For North Koreans, the country’s northern frontier long offered rare access to outside information, trade opportunities and the best option for those seeking to flee.
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world in 2020, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime embarked on a massive exercise to seal its borders with China and Russia, cutting off routes plied by smugglers and defectors.
Since then, Pyongyang has built hundreds of kilometers of new or upgraded border fences, walls and guard posts, commercial satellite imagery shows, enabling it to tighten the flow of information and goods into the country, keep foreign elements out and its people in.
Illustration: Mountain People
The project’s scale is evident in the imagery analyzed by Reuters and the US-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, as well as accounts from seven defectors, activists and others familiar with activity along the border.
“The traditional North Korea-China route is now effectively over, unless there is a major change in the situation,” said Kim, a South Korean pastor who has helped North Koreans defect.
He and others who conduct sensitive work on the border spoke on the condition of partial or full anonymity, citing concerns for their safety and a desire to protect their networks.
Only 67 defectors made it to South Korea last year, compared with 1,047 in 2019, official data show. The figure had been declining even before the pandemic due in part to tighter restrictions in China, the preferred route for defectors.
North Korea’s government and state media have said little about the construction at the border, and its embassy in London did not answer calls from Reuters.
However, official North Korean agencies have said that increased security is to keep COVID-19 and other “alien things” from spreading in the country.
In a speech declaring victory over COVID-19 last year, Kim Jong-un ordered officials to “ensure perfection” of an “overall multiple blockade wall in the border, frontline and coast areas and in the seas and air.”
The sealing of the border is likely to have lasting effects, including for North Korea’s nascent mercantile class and in the towns where thriving informal trade previously offered many people, particularly women, a chance to make their own way, said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a non-resident fellow at the US-based Stimson Center who researches North Korea’s economy.
Those towns “benefited from formal and informal trade since the famine in the 1990s, but really don’t have many other economic advantages,” he said. “So the crackdowns are hitting two vulnerable groups, women and the population of the geographic periphery.”
Reuters and Middlebury examined Google Earth Pro satellite imagery of North Korea’s northern frontier, taken at various stages from 2019 to this year.
Constraints such as incomplete imagery, geographical features and weather conditions meant that not all of the about 1,400km border with China and 18km border with Russia could be examined, including about 353km of which updated images were not available.
Images from satellite operator Maxar Technologies Inc were used to analyze half a dozen key areas in detail.
New or expanded security infrastructure could be seen along at least 489km of the border, including simple wire fencing, robust concrete walls, double fencing and additional guard posts, Middlebury research associate Dave Schmerler said.
Other areas also showed apparent changes, but limitations in the imagery prevented conclusive determinations, he said.
Many of the installations appeared to be around populated areas without natural obstacles such as mountains, Schmerler said.
However, there were new features in flat, agricultural areas near the northeastern border along the Tumen River.
“Those areas don’t necessarily have larger city or village infrastructure, but lack the natural boundaries that could act as a barrier from getting into or leaving the country,” Schmerler said.
Defectors, human rights activists and sources in China involved in smuggling goods or people across the border said that the new security features were choking economic lifelines for vulnerable people, closing paths of escape from the authoritarian country and limiting North Koreans’ access to outside information.
One defector who works along the border in China told Reuters that security cameras have been placed at regular intervals and multiple layers of fencing installed, including barbed wire and electric fencing.
His descriptions matched with features visible in the satellite imagery, as well as photos and video he took from the Chinese side and shared with Reuters.
Smugglers can sometimes get out of North Korea, but it is nearly impossible to get back in, leaving a number of people waiting in China, the defector said, adding that additional specialized border troops have been deployed as guards on the North Korean side.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement to Reuters that it was not aware of the situation, but that “China and North Korea have been maintaining communication and working together to maintain the security and stability of the border.”
North Korea has ordered border guards to shoot anyone trying to cross, official notices issued by Chinese authorities in 2020 said.
Pastor Kim and human rights organizations said that the orders to shoot remain in effect.
The US Department of the Treasury in December last year sanctioned North Korea’s Border Guard General Bureau for human rights abuses, “including land mines and shoot-on-sight orders that have resulted in the deaths of numerous North Koreans.”
