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Border guards begin large-scale confiscation of cell phones

North Koreans considering escaping across the border to China are being warned by a human rights group not to make any moves for the time being, as North Korean security forces stage a major crackdown in the area, RFA's Korean service reports.

"Now high-voltage cables have been installed around the border area near Duman River," recent defector Soon-hang Park told RFA. "When I was crossing Duman River and saw the cables, I thought I could be electrocuted, but the current was not on. Electricity was on only in areas near the front of the train station where there are many passersby," he said.

Park said North Korean security forces had stepped up their inspections of border crossings to China. "It is very strict. First of all, when you get off the train, National Defense Committee officers in civilian clothes inspect identification cards of all suspicious people at the front of the train station," he said.

"Also safety officers who are now called security guards inspect everyone and when you step into the banks of Duman River you can see soldiers shouldering rifles for about three miles along. So it is very difficult to escape," Park said.

A South Korean-based human rights group confirmed Park's report. "Under the current situation it is now very difficult for people to escape from North Korea," Chol-hwan Kang, director of the South Korean Democracy Network Against the North Korean Gulag said.

"In the past, defectors could bribe soldiers to open escape routes, but nowadays the atmosphere of the border areas is quite tense because of the intensive inspection by the National Defense Committee that includes even soldiers," Kang said.

He said that the growing use of cell phones smuggled from China, often using Chinese service packages, had caused grave concern in Pyongyang, especially as some North Koreans were able to make calls to South Korea and even the United States, as well as China.

Kang said the crackdown was triggered by video footage that found its way out of the country showing international food aid from South Korea being sold in a North Korean marketplace for profit. Other footage had captured scenes from a North Korean labor camp, he said.

"In the case of Hyesan, where the market place footage was disclosed, 200 or so officers from the National Defense Committee were dispatched to perform intensive inspections on merchants who go in and out of China, and soldiers," Kang said.

"Once itemized telephone calls to the outside world are discovered, it becomes very difficult for the person because the act falls under the crime of espionage," Kang said. "If they find that a person had conversations with the outside world other than China, such a person will be immediately arrested and sent to a political prison," he quoted his group's sources as saying.

"They have a list of people who do businesses with China, so if they lie in wait and descend on the people without warning, defectors will be arrested with no way out," he said.

Kang quoted a Korean resident of China who ran a cross-border business had complained of the capital outlay involved in replacing cell phones used by his contacts and employees. He estimated that hundreds of cell phones were being confiscated in the border area every month.

But he said the sheer force of necessity would still drive North Koreans across the border in search of food and other basic needs, and that the crackdown was unlikely to succeed completely.

As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to be in hiding in northeastern China, in the hope of winning passage to a third country. Hundreds of North Koreans fleeing hunger and repression at home have been allowed to leave China for the rival South after seeking refuge at embassies and other foreign offices. #####


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