China / North Korea Border Fence
North Korea and China seek to stem illegal migration to China by North Koreans, fleeing privations and oppression, by building a fence along portions of the border and imprisoning North Koreans deported by China. In 2006, China built a 20-kilometer long fence along its border with North Korea. It is located primarily along areas where the Yalu River dividing the two countries is narrow and the river banks low. The 20-kilometer-long fence was erected immediately after North Korea announced its nuclear test. The border fence initially consisted of 2.5-meter-high T-shaped concrete poles strung with barbed wire. China had previously left their border lightly guarded.
In August 2007 North Korea started building a fence along parts of its border with China, in an apparent move to prevent North Koreans from fleeing. The North put posts in placealong a six-mile stretch along a narrow tributary of the Yalu River, which marks the border between North Korea and China. It also built a road to guard the area.
In 2000, credible estimates of the number of North Koreans in China ranged between 75,000 and 125,000. Several nongovernmental groups estimate the number of refugees to be between 100,000-300,000. Significant numbers of North Koreans started seeking refuge in China during the mid-1990s, many with the apparent primary motive of seeking food. Their numbers probably peaked in 1998 and 1999. During that time, the border between China and North Korea was not aggressively policed. The few reliable sources indicate that cases of refoulement (i.e., the involuntary repatriation of North Koreans to North Korea without benefit of a requested asylum adjudication) occurred, but relatively infrequently.
Conditions within China remain bleak for North Koreans fleeing starvation and political persecution in their homeland. Women and children are vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution. More than 75 percent of North Korean immigrants are women, and they are often forced into prostitution or other exploitative relationships by professional brokers.1Children have no access to schools and often survive by begging on the streets. Some refugees have survived for years living in caves in the harsh northern climate.2 Others move from one hiding place to another to avoid detection by public security forces or by Chinese citizens who receive government rewards for informing police of refugees' locations. Conditions in detention centers for those awaiting repatriation are cramped, and detainees face mistreatment from guards.
Despite the harsh conditions within China, North Koreans take immense risks to avoid being returned to the DPRK. In April 2004, some 80 North Korean detainees in Tumen Detention Center rioted to avoid being sent back to the DPRK. A number of Western analysts note that the North Korean government regularly denies food to particular groups or regions for political reasons, a practice which may make those fleeing to China in search of food and other "economic goods" potential refugees under international law. As the High Commissioner for Refugees noted in 2003, "An analysis of currently available information recently carried out by our Department of International Protection concludes that many North Koreans may well be considered refugees." Moreover, those who flee to China may have a claim to refugee status because they are considered "traitors" for defecting and face persecution upon their return to North Korea.
The PRC has made some progress in PRC-DPRK border security in recent years, but advances ought not be overestimated. Despite some progress in PRC-DPRK border-defense efforts, by 2008 improvements had been minor, sometimes cosmetic and often exaggerated by the South Korean media and others. Patrols, for instance, were insufficient, with too many still conducted on foot. Use of new technologies by PRC border forces is limited, despite the installation of cameras and detection devices in certain areas. Cosmetic improvements, such as adding a token local police station ("paichusuo"), are often disingenuously publicized by the PRC as progress in making border residents safer. One major advance in PRC border security was the development of infrastructure along the border, particularly in the rougher terrain of borderland Jilin Province. The length and porosity of the border makes meaningful deterrence of criminal elements or border- crossers difficult.
South Korea’s Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in published estimates in 2012 that as many as 200,000 North Koreans refugees are hiding in China after fleeing persecution and starvation in their homeland, and that many lack legal status and access to basic social services and are susceptible to human trafficking.
By mid-2013 Chinese authorities in an area bordering northeastern North Korea had installed miles of barbed-wire fencing along a stretch of river dividing the two countries, sharply reducing the number of people escaping the isolated Stalinist state into China. Work on the fences began around 2010 and by 2013 had blocked access to China along the Tumen River from its western end to the east. The installation progressed from upstream to downstream, and by 2012 the fences had reached halfway down the Tumen. By mid-2013, even the downstream areas were completely closed.
The newly built wire entanglements along the Tumen showed that China’s government is determined to maintain order in the border areas, given official concerns over drug smuggling, human trafficking, and possible accidents and incidents involving North Korean soldiers.
The fences have also strongly discouraged would-be defectors from crossing into China in areas where the fences have been built. Even though some people want to escape from North Korea, they now feel they have no way to cross. The number of people escaping from North Korea had dramatically decreased by 2013, by which time it was difficult to find escaped North Koreans living in Yanbian, a Korean autonomous prefecture in China’s Jilin province, which borders the river.
The Chinese government cannot prevent all escapes, but Beijing is trying. And as the fences go up, China has taken other steps to bolster security in areas bordering North Korea. China’s military often patrols these areas, access by foreigners is strictly controlled, and cars are stopped and searched along the roads, especially those connecting the cities of Yanji and Tumen. As the obstacles to escape from North Korea continue to increase, people will have to put extra effort and pay more money into crossing the river into China.
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