A report issued in November last year by Human Rights Watch examined a 7.4km section of the border around the city of Hoeryong on the Tumen River, an area that in 2019 already had substantial fencing and five watchtowers.
By April last year, authorities had built another 169 guard posts and more than 9km of new or improved fencing along that section, it said.
“The North Korean government has been using COVID-19 as an excuse to build these new fences, guard posts and other infrastructure,” Human Rights Watch senior Korea researcher Lina Yoon said.
The new border barriers come as Kim Jong-un strengthens his grip inside the country, which is under international sanctions because of its nuclear-weapons development.
Recent changes include increased national control over the “Party Life” mechanism, a form of social credit system that evaluates citizens’ loyalty.
Tightening control of international trade, official and unofficial, is a way for Pyongyang to exert influence over the military and other party members far from the border who might otherwise build power bases and pose a threat to the leadership, Council on Diplomacy for Korean Unification in Seoul vice president J.R. Kim said.
The early years of Kim Jong-un’s rule saw the rise of a class of entrepreneurs known as donju, which loosely translates to “masters of money.”
“Controlling the border is key to this because most of these people make money through working on border smuggling,” J.R. Kim said.
Up to 80 percent of North Koreans depend on informal markets known as jangmadang for daily necessities, a report released in March by the UN independent investigator for human rights in North Korea Elizabeth Salmon said.
However, these markets have had their activities sharply curtailed, she wrote, adding that the border closures have forced a vulnerable population “to the brink.”
Food shortages in North Korea have worsened in the past few months, due in part to the border closures, international experts said.
Kim Jong-un in February called for a transformation in agriculture and stressed the need to hit grain production targets.
Remittances sent by defectors to relatives in North Korea have declined since 2019, but requests for money from North Koreans have increased, suggesting that the border closures have fueled demand for financial aid, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights said in November last year.
Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, an organization that works with defectors, said that the border tightening would slow down “positive changes” of recent years such as improved access to outside information, while increasing hardship.
However, there were reports of foreign shows such as the South Korean drama Squid Game finding their way into North Korea, he said.
As the pandemic subsides, North Korea might find it harder to justify the restrictions, he added.
“It’s all the more reason for the international community to step up efforts to support North Korean rights,” he said.
Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Forward Forum in Taipei, former Singaporean minister for foreign affairs George Yeo (楊榮文) proposed a “Chinese commonwealth” as a potential framework for political integration between Taiwan and China. Yeo said the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait is unsustainable and that Taiwan should not be “a piece on the chessboard” in a geopolitical game between China and the US. Yeo’s remark is nothing but an ill-intentioned political maneuver that is made by all pro-China politicians in Singapore. Since when does a Southeast Asian nation have the right to stick its nose in where it is not wanted
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has released a plan to economically integrate China’s Fujian Province with Taiwan’s Kinmen County, outlining a cross-strait development project based on six major themes and 21 measures. This official document by the CCP is directed toward Taiwan’s three outlying island counties: Penghu County, Lienchiang County (Matsu) and Kinmen County. The plan sets out to construct a cohabiting sphere between Kinmen and the nearby Chinese city of Xiamen, as well as between Matsu and Fuzhou. It also aims to bring together Minnanese cultural areas including Taiwan’s Penghu and China’s cities of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou for further integrated
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) domestic problem is essentially economic in nature. Unlike other market economies, which might collapse if faced with the deep and dangerous economic problems China now faces, China is unlikely to collapse quickly. China is not a real market economy; it remains a state-dominated command economy. The state has so many tools to ease, defer or postpone a crisis. In the long run, China might not avoid a collapse after a long and devastating economic disaster, but in the short run, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime might survive. Politically, there is no
During a recent visit to Taiwan, I encountered repeated questions about “America skepticism” among the body politic. The basic premise of the “America skepticism” theory is that Taiwan people should view the United States as an unreliable, self-interested actor who is using Taiwan for its own purposes. According to this theory, America will abandon Taiwan when its interests are advanced by doing so. At one level, such skepticism is a sign of a healthy, well-functioning democratic society that protects the right for vigorous political debate. Indeed, around the world, the people of Taiwan are far from alone in debating America’s reliability