Guards cross Chinese border to catch defectors illegally
North Korea is cracking down on defectors crossing the border into China, as eight North Koreans arrive in South Korea after taking refuge in the South Korean embassy in Beijing.
Kim Sung-sook, a North Korean woman who defected to South Korea via China in 2000, told RFA in an exclusive interview that North Korean security guards had begun tapping mobile phones and lying in wait on the Chinese side of the border, in a desperate attempt to stop the steady flow of refugees leaving their country.
"Security is very tight in the Yongbyon area," Kim said. "North Korean officials sneak into China led by merchants to find defectors' whereabouts."
Kim said the North Korean guards were in cahoots with the Chinese border patrols, who turned a blind eye if they crossed the border in search of their nationals. "The officials do not go through the Chinese customs. I heard that they conspire with the border soldiers to seize defectors who are later sent back to North Korea [illegally]."
Under a U.N. refugee convention, China is obliged to not force defectors back to North Korea, where they face punishment, torture, and humiliation, according to human rights observers. The punishment for defecting is three years in a labor camp and can lead to execution.
Kim said the security measures had been stepped up in the past two months, with phone-tapping already a common occurrence in the border area. "North Korean officials also set a wire-detector to tap phone calls made by defectors. Using a cell phone around the border area has become very dangerous," she said, recalling that she used to call her family from the top of a mountain so she could see if the guards were coming for her.
Kim once held a rendezvous with her family from the other side of the Doonan River, which separates China and North Korea, but was unable to speak to them, or use binoculars to see them.
She said that border guards were still taking bribes, however, in spite of increased security in the area. "North Korean border guards will allow defectors through if they donate money. North Korean guards are obsessed with money due to sharply increased prices in food and commodities," Kim said.
South Korea reopened its consulate in Beijing Monday, after China let 21 North Korean defectors leave for South Korea. It had been forced to close on Oct. 7 after the building became too crowded with defectors to function. About 60 to 90 would-be refugees are thought to be still in the consulate building.
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. 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.