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North Korea continues human trafficking as China tightens border security

Analysis by Martin Sieff
Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge reopens: A sign with the Korean and Chinese flags is displayed near the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, the biggest border crossing between Korea and China. The bridge reopened after being closed four months. [AFP]

Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge reopens: A sign with the Korean and Chinese flags is displayed near the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, the biggest border crossing between Korea and China. The bridge reopened after being closed four months. [AFP]

China and North Korea continue to increase security on their shared border in recent months, but the moves appear to reflect concern on both sides to clamp down on drugs and other smuggling rather than reflecting increasing tensions.

A bridge to facilitate trade between the two countries recently reopened after repairs.

China often has been described as wanting to preserve North Korea as a buffer against democratic, free-market South Korea, a close ally of the United States.

Increasingly, China seems concerned about maintaining its buffer against North Korea as well.

Human cargo is among North Korea’s main exports to China. Desperate young women and girls are smuggled across the border often for prostitution. The young prostitutes are usually enslaved in brothels to compensate for the major imbalance between males and females in rural northern China caused by the one-child per family policy imposed for decades.

North Korea also flooded rural northern China and major cities across the nation with hard drugs, especially methamphetamine. In recent years, it was China’s determination to shut down this trade that led to North Korea’s crystal meth producers dumping their product domestically instead.

“It is certainly ironic that the export of young women should have become one of the most valuable commodities in the cross border trade,” Martin Hutchinson, an analyst on developing economies and columnist for Reuters Breakingviews, told Asia Pacific Defense Forum [APDF] in a statement. “However difficult their lives will be in northeastern China as rural wives, anything would be an improvement on their prospects if they had to stay in North Korea, where prostitution is running rampant.

“The balance of trade between North Korea and China is entirely one-sided. Effectively, China continues to heavily subsidize North Korea since in economic terms almost all of the North’s exports to China are entirely worthless, or just raw materials that China could easily substitute for elsewhere,” Hutchinson said. “But this state of affairs will continue as long as China wants it to.”

The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge [also known as the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge and formerly called the Yalu River Friendship Bridge] – one of only three bridges that link the two countries reopened Oct. 10 after more than four months of repairs and reinforcement work, reviving trade and tourism in the area.

Japan constructed the 941-meter bridge between 1937 and 1943 during the country’s rule over all of Korea. The span was restored in 1985. The current renovation strengthened the bridge, allowing it to carry trucks weighing up to 30 tons – double the earlier limit. While China appears willing to maintain and even increase its export of goods into North Korea, China is continuing to strengthen its border defenses to crack down on illicit trade flows between the two countries.

“It’s become more difficult for smugglers on the Chinese side of the border because China is putting more obstacles [barbed wire fences and flood control walls, especially in places where they are not really necessary] on their side,” StrategyPage.com reported.

“Each year for the last decade China has increased the number of police, border guards, and soldiers stationed along the border,” the website said. This is not just for smugglers but also the increasing number of North Koreans who cross over to commit crimes and escape back to North Korea.”

StrategyPage.com also suggested a more fundamental, strategic reason why China was beefing up its security presence along its Yalu River border with North Korea.

“China also wants to be ready if the North Korean government collapses and millions of North Koreans try to flee into China,” the website said. Self-interest and protection of its own population from North Korean criminal enterprises is a significant factor in China’s strengthened border controls.

“One unfortunate side effect of the increased border security is more drug addiction in North Korea,” StrategyPage.com said. “Although the North Korean government has long produced methamphetamines for export, there is a growing problem with northerners obtaining meth and becoming addicted.

“This is a serious problem because most of the people with enough money to support a drug habit are from the small ruling class and the growing number of market entrepreneurs,” it said.

National Security Agency takes over borders

StrategyPage.com noted that the Pyongyang government had sought to strengthen its own increasingly precarious grip on border security with China.

“In early 2012, the northern government turned over control of border security to the NSA [National Security Agency, the secret police],” the website said. Since then, it continued, “NSA agents have been very enthusiastic, and more resistant to bribes, in searching for traitors [cell phone owners, potential defectors, and traders selling goods above the government mandated prices].”

“The new authority of the NSA gives them an edge when competing [to find people to send to labor camps] against military intelligence and police investigators,” StrategyPage.com said. “For example, the families of those who escape into China are more frequently just disappearing, usually overnight. These midnight visits and arrests are meant to terrorize the population as a whole and are an NSA specialty. … It is feared that the government will resort to summary executions of existing prisoners to make space available for newly arrested people.”

North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un “has made it clear that he likes what the NSA is doing,” the report continued. “Over a year ago he ordered “more imported [and expensive] monitoring gear for the NSA to use and increased the authority of NSA agents.”

Kim orders frequent rotations for border guards

Shortly after the StrategyPage.com article was published, Radio Free Asia [RFA] reported more action by Kim to make his border guards more efficient and alert.

“North Korea has been more frequently changing the guards posted along its border with China in order to prevent corruption, making it harder for would-be defectors to escape, according to a source in the reclusive country,” RFA said.

“Border guards’ location assignments used to be changed once per year, but this year the guards near the border town of Musan in North Hamgyong province have already been changed twice in six months,” the news service said.

The rapid rotation of border guard garrisons meant that it would be increasingly difficult for smugglers to transport defectors across the border into China. The number of individuals escaping from the North into China has significantly fallen over the past two years since Kim succeeded his father Kim Jong-il.

These measures have had a clear impact: In January 2013, South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced that in 2012, only 1,500 North Koreans eventually escaped to South Korea compared to more than 2,700 in 2011. It was the first time the figure had fallen below 2,000 since 2006, South Korea’s official Yonhap news agency said.

China installs more barbed-wire fences

China was continuing to strengthen its border defenses against North Korea as well.

China installed miles of barbed-wire fences to curb attempts to by North Koreans to flee their country, according to recent reports.

“The Chinese will certainly continue to give priority to suppressing the illegal drug traffic across the border because it is potentially so disruptive the cohesion and discipline of their own security services and in its impact on society in the [northeastern] region,” Hutchinson said.

“The continuing pattern of their conventional trade with North Korea clearly indicates they do not think it necessary to reduce or otherwise reassess their current levels of economic support for the [Pyongyang] government. Therefore the current state of affairs can be expected to continue.”

What else can China do to encourage economic growth in North Korea? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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Reader Comments


CAO NI MA on 09/11/2013 at 02:46PM

America traffics Mexican babies, traffics Asian women, traffics black slaves, traffics the world's population, condones the drug trade, rape and kill women in other countries. How can you explain that ???? American democracy? What's a democracy? Do you understand what this word democracy means? Racial discrimination, white people get away with shooting black people dead, drugs are being sold all over the places, guns are going off all the time, and the cell phones are being wiretapped. You call this democracy???? Actually America just gives you protesting on the street. This is democracy. I'm dying of laughter here! Other countries have been raped and killed by their soldiers, but you don't see them shouting out for democracy. This kind of country doesn't know what it means to hurt unless you cut deep into his flesh. Seeing other people laughing at his jealousy, he'll anxiously curse them out. Only when he is ridiculed will he be happy. Hypocritical country - USA.