Rapid Rotation of North Korea’s Border Guards Hampering Defections

2013-07-01
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nk-border-patrol-april-2013.jpg
An armed soldier patrols the banks of the Yalu River along the border with China in Sinuiju, North Korea, April 10, 2013.
ImagineChina

North Korea has been more frequently changing the guards posted along its border with China in order to prevent corruption, making it harder for would-be defectors to escape, according to a source in the reclusive country.

Border guards’ location assignments used to be changed once per year, but this year the guards near the border town of Musan in North Hamgyong province have already been changed twice in six months, a source in the city said.

“A few days ago, a border garrison under the 27th Brigade was changed in the middle of the night. The border garrison has changed twice this year,” he told RFA’s Korean Service last week, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The rapid rotation of border guard garrisons such as last week’s change is making it harder for brokers to work with border guards to arrange defectors’ escapes, restricting the number of North Koreans attempting to flee the country, he said.

“Brokers who help North Korean defectors can’t establish cozy relationships with border guards because of the short terms of their assignments,” he said.  

He said the guards had been changed more frequently since the country’s leader Kim Jong Un took power after his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011.

“When Kim Jong Il was alive, border guards would stay at the same spot for about a year. But now, under the rule of Kim Jong Un … the border guards’ assignments are more frequently changed.”

Fewer defectors arriving in South

Most refugees from the isolated, totalitarian country escape across the border with China before eventually making their way to South Korea via third countries.   

But tighter border controls since the death of Kim Jong Il have shrunken the flow of defectors arriving in the South, the South Korean government has said.

Many of the refugees made their way out of the North by relying on brokers who bribe border guards to turn a blind eye. 

Curbing bribes

A defector who used to work as a North Korean border guard before leaving the country told RFA that switching the locations of border guards frequently would curb such back-door dealings by preventing the soldiers from having enough time to get to know the local terrain and brokers in the area.   

The assignment changes can be made suddenly from the top, without any way for the information to leak out ahead of time, he said.  

“When it is approved by the General Bureau of Border Security, a brigade directly orders each company [without giving any notice to division and battalion], and then, in 24 hours, the companies are rotated.”  

“Until the change is made, there is no way to know it is happening,” he said.

To prevent North Koreans from defecting from the country, brigades have systems in place to encourage border guards to report defectors, including incentives such as recommendations for entering college or joining the Korean Workers’ Party, he said. 

Tough escapes

In January,  Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for relations with the North, reported that in 2012 there had been a significant decrease in the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea, with just over 1,500 arriving that year compared to more than 2,700 in 2011.  

It was the first time the figure had fallen below 2,000 since 2006, according to Yonhap news agency quoting the Unification Ministry.

The trend of fewer defectors has continued through the beginning of this year, with a nearly 10 percent decrease on defectors arriving in the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012, the Ministry reported in April, according to Yonhap.

Another defector, who has been trying to secure his relatives’ flight from North Korea, said that making connections with border guards is crucial to arranging an escape and that doing so has become difficult in recent years.

“I have been struggling to bring out my family in North Korea since last year. As I don’t have any connections with any border guards, it’s a really bleak prospect,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Nowadays, helping people escape from North Korea is really tough, even if you have enough money.”

Reported by Jung Young for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.