Border Residents Wary as North Korea Sends Security College Students to Monitor Them

2020-12-18
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Border Residents Wary as North Korea Sends Security College Students to Monitor Them In a file photo, students apply for enlistment in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Yonhap News

North Korea has dispatched about 2,000 students from its National Security College to areas of the country near the Sino-Korean border to interview struggling residents, a listening mission that instills fear in local people, sources in the country told RFA.

The residents are afraid that students attending the prestigious secret agent school because they know they will eventually become officers of Ministry of State Security, sources said.

The ministry has been described as a state security force tasked with eliminating “rebellious elements” from the North Korean people. Acting as the eyes and ears of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and his inner circle, the secret police can make someone disappear permanently to hidden political prison camps, the existence of which Pyongyang denies.

Residents living the four border provinces along the 880-mile border with China draw official scrutiny because they are the most likely to cross the border and flee North Korea. 

“On December 3rd, more than 500 students from the security college were dispatched to the provincial security department here in North Hamgyong province,” an official of a judicial agency in the northeastern province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.

“Earlier this month, the authorities dispatched about 2,000 of these students to areas all along the border,” the source said.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in January, Beijing and Pyongyang closed border checkpoints and suspended all trade to prevent the spread of the virus, but the closure had disastrous effects on an economy already crippled by international sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

In April, Pyongyang extended to the end of the year an “emergency quarantine posture” in effect since the beginning of the pandemic.

Fearful that frequent border crossers could bring the virus back with them from China, North Korea has imposed a series of ever harsher measures in late 2020.

Authorities beefed up the frontier guard corps with special forces and ordered soldiers to shoot anyone within a kilometer (0.6 miles) of the border regardless of their reason for being there, before deploying landmines to increase deterrence.

In November, Pyongyang deployed anti-aircraft units in some areas of the border not only to prevent civilians from crossing, but to stop corruption from soldiers stationed there who assist smugglers in exchange for bribes or engage in the activity themselves. It then redefined smuggling as a reactionary crime and even publicly executed a convicted smuggler to drive the point home.

Despite these extensive efforts to prevent illegal border crossing, many are still willing to take the risk, as they see no other way to survive. Now Pyongyang aims to understand the psychology of border area residents through the newly deployed college students.

“Here in North Hamgyong, the students have been distributed to places on the border like the city of Hoeryong and Musan county. They’ve been assigned to neighborhood watch units of towns and villages and have started a project to understand how people here think,” the North Hamgyong judicial official said.

“They conduct intensive interviews with people in household who have run out of food or who are unemployed. We know that they are trying to convince these people to believe in the party’s ability to overcome the current economic crisis, and they are listening and trying to understand the difficulties that the residents have experienced since the border closure,” the source said.

Sending in college students is nothing new—Pyongyang previously dispatched students from the Political University of the Ministry of Social Security, which trains future secret police, as a ‘strike team’ to crack down on underground or black-market businesses, according to the source.

“But now they are sending the students as a sort of threat, since they are from the notorious security agent training base at the security college. But the students are also perhaps kind of a means to ease the angry residents, because authorities are aware of the resentment people have because of the difficulties making a living due to this year’s border closures,” said the source.

Another judicial agency official from neighboring Ryanggang province confirmed to RFA the same day that about 500 students had been sent there as well.

“We know that these security college students have been assigned to security agencies along the border of the province, like in the city of Hyesan and Pochon county, and have begun with their activities there,” the second source said.

“They are working on the project to understand how the residents think. They are investigating the households experiencing the most serious difficulties due to the closing of the border, and there’s a rumor that those in need will be paid 100,000 won [U.S. $12.50],” said the second source.

The 100,000 won payment would be enough to buy about 20 kilograms of rice, according to the latest commodity prices published by the Japan-based Asiapress North Korean news website.

“The students are still in college, so they probably don’t have enough money for themselves either. So it’s a ludicrous idea that they would be able to give 100,000 won to the poor. It’s more likely that they were assigned to play a role in an important secret mission for the authorities, and they’re here in the border area to stabilize the lives of border area residents,” said the second source.

Reported by Sewon Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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