross-border trade. If the regime succeeds in re-sealing the border, many North Koreans will lose their livelihoods, and many more will lose a key source of food they buy in the markets. Vulnerable people across North Korea could starve this spring, after winter stocks are depleted, and we may not find out about that until it’s too late.

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These control measures cost money. It costs money to pay border guards, to build and maintain prison camps, to recruit and transport the petty despots to and from their political colleges, to pay bonuses and promotions to guards and snitches, and most likely, to buy that cell phone detection equipment from Chinese or European suppliers (who ought to be sanctioned into extinction).

We’ve all read a lot of trite, self-serving, or dishonest arguments that trade with the North Korean regime liberalizes its system, while sanctions contribute to North Koreans’ hunger or inhibit the flow of liberalizing foreign influences. We’ve been hearing that argument for well over a decade, and its proponents have very little to show for it. But in a very real way, these new reports suggest that the opposite may be much closer to the truth — the regime uses the money and goods it obtains through trade to enforce the hunger and isolation of its people.

We don’t know where the regime got the money to pay for this crackdown, of course. This is the world’s most financially opaque government, and those who trade with North Korea have to be willing to overlook that. Ultimately, however, all of the hard currency that underpins its economy; pays for finished goods, materials, and spare parts; props up its currency (such as that is); and pays for rations comes from foreign trade. Trade with the regime fills the regime’s pockets, and the regime isn’t trickling that wealth down to feed the hungry. It uses that money to enforce the very hunger and isolation that engagement advocates say trade is breaking down.

North Koreans have never known freedom, but at moments, they’ve known the next best thing: anarchy. Foreign influences are changing North Korea, but change isn’t driven by approved exchange programs involving hand-picked regime loyalists (or spies), or by tightly contained exclaves like Kaesong or Rajin. It’s being driven by the cross-border flow of consumer goods, DVDs, radios, and human beings — trade that the regime doesn’t control. That’s why the regime is desperate to re-seal the border. Somehow, it has found the resources to do just that. The consequence is that those flows have been staunched. Trade with the regime enables this isolation. The aggressive enforcement of sanctions, on the other hand, would deny the regime the means to pay border guards, to buy cell phone trackers, and to enforce the isolation of the North Korean people.

Update: More on this, here and here.


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