Young North Koreans frustrated by the conditions of life in their repressive, sanctions-hit country are beginning to ask their parents for money they can use to cross the border into China, in what some are calling the best New Year’s gift they can hope to receive, North Korean sources say.
With the rivers that separate the two countries freezing over in recent weeks, growing numbers of North Koreans are now trying to cross into China on foot, a source in North Hamgyong province, bordering China, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“And young adults who are dissatisfied with the system are asking their parents to save money to help them defect,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Residents in the border areas know how much money it can cost to cross the Yalu river or Tumen river into China, and members of the younger generation are openly asking their parents for support, calling the chance to live in freedom the best gift that parents can give,” the source said.
Many North Korean parents now want to send their children to South Korea by way of China, even if they can’t make the trip themselves, he said.
More than 20 residents of North Korean border areas have been caught attempting to defect since the beginning of the year, a source in Yanggang province, also bordering China, told RFA.
“A small number of them were able to cross the Yalu river but were later caught in China, but most were captured before they could even cross the river,” the source said, also speaking on condition his name not be used.
Though North Korean judicial authorities rarely publicize information on defections, the attempts were revealed by neighborhood watch groups in warnings to residents not to try to cross into China, due to a now-strengthened number of guards on the border, the source said.
Defectors were called traitors to the country in the past and were sometimes shot and killed, but people continued to defect one after another, RFA’s source in North Hamgyong said.
“So how can the threat now of a few years locked in a labor camp hope to discourage escapes?”
“If the Chinese authorities ever stop repatriating defectors, there won’t be anyone left in North Korea,” he said.
While most North Koreans begin their escape to South Korea by crossing quietly into China and then on to Southeast Asia, last year saw four of the North's soldiers cross the heavily militarized border directly to the South.
On Dec. 21, South Korean guards fired 20 warning shots across the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas as a young North Korean soldier escaped to the South in heavy fog.
That escape came just over a month after a North Korean soldier suffered gunshot wounds as he fled comrades in a dash across the border that was caught on video and went viral on global social media.
Around 30,000 North Koreans have fled to the far wealthier South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. According to South Korea's Unification Ministry data, 1,418 reached the South in 2016, while arrivals fell 16.8 percent from January to October of 2017.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.