The Chinese side of the Tumen River, which serves as the border between North Korea and China. Two layers of barbed-wire fencing can be seen on the “border road” on the banks of the Tumen River. An area near Hoeryong can be seen across the river. North Koreans are unable to even touch the waters of the Tumen River. Taken in August 2023 by ASIAPRESS.

In early October, the Chinese government forcibly repatriated a large number of defectors who had been detained in the country, unable to return home due to North Korea’s border lockdown. Reports suggested that the number of defectors repatriated was 500 people, and ASIAPRESS confirmed that the defectors were repatriated to Yanggang Province in the northern part of the country. North Korea’s law enforcement authorities are warning people that “if you flee to China, you’ll be caught immediately.” (KANG Ji-won)

◆ Father expresses worry about severe punishment awaiting repatriated daughter

“They say that China has developed so much that they can use machines to distinguish between Chinese and foreigners. Is that true?”

In early November, an ASIAPRESS reporting partner in Yanggang Province sent over the above question. He said that after a large number of defectors were repatriated from China in early October, Hyesan’s security officials were warning people that “even if you flee to China, facial recognition technology will ensure you are quickly caught and repatriated.”

While it is unclear exactly how many defectors were repatriated to Yanggang Province from China, the reporting partner knew several people with relatives who were repatriated and met with them to find out more. Here is what the reporting partner told ASIAPRESS:

“There are several families who have relatives who were caught in China and forcibly repatriated. One person told me that his daughter had been sold into China several years ago and that she had sent him money several times over the years, but she was forcibly repatriated back to North Korea in October.”

According to the reporting partner, the man was very unhappy because he was worried that his daughter would face serious punishment and that he would also face trouble from the authorities. A security official who told him that his daughter had been repatriated said: “Anyone who defects to China will immediately be caught. You’ll be able to visit her from around November 10.”

A poorly made sentry post built to monitor people approaching the Yalu River. Taken on the Chinese side of the Yalu River across from Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, in mid-October 2023.

◆ Authorities warn would-be defectors that facial recognition will lead to immediate arrests in China

The reporting partner told ASIAPRESS that the state security agency is warning people that defecting into China is impossible because of China’s facial recognition systems.

“A security official said that the people caught and repatriated (in October) had all been living in China after defecting, and that they were caught by the authorities through security cameras on streets and outside homes even though their faces were not registered (in facial recognition systems). He also said that China has developed so much that (defectors) will be caught the moment they cross the border.

“Security officials are also telling people they think might run away to China that they’ll just face repatriation and severe punishment if they cross over into China without knowing the situation there. They’re warning that (defecting to China) is like cutting out one’s eye.”

The reporting partner is obviously talking about the facial recognition systems installed in many surveillance cameras located in public places in China. The North Korean authorities are placing excessive emphasis on facial recognition systems to encourage people from defecting. The reporting partner further explained:

“The authorities are intentionally saying these things to threaten people. (In January 2020) after the borders were locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become very ignorant about circumstances outside the country, so many people have heard the authorities talk about being quickly apprehended by facial recognition and come to the conclusion that defecting is impossible because of how much China has changed.”

◆ Huge drop in defections to South Korea

The high point of defections to South Korea was in 2009, when 2,941 people entered the country. After Kim Jong-un gained power in 2012, security along the North Korean borders has intensified so much that the number of defections has been curtailed significantly; however, even up until 2019, several thousand people were able to reach South Korea. In 2020, however, only 229 people reached South Korea, and this fell to 63 in 2021, 67 in 2022, and 139 as of September 2023 (according to Ministry of Unification statistics). Moreover, most of the people defecting into South Korea were those who had spent considerable time in China and Russia. After the start of the pandemic, it has become very rare for North Koreans to escape their country.

While the Kim Jong-un regime’s border lockdown has been the biggest factor, China’s zero-COVID policies also led to severe restrictions on movement inside the country, which forced defectors to stay there.

※ ASIAPRESS communicates with reporting partners through Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea..

Map of North Korea ( ASIAPRESS)