On Nov. 14, About 35 miles north of Seoul, South Korea, a North Korean soldier drove his vehicle to the edge of the border and made a run for it. He was hit in the elbow and shoulder as other North Korean soldiers fired about 40 shots from their guns, yet he somehow managed to take cover behind a building in the Joint Security Area — where tourists sometimes go and family reunions between the two Koreas are held.
Now, the man is in critical condition inside a South Korean hospital.
It’s yet another story of the harrowing, life-or-death gamble that North Korean defectors take. Most escapees risk getting shot or captured on the North Korea-China border, but a handful of others have chosen the Demilitarized Zone to South Korea. Now, as the Chinese border becomes more heavily patrolled and harder to cross, one has to wonder if more will consider the alternative.
“There is no question that the routes through China for North Korean refugees have become much more perilous as Beijing really moves forward with its crackdown,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email. “Fleeing straight to South Korea used to be much more expensive and dangerous but now the situation may have reached a point where people are re-thinking that.”
More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected from the DPRK to South Korea, with more than 1,400 entering Seoul in 2016. The Nov. 14 incident, however, is far from the norm: For one, it’s the first time rounds were shot into South Korea’s cut of the land, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported. And only two other soldiers are known to have defected South through the JSA (one in 1998 and one in 2007).
“It’s very unusual to see a North Korean soldier crossing here,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of South Korea at the Crossroads, said in a phone interview. “If you’re looking for a place to cross, on one hand, there are no landmines at the point Security Area. But on the other hand, it is heavily guarded.”
Leaving North Korea is risky — now more than ever.
Escaping from North Korea has never been easy. But now, it may be getting even worse.
First of all, escaping North Korea generally costs thousands of dollars in bribe money and fees paid to Chinese smugglers. These days, it’s more than the average North Korean — who is thought to make around $1,000 to $2,000 a year — could possibly afford.
“It’s gotten so much higher, and it depends on what brokers you’re using,” Susan Scholte, chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, said in a phone interview. “I would say it’s gone up between $5,000 and $10,000 a person, whereas before it was down to around $500 a person when I started doing this 20 years ago — you could get a family of five for a couple thousand.”
North Korean defectors must also evade Chinese authorities who could capture and repatriate them. Being returned to North Korea would mean time in a prison camp or even execution — and currently, activists are advocating for the release of at least 10 North Koreans, including a 3-year-old boy, who await such a fate.
Human traffickers in China have also been known to victimize North Koreans.
“It’s always been nearly impossible to leave North Korea, and it’s getting even more difficult to go through China,” Henry Song, North America director of an activist organization called No Chain for North Korea, said in a phone interview. “I’m not optimistic that [Chinese] policies against North Korean refugees will change. People are still getting arrested and being sent back. ... It’s depressing.”
The risks of defecting are so daunting that about 80% of North Korean defectors are thought to carry poison with them on their journey to China, according to Scholte. However, the statistic is based on a loose estimate from 18 defectors who now help others escape, she said. In July 2017, a family of five North Korean people died by suicide this way while in Chinese custody.
“They didn’t want to be returned to North Korea. They would have been tortured and publicly executed,” Scholte said. “It’s worse than ever before.”
In general, South Korea is seeing a general trend of fewer defectors from North Korea than in the past. Though that could be a result of a better economy and less starvation under Kim Jong Un, it’s also likely because of Chinese crackdowns. National campaigns in China have previously asked individual regions to choose specific themes to “help strengthen the society,” Snyder said, and areas bordering North Korea have often chosen to stop the inflow of refugees.
“There is more barbed wire, more checkpoints, tougher guards who take bribes and then still turn people in after pocketing the money.”
“The easiest thing to do is to say, ‘Why don’t we try to stop North Korean refugees from coming over, and that’ll be our contribution?’” he said. “It’s a lot easier than pointing to internal problems like corruption or nepotism.”
Snyder believes that the border patrolling became “particularly harsh” around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, marking a “stepped improvement in Chinese efforts to police their own borders.”
“There’s simply fewer visible pathways, or even invisible pathways, as the state has taken more measures,” Snyder said. “10 or 20 years ago, it was more relaxed. There was basically a river … But it’s not like there were people standing on alert all the time on a cold November or December day.”
These days, “there is more barbed wire, more checkpoints, tougher guards who take bribes and then still turn people in after pocketing the money, and higher use of CCTV at the border, and surveillance technology to track mobile phones,” Robertson said. “Fear and intimidation of broker networks is also devastating for North Koreans who must travel thousands of kilometers through China to get where they are going.”
Not enough is happening in Washington.
Human rights advocates have long called for the international community to apply more pressure onto the Chinese government and demand that it stop repatriating defectors. But so far, the issue may not be a priority to the current administration, despite President Donald Trump’s mentions of North Korean human rights at a recent speech to the South Korean National Assembly.
“I get the general sense that all we hear about is ‘fire and fury’ and missiles and rocket testing, and I think human rights is not as much at the forefront as it used to be in the past,” Song said. “It seems like the Trump administration is much more focused on dealing with nuclear and military issues.”
One concrete step, Snyder said, could be appointing a new special envoy for North Korean human rights in the U.S. State Department. No replacement has been found since former envoy Robert King announced his retirement in January 2017, and Sec. of State Rex Tillerson has even publicly considered ditching envoys all together.
“At present, there’s not a focal point within the administration to drive a North Korean human rights agenda. There’s no single person identified with that task,” Snyder said. “I think the scale of the human rights situation in North Korea is such that we absolutely should be doing more.”