The announcement of a massive five-month crackdown on North Korean defectors by security forces in China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture has triggered a rush of speculation. The aim appears to be to choke off that escape route from impoverished North Korea once and for all.
Yanbian lies just across the Duman River from North Korea and has been the major transit route for North Korean refugees. Many starving North Koreans cross the border at the mid- or upper regions of the river which tend to be narrower than the lower reaches. In Yanbian they find clandestine work in restaurants, factories or farms.
The number of North Koreans in this region, which at one time was estimated to be over 30,000, has dwindled recently, and experts estimate there are fewer than 15,000 left. But North Koreans are constantly crossing the border, and recently some armed North Korean soldiers escaped and frightened local residents.
China's way of dealing with North Korean refugees has tarnished its international image. In March, it was embarrassed when the South Korean government complained about its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees to the UN Human Rights Council. The reason for the crackdown seems to be that China wants to deal with a situation that has become a constant headache.
Security forces in Yanbian made a rare announcement of the scope and duration of the crackdown. A warning for illegal migrants has been announced for regions like Hunchun, Tumen, Longjing, Helong and Antu. Police will be especially alert for illegals in Yanji, Dunhua and Wangqing. The focus will be factories and farms where many North Koreans work. The police will also crack down on foreign NGOs and religious groups who help defectors.
Some pundits feel the move aims to stabilize the regime of new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. China has already been cracking down on North Korean defectors since early this year, with police busting several extensive people-smuggling networks that helped North Koreans reach third countries. Despite international condemnation, it repatriated North Koreans who were arrested along with the people smugglers.
This time, police will monitor areas where NGOs assisting North Korean escapees are well-established. A member of a South Korean NGO said, "This seems to be related to instability of the North Korean regime. All foreigners who have worked on North Korea-related issues will be subject to the crackdown."
But some others think the move aims to tame the North Korean regime. Since Kim Jong-un came to power, high-level exchanges between North Korea and China have mostly stopped, and there is little communication on strategic matters going on between the two allies. The tensions surfaced publicly when North Korean launched a rocket earlier this year and soldiers held Chinese trawlers to ransom.
North Korean government officials who are involved in dodgy dealings in China will also be subject to the crackdown. This includes businesses and North Korean restaurants that supply hard currency to the North Korean military. A diplomatic source in Beijing said, "A large restaurant called Daedonggang in Beijing set up by the North Korean military has been closed for two months because China did not issue work visas for some 50 North Korean workers there. It may be that China is trying to hold the regime's activities in check."