SEOUL—North Korea has launched a crackdown on would-be defectors and on Chinese mobile phones used by its own people along the northern border with China, according to several North Korean sources.
These tougher measures have made it harder for cash-strapped North Koreans to make calls abroad appealing for help and sharply increased the cost of obtaining a guide to help sneak out of the country, they said.
North Korea’s Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security announced Feb. 8 that the Pyongyang government had the means to crush “reactionary forces.”
An announcer on government-run Korean Central Television (KCTV) said: “We possess a world-class striking force and means to protect our security that have not yet been entirely mentioned or made public.”
Sources inside North Korea subsequently said in interviews that the authorities had stepped-up patrols for would-be defectors and jamming of Chinese cellular phones.
Feb. 14-17, over the lunar new year holiday, was designated a “special patrolling period” during which security agents summoned citizens’ meetings in the border areas with the aim of identifying people from other parts of the country, the sources said.
Defectors as ‘traitors’
North Korea’s Ministry of State Security has ordered military units to administer harsh punishment to the “traitors to the nation” who cross the border, one source said, and is trying to identify groups that facilitate contact with North Korean defectors in South Korea.
“The main focus is to crack down on defections, and what the joint statement implies is that people have been educated about the traitors to the nation, and they will be mercilessly dealt with,” the source said.
The moves appear to reflect a tougher stance toward defectors, some of whom were shown relatively lenient treatment during the famine of the 1990s.
Guides and brokers who facilitate defections are anxiously circulating rumors that border guards have been given live ammunition and orders to shoot on sight, the sources said.
Some North Korean guides are now turning down requests for help with defections, and the South Korean media report that the cost for such assistance has soared to more than 10,000 Chinese yuan, or about U.S. $1,500.
One defector, who uses the alias Han Kyung Il, was previously in contact with relatives in Onsung-kun, North Hamgyong province, in North Korea.
“The North Korean authorities are jamming cell phone signals, and it is practically impossible to make a call,” he said in an interview.
“You can switch phone cards, and the call appears to go through, but nobody in North Korea picks up.”
North Korea also appears to have made overseas purchases of expensive cell phone tracking and jamming equipment, which it has installed at various locations in Shinuiju, Hyesan, and Hweryong in the border area near China, according to North Koreans living in border areas as well as those in South Korea.
North Koreans in the border areas—still reeling from a recent currency devaluation that wiped out many people’s savings—say this new difficulty in communications has made it harder to request much needed assistance from North Korean defectors in South Korea.
North Korea meanwhile said Friday it won’t give up its nuclear deterrent for “economic reward” in the form of food, fuel or other aid, the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said Friday, as diplomats sought to revive talks on the nation’s weapons.
The country made economic sacrifices and spent a “stupendous amount of money” to develop the weapons to defend itself from aggression and not to “threaten others nor to get any ‘economic benefit,’” KCNA said
North Korea’s economy has spiraled downward since the 1990s, with more and more of its people defecting to South Korea, mainly through China. As many as 2 million people are thought to have died from starvation and related diseases since then.
Original reporting by Jung Young for RFA’s Korean service. Service director: Bong Park. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.