Hyesan in the northern part of North Korea's Ryanggang Province has recently re-emerged as a major defection route, intelligence agencies believe. The border city of 250,000 across the Apnok (or Yalu) River, the second largest after Sinuiju, was for many years considered the best escape route to China.
In several places near Hyesan the river is less than 30 m wide when it is not raining, and it is easy to cross in winter because it freezes over thickly. Smuggling has long been rampant. A railway links the city to Pyongyang, so inland dwellers often chose Hyesan as their escape route.
That is why Hyesan has been on the regime's watchlist. Security forces have allegedly carried out brutal sweeps of the city several times. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly said, "We can achieve the revolution without the young people of Hyesan." The city has not been among the major escape routes since 2001.
But recently six or seven out of 10 recent defectors have fled through Hyesan, South Korean intelligence agencies and North Korean sources say. One defector who escaped from Hyesan recently, said, "People in Hyesan with quick access to outside news are fed up with the regime. They are determined to die fighting against Kim Jong-il or defect."
Amid increasing economic difficulties and several brutal public executions, the anti-regime mood in the city is growing. Drugs are also widely available, according to defectors, and are a main reason the city has once again become a major escape route. "Senior officials and soldiers in Hyesan are bent on making big money by escorting defectors across the border and selling North Korean drugs in China," another defector said.
Another reason is that big criminal gangs have joined hands with former senior government officials or public security officials who were purged. In collusion with local government officials or soldiers, they take money to escort defectors over the border. The more stringent the regime's border patrols become, the more opportunities they have to extort money from defectors. Smuggling is another source of income.
As state rations dwindle, many senior officials are reportedly bolstering their income with bribes from the gangs. Sources say growing lawlessness and dissatisfaction could make Hyesan the flashpoint for a popular uprising in North Korea.
"The entire city hates the regime because of the brutality the regime perpetrated over the last few years," another defector said. Constant oppression has turned the city into a time bomb that could blow up the Kim dynasty.