North Korea has over the last two years tightened controls at its border with China, stepping up its monitoring of unauthorized phone calls and harshly cracking down on smuggling networks helping people to flee the country, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
The increased security measures appear mainly to be aimed at blocking information flows moving in both directions across the border of the reclusive, nuclear-armed state, Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
“North Korea feels threatened by news and images of the outside world seeping into the country and now is trying to reassert its control by going after people bringing in the information,” Robertson said.
Hereditary leader Kim Jong Un is also “trying to silence news of his systemic and pervasive rights crimes by going after the messengers, such as people with connections in South Korea or those who can help North Koreans flee there,” he said.
Quoting from interviews conducted with nine North Koreans who live outside the country but maintain contact with people left behind, Robertson cited “brutal punishments” applied to persons caught escaping the country or sharing restricted information.
The more draconian steps include the increased use of political prison camps, or kwanliso, rather than regular detention facilities, as places of confinement, HRW says.
And though inmates in both cases are subject to forced labor, harsh working conditions, and ill treatment by guards, terms served in a political prison camp represent “an escalation of severity in punishment,” the report says.
Prisoners held in such camps are subject to near-starvation diets and to “regular mistreatment including sexual assault and torture by guards, and executions,” HRW said, adding that death rates due to harsh living conditions and workplace accidents “are reportedly extremely high.”
Fear of capture by the authorities has now deterred many on both sides of the border who were formerly active in smuggling money and commodities into North Korea and in helping North Koreans escape to the South, HRW said.
“I lost most of my contacts in North Korea and in China since 2013,” said one woman, adding that with many of the people she had worked with now held in the camps, her smuggling activities have decreased over the last two years by 80 to 90 percent.
“After Kim Jong Un [took power], anyone caught talking to the South is sent to political prison camps,” said another broker, who told HRW he had left North Korea in August 2013 “out of fear.”
“There are more crackdowns both inside the military and outside,” he said. “Soldiers and high-ranking officials are also punished [if they let people cross to China and allow smuggling], so they don’t want to help anymore.”
Meanwhile, North Korean authorities have stepped up efforts to track down “unauthorized phone calls” made in border areas on Chinese service provider networks, North Korean escapees told HRW in recent interviews.
“The phones have no signal in the cities anymore,” one man said, adding, “I have heard they even have mobile technology to find the exact location of the caller even after you hang up.”
“I used to call from my living room, but later I had to go high up in the mountains in the middle of the night and I was scared to talk for more than a minute or two,” he said.
Another source told HRW that she used to get calls from North Korea “at all times of the day” and would talk for long periods without fear of detection.
Now, the number of those calls has shrunk by about 60 percent over the last three years, she said.