North Koreans Overcome Border Guards in Bold Escape to China

Seven members of three families take guards' guns, throw magazines in Tumen River before fleeing on April 15.

A North Korean soldier stands next to a watchtower on the banks of the Yalu river near Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, April 14, 2017.

Seven North Koreans from three families overpowered border guards and seized their weapons in a dramatic escape across the Tumen River to China on April 15, multiple sources inside the North told RFA’s Korean Service.

The defectors were from a small village in Musan County, North Hamgyong Province near the Chinese border and their escape took place as North Korea was marking the 105th birthday of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung amid heightened security for the national holiday.

“On April 15, the late Kim Il Sung’s birthday, three family units of Musan County beat the border guards and defected. As this incident happened during the special security week, the Border Guard and law enforcement agencies were put on high alert,” one source in North Hamgyong Province told RFA on April 18.

“The defectors were a total of seven from the three family units who resided in Dosori village in Musan County,” the source added.

“The law enforcement agencies believe the defectors had no choice but to attack the border guards and steal their weapons when they were in danger of being caught by the approaching guards,” said the source.

It was not clear if any guards were injured and the whereabouts of the seven escapees is unknown.

A second source in North Hamgyong Province reached by RFA on April 20 added details on the events of April 15, whose repercussions are being felt all along the North’s long border with China.

“During the escape process, three adults in the families ambushed and muzzled two patrolling guards before tying them securely to trees, and then seized their automatic rifles, removed the magazines and threw them into the (Tumen) river,” the second source said.

“Dozens of border guards stationed in Musan County were mobilized the next day, the afternoon of April 16 to dive into icy cold Tumen River to search for the magazines, but failed to find them up to now,” added that source.

“Right after the incident happened, the People’s Security Department and the Border Guards headquarters in Musan County prohibited the movement of county residents, and at the same time informed China of the incident, dispatching an investigative team over on the Chinese side of the border in an effort to arrest the seven defectors,” the source said.

When asked about the incident by RFA on April 21, a Chinese embassy official in Washington said only: “I do not know."

Both of RFA’s sources in North Hamgyong said Saturday’s dramatic escape took place against the backdrop of tighter state controls on border guards. Guards used to take bribes to turn a blind eye on defections into China, but now face stern punishments for allowing escapes, including public execution.

The tighter security, “coupled with the spreading rumors of a nuclear war, have made lots of residents determined to defect solo, without the border guards’ help, as they feel they might die helplessly. This kind of thinking among the residents affected the incident involving the seven family members,” said the second Hamgyong source.

Reported by Jieun Kim and translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Changsop Pyon and Paul Eckert.