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Travelers to North Korea’s China border region must now pledge not to ‘defect’

Inscription stone marking the border of China and North Korea in Jilin (Prince Roy/WikiCommons)
August 02, 2020

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

North Koreans who live in or travel to regions bordering China are grumbling about a new policy that forces all visitors to pledge they won’t “defect” — the latest salvo in a government campaign targeting exiles from the reclusive state, RFA has learned.

Under North Korea’s rigid system of internal controls on its 25 million people, ordinary citizens need passes for domestic travel. Now, however, those who want to visit areas near the porous border with China face more paperwork, with resulting delays that thwart business, wedding and funeral travel.

“Since early this month, residents who need travel certificates to go to the border areas must submit a document with their fingerprint on it confirming they will never defect from North Korea,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service.

Citizens used to be allowed to verbally declare they had no plans to defect, and get inter-provincial travel passes by showing a certificate of citizenship and character references from a neighborhood watch unit leader, a local security official and authority at the destination, the source said.

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“Stamping another fingerprint to get a travel certificate is not that difficult, but it is unpleasant that so many confirmation documents have been added, and people going to the border areas feel frustrated that they are being treated as potential escapees,” said the source from North Hamgyong.

Last month North Korea unleashed a high-level government campaign to discredit North Korean exiles, after groups based in South Korea floated anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border on balloons.

North Korea uses “defector” as a pejorative term to describe all of those who fled North Korea, whether in the government or military, as well as refugees who escaped poverty or hunger, which constitute the bulk of the more than 30,000 North Koreans who have settled in South Korea.

Ceremonies and rites thwarted

The new policy has inconvenienced many North Koreans, even causing some to miss important family events because they did not have their paperwork in order, according to the source.

“An acquaintance of mine applied for a permit to travel to the border area to attend his mother’s 70th birthday party,” said the source.

“He was able to go to his hometown after going through all that difficulty, but his daughters, who are married and live in Hwanghae and Pyongan provinces, were unable to attend, so the party was held without them, in an atmosphere of disappointment,” the source said.

“It seems they were refused because they did not prepare the necessary documents in advance,” said the source.

The policy has taken a toll on residents ability to observe key Korean ceremonial occasions—children’s coming of age ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and ancestor memorial services—as it makes it harder for guests to gain clearance, according to the source.

“Residents living near the border area are also severely restricted in terms of their own freedom of movement, and they are always treated as potential escapees,” the source said.

“Even if they want to move to other areas because they don’t like it, the authorities usually won’t allow them to leave, so they are very unhappy.”

Another source, a resident of Ryanggang province on the Chinese border who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA that out-of-province citizens would be severely inconvenienced by the new policy.

“All residents who want to come to Ryanggang from inland areas have to make that pledge and stamp their thumbprints,” the second source said.

“While residents in the province can pass [checkpoints] with only our ID cards, people from other provinces must carry four to five certificates with them in addition to the written pledge,” added the Ryanggang source.

“In addition to our travel certificate, people usually need several other certificates to move from inland to the border areas. In order to get the travel certificate, there are many complicated documents to prepare,” the second source said.

RFA has previously reported that in cases where travelers escape the country while visiting the border region, their family members remaining in North Korea are subject to punishments including internal exile. Earlier this month, 30 families from Pyongyang were exiled to rural areas when their relatives working overseas went missing.

Scapegoats

Refugees and potential escapees have been under increased scrutiny in North Korea in recent months.

Pyongyang kicked off an anti-defector campaign after groups of North Korean refugees who fled to South Korea launched balloons carrying leaflets denouncing Kim Jong Un in June.

Authorities have also been on a crusade against South Korean media, claiming that young people emulating Seoul-style speech is eroding national identity, but experts say the government’s aversion to pop culture is because it encourages curiosity about the outside world.

Blaming Seoul’s inability to halt the leaflets, Pyongyang blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Complex last month, 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.