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China’s facial recognition technology hinders North Korean escapees

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
June 23, 2023

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

Facial recognition technology in China is increasing the risk that North Korean escapees in China will be caught, and raising the prices charged by smugglers who assist them, sources who work closely with escapees told Radio Free Asia. 

Most North Koreans who escape do so by crossing the northern border into China. But facial recognition systems there are spreading – with cameras installed on street corners and train stations – and used by Chinese police to keep track of the population on the streets.

While face of nearly every Chinese resident is registered in a government database, North Koreans escapees are not, and turn up nothing when scanned, Seo Jae-pyoung, head of the Association of the North Korean Defectors, a support group based in South Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service.

When the face does not match a profile, the police are quick to check on the person to determine why, he said.

While it’s difficult to know for sure if the software has led to North Korean refugees getting captured in China, it has clearly raised the risks and costs for those trying to escape, those familiar with the situation say.

In March, the surveillance software appeared to be a key factor in the capture of five or six North Korean refugees and a local broker helping them move within China, Seo said. They were caught by Chinese police near the northeastern city of Dalian.

“It seems that those North Korean escapees were already tracked down,” he said. “It is highly likely that they were caught because they were unaware of the dangers of facial recognition technology and tracking.”

Seo said that artificial intelligence-based facial recognition technology has increased the risks facing North Koreans who want to escape. Typically, they travel discreetly through China all the way to Southeast Asia, where they take a flight to Seoul.

Sharp decrease

This may be one reason that the number of North Koreans who successfully reach the South are down, experts say. 

Between 2001 and 2019 more than 1,000 North Koreans arrived in the South each year, reaching a peak of 2,914 in 2009. But this dropped to 229 in 2020 and then to the double digits in 2021 and 2022, data from the South Korean Ministry of Unification showed.

Much of the rapid decline is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which North Korea and China closed the entirety of the 1,350-kilometer (840-mile) Sino-Korean border, but experts say that facial recognition tech is also responsible.

The issue was raised before a U.S. Congressional hearing this month.

“The AI-based facial recognition program has made the North Korean refugees’ internal movement by public transportation within China almost impossible while the authorities have been using surveillance technology to monitor and intercept the escapees attempting to flee China,” Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst at the South Korea-based Transitional Justice Working Group, told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on June 13.

The technology is spreading fear among escapees in China, Hanna Song, director of international cooperation at the South Korea-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, told the same hearing.

“China’s increasing use of emerging technology is being used as a tool of repression that affects the most vulnerable groups including North Korean refugees,” she said. “Many North Koreans spoke about how the advanced surveillance capabilities, such as facial recognition and biometric systems, are used to monitor and track the movements of those in China.”

There are no statistics on North Korean refugees caught or arrested as a result of facial recognition technology in China. Experts have explained that it is not easy to identify North Koreans because there are many foreigners who are not registered in China’s surveillance system.

But sources told RFA that facial recognition likely has a role in the arrests of such refugees in China.

“Most of the North Korean escapees being arrested now [in China] can be attributed to facial recognition cameras,” Chun Ki-won, a reverend with the Durihana Mission, an organization that carries out rescue operations for escapees, told RFA.

Kim Sung-eun of the Caleb Mission, another group that assists escapees in China, said personnel from his organization were arrested with a group of escapees because of facial recognition technology.

“Some of our people got caught too, before COVID-19,” said Kim. “There is a facial recognition machine in front of the train station. They passed it and sat on the train and they were caught right away.”

All the escapees were forcibly repatriated to North Korea, he said.

Several officials of South Korea-based organizations told RFA that they believe facial recognition technology is having a great impact on escaped North Koreans. 

“Cameras installed throughout China and artificial intelligence facial recognition technology have made it difficult for North Korean refugees to move, and awareness of fleeing North Koreans [in China] is growing,” said Ko Yonghwan, a former North Korean diplomat who is currently a non-resident senior researcher at Korean Institute for Military Affairs.

Because the technology is so advanced, China would even be able to surveil escapees at North Korea’s request, said Choo Jaewoo, a professor at the department of Chinese language and literature at Seoul’s Kyung Hee University.

“If North Korea requests tracking of a specific person and China accepts it, the risk of being caught by facial recognition technology could be much greater,” said Choo.

Higher costs

The surveillance software has increased the risk facing brokers, prompting them to raise their prices.

Before facial recognition technology was so prevalent, it cost about US$2,000 per refugee to get through China with the help of a broker, but now it costs $10,000 to $15,000, said Kim from the Caleb Mission.

“It wasn’t easy before, but the reality is that using the train station or bus stop has become more difficult,” said Ji Chul-ho, head of the Emergency Rescue team at Now Action & Unity for Human rights, a South Korean organization that helps North Korean escapees.

“It is a reality that it is difficult to use most [public transportation] these days,” he said. “As a result, the cost of rescue is higher than in the past, as it is necessary to move using the broker’s vehicle and to more carefully arrange [escape] plans.”

Prior to the advent of facial recognition technology, escapees could at least see police coming and try to avoid them, or hide when they hear sirens, Ji said.

“Now we are exposed to more invisible and unaware fears,” he said. “It is a serious problem.”