This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean citizens working in China on family visit visas have suddenly been labelled “defectors” and face arrest, caught in a government campaign to discredit exiles after groups based in South Korea sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets on balloons, sources in the country told RFA.
North Korea previously paid little attention to citizens overstaying their 60-day family visitation passes to work under the radar in China. Thousands of them send money back to the North at a time when formal labor exports are banned under international sanctions, and officials welcome bribes to look the other way.
But now that leader Kim Jong Un’s sister has spearheaded a drive to denounce traitorous exiles, the high-level attention to the issue has caused overzealous authorities to “start to accuse even individual travelers of being defectors,” a source in North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service on June 18.
Authorities have sprung into action since Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister and possible successor, called the leaflet-launchers “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” in state media.
“Since a few days ago, the security department in southern Sinuiju has been re-investigating travelers who left for China on relative-visit visas,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely. Sinuiju is a city on North Korea’s side of the Sino-Korean border.
“Those who have not yet returned are being named as defectors who betrayed their homeland — even if some of them are staying on due to the coronavirus crisis,” the source said.
The border closed in January as both countries went on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving many North Koreans stranded past their 60-day permits.
“According to a survey conducted by the security department in North Pyongan, not even half of the people who traveled to China to visit relatives have returned home,” said the source.
“Most of those who did not return are either working in China to make money or they settled down in South Korea and are sending money and goods to their families,” the source added.
The distinction between defectors, who fled North Korea while in the government or military, and refugees who escaped poverty or hunger, is often blurred in colloquial Korean when discussing those who’ve left the country.
Breeding new resentments?
RFA previously reported that until recently, the North Korean government referred to refugees as “illegal border crossers,” but started using the term “defector.”
Leaving the country had been a relatively low-priority crime until very recently.
“Until now, the security department has turned a blind eye to individual travelers not returning home, extorting bribes from their families to raise funds for the department’s operation,” the source said.
Now, however, “authorities have ordered the security department to arrest them,” the source added.
The pressure on these breadwinners in China is likely to make people even more resentful of the authorities, the source said.
“If they define individual travelers as defectors and [forcefully] repatriate them to North Korea,” the ‘enemy forces’ that blame the authorities will grow, including the [families of the] tens of thousands of defectors who settled in South Korea,” the source said, referring to language used in state media to denounce refugees.
“Hundreds of thousands of defectors’ family members live across our county. This will be a force that cannot be ignored,” the source added.
Family members of the North Koreans in China are feeling the heat as authorities step up efforts to track them down and pressure them to repatriate.
“Yesterday I got an international phone call on my cell phone. It was my mom. I was surprised,” a North Korean citizen from Chongjin, North Hamgyong province, who left for China in April of last year on a family visit permit, told RFA on condition of anonymity.
“With a tremble in her voice, she said, ‘The Party trusted you and sent you to China. Come home right away.’ I know that the security department plays tricks like this, so I just hung up,” said the second source.
“The security department in Chongjin is summoning the families of individual travelers who are not returning home and forcing them to make international calls to the travelers,” the second source said.
“They are threatening that if they don’t return home on their own, their families also will be punished as defectors’ families,” the second source added.
‘I’m just trying to feed my family’
But the second source said that most people travel to China purely for economic reasons.
“It’s not that we aren’t leaving [China] because we are ill-intentioned. I’m not a politician. I’m just trying to feed my family because my country is poor,” said the source.
“My goal is to make money on my own, because in North Korea, if you don’t have money, you’re dead. If you have money, you can walk around showing off your belly,” the second source added.
“I want to go home right now, but I don’t want to go back to a country where it is hard to live even if I work hard. Shouldn’t I stay in China and save my family?” the second source added.
Pyongyang kicked off its anti-defector campaign after groups of North Korean refugees who fled to South Korea launched balloons carrying leaflets denouncing Kim Jong Un earlier this month.
Blaming Seoul’s inability to halt the leaflets, Pyongyang blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Complex last week, days after it severed official communication lines with the South.
Experts, however, say the provocations are aimed at extracting concessions from the United States and South Korea in stalled negotiations on the North’s nuclear weapons programs.
There are no official figures for North Koreans illegally staying in China, but estimates fall between 30,000 and 50,000, according to a report published in The Diplomat in January. The U.S. State Department estimated similar numbers in its 2009 world refugee survey.