Security personnel along North Korea’s border with China are encouraging residents to use illegal cellphones operating on Chinese satellite networks or defect in return for “protection” fees to make up for bribes that have dried up amid heightened controls in the region, sources said.
Illegal crossings of the Yalu and Tumen rivers—separating North Korea from China—and smuggling activities at the border have seen a significant downturn in recent weeks, leaving those who normally earn a living through payoffs in dire straits, the sources told RFA’s Korean Service over the weekend.
A resident of North Hamgyong province, near the border, said security personnel there had been forced to find new ways of supplementing their income.
“As the [central] authorities have cracked down on defections and smuggling very severely, security officials, policemen and border guards are facing difficult livelihoods,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Due to these substantial difficulties, they began searching for alternative sources of money by promoting other illegal activities.”
According to the source, security personnel have begun visiting the homes of defector families to warn of the tightened border situation as a pretext to collect protection money for helping them to use Chinese cellphones that can make calls outside of North Korea, or even to defect.
“The defector families who desperately need to make contact with people outside the country are being approached by security personnel with the suggestion that they can freely use cellphones [illegally operating on Chinese networks] as long as they’re protected,” he said.
“Some security personnel are even directly proposing the use of illegal cellphones and defection to the families and asking for money as a form of protection.”
A second source in Yanggang province, also located along the border with China, told RFA that in April each year a “special security week” is declared amid anniversary celebrations to mark the founding of North Korea’s military, during which border areas are locked down.
“Except for that week, smugglers along the border usually feed the border guards, security officers and policemen with regular bribes,” said the source, who also asked not to be named.
“But as the central government has recently tightened direct control of the border areas, these security personnel have found themselves in a difficult situation for earning a living.”
Border guards, who traditionally pad their income by smuggling goods into North Korea from China, have been hit particularly hard by the new tightened security, the source said, due to the installation of infrared detectors at each guard station and new devices that can detect the signals of cellphones used to set up meets with Chinese counterparts.
“Nowadays, border guards are in a difficult position where they have to search for potential defectors and beg them to flee the country [in exchange for protection money], because there are very few people trying to leave with the help of security personnel and due to the crackdown on smuggling,” he said.
Security officers, policemen and border guards who have families to support are barely able to make ends meet, he added.
Earlier this month, sources told RFA that authorities began attaching GPS satellite tracking units to guards on duty in North Hamgyong’s Onsong county to intensify border security in a trial run of the technology before outfitting all patrols with the devices.
Amid the tighter border controls, guards now face stern punishments for allowing defections to China, including public execution, sources have said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.