The South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) has reported that the number of North Korean defectors hailing from Jagang province – a North Korean province on the border with China – increased from 207 to 222 between fall 2018 and winter 2019.
This number represents an increase of just 15 defectors over the course of a 15-month-period from this province. By comparison, other provinces along the border, such as North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province, produced 626 and 774 additional defections, respectively.
These numbers reflect the latest entry in an old trend: Jagang Province, despite straddling the Sino-North Korean border and having a population of over one million, produces a very low overall number of defectors overall.
Of all the North Koreans who have settled in South Korea, the overwhelming majority come from the northernmost provinces, which share a border with China. Taken together, North Hamgyong Province, Ryanggang Province, Jagang Province, and North Pyongan Province account for nearly 80% of all defections, with North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province alone accounting for 76%, according to the MOU.
One is three times more likely to meet a defector from Pyongyang than one from the entire province of Jagang
Among these provinces, however, Jagang Province is an anomaly. Despite the fact that it is on the border with China and has a population of roughly 1.3 million, it accounts for just 0.7% (222) of all defectors on record.
To put this into perspective, nearby Ryanggang Province, with a population of just over 700,000, accounts for almost 16% (5101) of all defectors – more than 20 times the amount of adjacent and larger Jagang Province. Furthermore, there are provinces further to the south which account for more defectors than Jagang province.
For instance, South Hamgyong Province accounts for more than 10 times (2,760) the number of defectors, compared to Jagang Province. Perhaps most perplexing, the number of defectors from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang (729) is three times higher than the number of defectors from Jagang Province, and Pyongyang actually widened this gap by producing more defectors in during this 15 month period (37) than Jagang Province (15).
Taken as a whole, one is three times more likely to meet a defector from Pyongyang than one from the entire province of Jagang.
Clearly, on average, Jagang Province experiences a remarkably low number of defections, especially considering its location and population. Why is this?
There are a number of plausible explanations, one of which is simple geography. Not only is Jagang Province mountainous, but its border with China is marked by the Yalu river – which is larger and faster running than the Tumen river, which separates China from Ryanggang and North Hamgyong Provinces.
This, and the greater presence of particularly non-ethnic Korean Chinese citizens on the opposite side of the border, means that it may be quite difficult to defect from Jagang province.
Still, geographic difficulties alone could not account for such a remarkably low rate of defection, and there are likely other factors at play as well.
From details gained from interviews with former North Korean soldiers with knowledge of Jagang Province, it is clear the the DPRK government’s use of Jagang Province is likely a key factor in its defection rates.
Materially speaking, Jagang Province is, and has been for some time, very important to the North Korean military machine. Jagang Province plays host to many factories which produce munitions, weapons, missiles, and supplies for the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA).
Jagang Province is also rumored to feature many of North Korea’s underground military facilities, to include missile stockpiles, underground command centers, and perhaps even facilities which contain nuclear weapons and other WMDs.
Because of the sensitivity of these facilities, security in and around Jagang Province tends to be very high, even by North Korean standards. Furthermore, personnel selected to work and live in the area are often strongly vetted beforehand, and as a result tend be much more loyal to the regime and thus far less likely to defect.
Jagang Province is a prime example of how the priorities of the regime can have a dramatic effect on the faring of a province
According to defector testimony, the importance of Jagang Province can be seen in how it fared during the Arduous March of the 1990s. Whereas North Hamgyong and Ryanggang Provinces suffered greatly during the famine, Jagang did not suffer to the same extent.
Reportedly, because of its importance to the military, personnel in Jagang Province were comparatively well fed and taken care of during those turbulent years. As a direct result, residents of Jagang had far fewer reasons to defect.
This is apparently still the case today, as Jagang Province still plays a key role in the arming and supplying of the KPA as well as production and maintenance of at least some of North Korea’s WMDs.
It appears, then, that the causation here is twofold: first, due to its critical place in North Korean military strategy, Jagang Province is occupied primarily by well-treated, loyal personnel who are not liable to defect as easily as those in other provinces.
Secondly, due to the mountainous geography, the fast-flowing Yalu River, and higher surveillance in the area, anyone hoping to defect would nevertheless find it very difficult to do so. All of this together results in a defection rate of only .07%, or 222 out of 31,550 defectors.
Jagang Province is occupied primarily by well-treated, loyal personnel who are not liable to defect
Jagang Province is, therefore, a prime example of how the priorities of the regime can have a dramatic effect on the faring of a province. It is said that the Kim regime prioritized food and other resources to certain sections of society — such as the elites in Pyongyang and parts of the military — during the Arduous March, leaving others to fend for themselves.
This is one of the reasons why certain provinces, such as North Hamgyong and Ryanggang Provinces, suffered so greatly during the famine. Jagang Province, on the other hand, because of its importance to the regime, was spared a similar fate.
As negotiations regarding North Korea’s nuclear and missile stockpile continue, Jagang Province is once again in the limelight. An integral part of the country’s military machine, the goings-on of this province could serve as one of many indicators of North Korea’s intentions going forward, and the select few defectors who hail from this province could offer potentially offer unique insights into one of the country’s best kept secrets.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2018-04-16 04:25:42