As many as 20,000 additional soldiers have been dispatched to the Chinese border, according to Seoul’s Open Radio for North Korea, which has a network of contacts in the North. Those guards, threatened with punishment of their own, have become less willing to take bribes from would-be defectors, other aid groups say.
As a result, outside experts say, the number of North Koreans entering the South after a circuitous journey through China is plummeting.
Last year, 2,706 North Koreans came to the South. During the first half of this year, there have been only 751 — a 42 percent decline compared with the same period a year earlier.
The unprecedented drop off reverses a 15-year trend. The downturn is especially jarring because it challenges an underlying assumption held by many analysts in the South that the North would face an ever-mounting problem keeping people within its borders. Indeed, after the North’s famine in the mid-1990s, the number of defectors arriving in the South rose exponentially — from fewer than 100 in 1997 to more than 1,000 in 2002 to nearly 3,000 in the past few years, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.
‘Very closely watched’
“The border with China used to be essentially unguarded,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, who speaks frequently with recent defectors. “It is now very closely watched.”
Lankov predicted that the drop-off could be long-lasting because “the North has now invested all this money in border control,” and it has seen that it works. “Now it’s very easy to maintain it.”
North Koreans who attempt to enter China and travel to the South have long been subjected to punishment, often sentencing in one of the North’s detention camps. But after Kim Jong Il’s death this past December, according to information from recent defectors, government authorities visited towns and described a more severe policy: No longer would the North grant leniency to those who say they are simply visiting China to get money or medicine. During the 100-day mourning period for the Dear Leader, not only would captured escapees be punished — so, too, would their families.
Evidence suggests that North Korea has not loosened its border control after the mourning period ended, because there’s been little change in month-to-month arrivals in the South. Between January and March, 366 came to the South. Between April and June, 385 came.
The South Korean government attributes the relatively low numbers to “stronger control in North Korea after the death of Kim Jong Il,” according to an official at the Ministry of Unification who requested anonymity, citing the sensitivity of speaking about inner-workers in the North. “However, we still need to closely monitor the situation before making a judgment if the current situation will continue.”