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Six men caught trying to escape North Korea on memorial day for founder Kim Il Sung

Visitors bowing for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen - - Released)
July 15, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A group of six men arrested in North Korea for trying to flee the country are expected to face harsh punishment for attempting their escape on the July 8 anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, sources in the country told RFA.

Illegally leaving North Korea is a serious crime, but trying it during an annual period of national morning for the patriarch of the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang – and grandfather of leader Kim Jong Un — is considered by authorities to be an even greater offense.

The six men from Ryanggang province are currently being investigated by the Security Department and are believed to have been headed to South Korea by way of China and possibly other countries, a route that more than 30,000 refugees from the North have taken over the years.

“The six men were arrested by the police while trying to flee across the border in Kimjongsuk county here in Ryanggang province,” a resident from the border province, who requested anonymity for security reasons told RFA’s Korean Service.

“They confessed to having attempted to leave North Korea for South Korea during the investigation,” the source said.

According to the source, the men were from Hyesan, Ryanggang’s largest city and a major river transportation hub along the Yalu, which separates North Korea from China.

“They left Hyesan on the morning of July 8 and climbed a mountain near the border of Kimjongsuk country at around 2:00 p.m. to wait for sunset,” the source said.

Though they hoped to cross into China under cover of darkness, a local resident tipped off the Kimjongsuk county police, who arrested the men as they waited for nightfall, according to the source.

An official of Kimjongsuk county told RFA that the heavily armed officers were able to quickly find them.

“Upon arriving at the scene, the security guards sealed off the mountain where the group of young people were hiding and arrested them after a two-hour search,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“On the 9th, after the county police completed their investigation, they were handed over to the Kimjongsuk county Security Department which is now conducting its own investigation,” the second source said.

“We all expect that they will face harsher punishment because they attempted to escape North Korea on the anniversary day of the death of Kim Il Sung, which is our national memorial day,” the second source added.

Increased scrutiny

Police in Ryanggang also arrested others for less severe crimes on the same day, as authorities appear to be increasingly cracking down on citizens with family members who have escaped North Korea, according to another resident of the province, who declined to be named for legal reasons.

“A resident of Hyesan was arrested by the Security Department after they used detection equipment to discover him talking to his family in South Korea on an illegal phone,” said the third source.

“Recently, residents here are complaining that it is becoming difficult to live because of sanctions and the COVID-19 border closures,” the third source said.

The U.S. and UN have imposed trade sanctions on North Korea to deprive it of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs.

Cutting off the flow of certain goods from China, as well as depriving North Korea of the sizable Chinese market for its own products, has been disastrous for North Koreans making their living in the emerging market economy. But Pyongang and Beijing shut down the border in January due to the onset of the coronavirus, exacerbating the struggle even further.

“Residents have no other choice than to take the risk of contacting their relatives in the outside world to maintain their livelihoods,” the third source said.

Many families in border areas have a relative who works outside of the country, sending them remittance payments worth many times what they could possibly earn at home. Some of these remittances even come from South Korea via China through brokers who arrange the transfer of funds for a hefty percentage of the amount sent.

Authorities have in the past looked the other way in exchange for small bribes, but a recent heightening of tensions on the peninsula, for which Pyongyang blames its former citizens in the South, has resulted in increased scrutiny for those receiving money from family abroad.

“So these days the latest detection equipment has been distributed to security authorities all over the North Korea-China border area, and many of the residents who used to contact the outside world by illegal phone have been arrested and are in trouble,” the third source said.

“The crackdown and surveillance on illegal phone usage is stronger now than it ever has been.”

North Korea’s state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported in January last year that the government declared the death anniversary of Kim Il Sung (1912-94), as well as that of his son and successor Kim Jong Il (1942-2011), as national memorial days.

The eldest Kim’s anniversary was designated a “special guard week” during which residents’ movement is restricted and their homes are inspected by neighborhood watch units. The issuance of travel certificates, necessary even for domestic destinations, is restricted during the mourning period.

Facts and figures

In an October 2019 report, the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) estimated total net emigration from North Korea between 1990 and 2018, saying the number of North Koreans leaving their country and never returning was likely over 50,000.

The report noted that the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 estimated net-out migration from North Korea to be at around 40,000 people, with HRNK estimating more than 10,000 escaping between 2010 and 2018.

HRNK’s report said that illegal border crossing from North Korea to China peaked at around 100,000 per year in 1998 or 1999 during a period of famine and economic collapse in North Korea, with numbers steadily declining since. Most of these returned to North Korea, either on their own accord, or were deported by Chinese authorities.

Of the more than 50,000 who have not returned to North Korea, more than 33,000 ended up in South Korea since 1998 according to statistics from the South Korean Ministry of Unification, including more than 12,000 between 2011 and 2019.

The number of North Koreans entering the South to seek refuge peaked at just under 3,000 in 2009 and has trended downward to slightly more than 1,000 in 2019.