Since the coming of the Kim Jong Un regime came a crackdown on defections, both from the North Korean side and the Chinese, who’ve erected new fencing, including the electrified and barbed wire variety.
One photographer who has taken a tour of the Chinese side of the border in the last year told NK News that the border areas with new, imposing fencing are actually the exception and not the rule.
The photographer, who asked not to be identified but who did provide several photos of the trip, traveled “pretty much the whole border, Tumen (City) to Dandong” during the tour taking place in the last year, and said that a look through photos taken during the trip reveals no fences that were “obviously electric.”
“Most of the time there was no fence at all, but where there was it was either old and full of holes, or barbed wire/razor wire style,” the photographer said. “Although I’m not an electric fence expert, they didn’t look like they were carrying a charge.”
What’s more, the photographer also noticed little in the way of border guards.
“Except for the military around the immediate border crossing areas, and occasional army checkpoints on the roads along the route, honestly didn’t see much,” they said.
While crossing through customs at Tumen, the photographer can recall being followed by what were probably secret police officers, who have been known to stop and question tourists. Even the frequency of this may be dropping, though.
“Except for that, I can’t think of any security personnel,” the photographer said. “The river banks in towns (facing Korean towns) had CCTV cameras, but the ones away from the towns didn’t even have that.”
One long-time North Korea observer stated that much of the news about border fencing had lacked perspective.
“It’s a misnomer to think fencing was ever erected all the way along the border in the first place; it was and remains only in places that are: A) easier crossing points; B) where wannabe defectors actually tend to cross; and C) some larger urban areas,” he said, pointing to Tumen city as an example of C).
“Obviously A) and B) are linked very closely.”
The expert, who declined to be identified, said there has never been any fencing along the Yalu/Amrok River.
“If you look at areas of fencing along the Tumen River on a map, it is a few tens of kilometers to a hundred or so. Fencing costs money, so the Chinese are only going to do the minimum, obviously,” he said.
The lack of context in reporting on the subject, the expert said, is largely due to the moral concerns of observers, particularly when it appears the North Korean regime is taking greater steps to bar its citizens from escaping.
It’s also, he said, due “partly for the purely practical reason that any and all changes – however minor to the irregular visitor – in the border can be felt, and reported upon, by people in the border towns, and partly due to out-and-out bad writing from journalists.”
‘If you are only able to cross the border at Musan but find there is fencing at Musan, does it matter how open the rest of the border is?’
Of course, new fencing can make a world of difference to a would-be escapee, even if its presence is not comprehensive.
“If you are only able to cross the border at Musan but find there is fencing at Musan, does it matter how open the rest of the border is?” he said.
Asked about the developments along the border, China expert Adam Cathcart of the University of Leeds has heard reports of additional fencing in particularly active crossing points, but not the length of the river.
“The vast, vast majority of that frontier is still unfenced,” he said. “And keep in mind that apart from Hwanggumpyeong Island and just outside Dandong, along the Yalu River (roughly two-thirds of the length of the border), there is virtually no barbed wire or fencing because the river is sufficiently wide.”
What Cathcart was not sure about was the status of the Hyesan-Changbai juncture.
“Last time I was there, there was very little barbed wire but a high concentration of North Korean border guards whose clear task it was to keep people in,” he said. “Just outside of Tumen City the barbed wire is very light and the river is easily accessible, but again there are visible North Korean border guards/KPA on the other side, so barbed wire or fencing in and of itself is not necessarily the best measure if security is ratcheting up.”
North Koreans are more likely than the Chinese to rely on “manpower” rather than fencing to guard their borders, Cathcart said.
Cathcart also said that the media has seized on high-profile events – such as the late December incident in which a North Korean solider shot and killed Chinese civilians in their home after crossing the border to look for food – as evidence of a new tension along the border.
“…in fact they’ve been at similar levels of tension since essentially the (Chinese) Cultural Revolution (in the 1960s and ‘70s) or the North Korean famine (of the 1990s),” he said.
“Local restaurants and hospitals in small border communities are dependent upon the business of Chinese border guards to stay alive, since lots of Chinese-Koreans (Chosonjok), with no barbed wire in their way to the airport, are moving to South Korea,” he said.
‘The killing of civilians by rogue North Korean border-crossers are not matters of Chinese or North Korean national interest’
The other North Korea expert interviewed for this article said that, while incidents such as the border killings may result in an increased sense of danger and animosity among those who live there – and may prompt short-term government measures to placate them – their effect on the broader Chinese and North Korean populations is negligible.
“The killing of civilians by rogue North Korean border-crossers are not matters of Chinese or North Korean national interest, and will not be afforded that level of importance by either party under any circumstances,” the expert said. “Therefore, I believe the notion of ‘raised tensions’ to be primarily – though not entirely by any means – a media construction.
“China-North Korea relations have been conducted through gritted lips and teeth since, as (Cathcart) says, the Cultural Revolution. The two states have never gotten on especially well for a whole raft of perfectly logical economic and political reasons, but both fully recognize their national interest.”
Pictures: Anonymous photographer
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