SEOUL — Was North Korean leader Kim Jong Un so inspired by his meetings with Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019 that he adopted one of the former president’s flagship policies?
Given the opacity surrounding North Korea’s state decision-making, that is impossible to say. What can be said with certainty is that a wall is rising along much of Mr. Kim’s 840 mile-border with his supposedly most critical ally — China.
In an in-depth report illustrated with commercial satellite imagery, the Reuters news agency reported over the weekend on the latest developments along North Korea’s northern border, which separates the deeply isolated state from China and, for a 10-mile strip in the northeast, the Russian Far East.
While Mr. Trump pushed as a candidate and as president to extend a wall all along the southern U.S. border to keep illegal immigrants out, the barrier Mr. Kim is building along his northern border is apparently designed to keep would-be emigrants in.
The wall — a topic of discussion in Pyongyangology circles for the last five years — represents the logical policy path for one of the world’s most entrenched dictators, analysts say.
Raising walls to the outside
North Korea has a tried-and-tested playbook for dealing with global pandemics and other health crises from abroad: seal borders. That happened with previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS, but once COVID-19 appeared, the policy went into overdrive, using the regime’s complete control of the levers of power to cut off smuggling and defector routes along the Russian and Chinese borders in 2020.
Citing commercial satellite data, the Reuters report compared and contrasted pre- and post-2020 images of the frontier, finding new, extensive obstacles rising.
Since 2020, “Pyongyang has built hundreds of kilometers of new or upgraded border fences, walls and guard posts,” according to Reuters.
Satellite images show single and double concrete walls, new fences and guard posts.
While the numbers of cases and deaths remains a closely guarded state secret, the COVID pandemic provided a boon for Pyongyang in some respects, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Kukmin University.
“North Korea is a dictatorship, but even so, Kim has to take into account public opinion: He can’t do whatever he wants,” Mr. Lankov told The Washington Times. “When he makes peoples’ lives more difficult, it is a good idea to justify his decisions, and the pandemic gave him a wonderful justification.”
Pandemic restrictions included cutting off parts of the country via increased controls on internal travel and the “unprecedented” deployment of military units for border control, Mr. Lankov said.
Yet border control — designed more to prevent defectors from leaving and outside information from getting in rather than cracking down on cross-border smuggling — long predates the pandemic.
For decades, North Korea’s southern border — the famed DMZ, complete with minefields, barbed and razor wire, detection sensors, searchlights and patrols, and hundreds of thousands of South Korean troops standing guard — was tremendously risky to cross.
Though never totally impenetrable, this “bamboo curtain” led thousands of defectors facing starvation, oppression, and a lack of opportunity at home, to risk the journey across the less-hostile northern border and cross into China.
There, an “underground railway” — manned by Christian activists, NGOs and “brokers,” or professional people smugglers, many of whom are North Korean defectors themselves — runs on invisible tracks.
Key routes lead to Mongolia and Southeast Asia. From there, defectors can obtain South Korean consular aid and a passage to Seoul.
The lucky ones can, that is. Those less fortunate — no credible data on their numbers exists — may become trapped in human trafficking nets inside China, leading, in some cases, to nightmare lives of rural slave labor, sexual slavery and forced marriage.
Fences, booby traps and sharpshooters
Since Mr. Kim took office following the death of his father in 2011, he has been steadily upgrading security along the northern border. One sign the hardening has had an effect: the numbers of defectors reaching South Korea, as tracked by the Seoul government’s Ministry of Unification.
In 2011, 2,706 defectors arrived. In 2012, that number fell to 1,502. In 2015, it was 1,275. In 2020, the year of COVID, the figure plunged to 229. In 2021 it was 63, in 2022, it was 67.
“I cannot guess what is on the mind of someone so determined to block the freedom of other people,” said Casey Lartigue Jr. a Seoul-based American who co-founded Freedom Speakers International. “But there must be concerns about more people getting information and trying to escape, and this scares [Mr. Kim].”
Freedom Speakers assists arriving defectors, offering them English lessons and helping them discuss their experiences and publish their stories for global audiences. Mr. Lartigue says he has defector tales of traps along the border, including covered pits and semi-buried planks set with nails designed to impale a defector’s foot.
Even so, border guards for a time could be bribed to turn a blind eye to defectors and smugglers. But once COVID-19 appeared, special forces snipers were reportedly deployed to seal the border with shoot-to-kill orders.
Mr. Kim’s mortal new border protocols became shockingly clear to South Korea in September 2020.
A South Korea fisheries official, who fell off a vessel in the Yellow Sea near the maritime frontier — or, given the still-murky details surrounding the incident, may have been hoping to defect to the North — was shot dead in the water from a North Korean patrol boat. His body was then doused with gasoline and burned.
Cool to China
The rising barriers between China and North Korea are largely a practice instituted by Kim Jong Un, rather than by his two family predecessors.
“Unlike his father, who did not care much about knowledge of the outside world, he understands that he has to keep people as isolated as possible and is willing to invest,” said Mr. Lankov.
Under Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea from its founding in 1948 to 1994, life in the North was not bad compared to Chinese standards.
Under Kim Jong Il, who reigned from 1994 to 2011, the economy collapsed and starvation struck. Amid this crisis, North Koreans were permitted to cross into China to work and trade, bringing back foods and medicines. But since, then, the economy and society have stabilized.
North Korea watchers have been hearing about sections of a border wall rising for more than five years, Mr. Lankov said. Before then, travelers — such as this writer, who drove the length of the China-North Korea frontier in 2016 — were often struck by the lack of barriers between the two countries.
Fences and patrols were visible in some areas; in others, they were non-existent. For example, in the Chinese town of Tumen, the only border barrier was a narrow river, fordable by a determined escapee in seconds.
The new satellite data suggest those gaps are being plugged, and the current Mr. Kim seeks to shut out nearly all foreign influences and temptations for his people.
“Kim Jong Un has proven wrong the North Korea watchers who, a decade ago, thought he would be more open to change because he was educated in the West,” said Mr. Lartigue.
“As someone who had lived overseas, he understood that the spread of information about the outside world would be disastrously destabilizing,” Mr. Lankov added. “He understood that in the long run he has to keep his people as ignorant as possible.”
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