Growing reliance on surveillance technology, including facial recognition, is making it almost impossible for North Koreans to escape – and Open Doors partners to continue to smuggle in vital supplies to believers through secret networks in China.
These increased security measures pose a severe challenge for humanitarian assistance
Following a surge in security measures along China's North Korean border, an intricate network of security cameras, watchtowers and other surveillance infrastructure has been established, stifling the movement of North Koreans attempting to escape their homeland.
The heightened security measures, particularly evident along the eastern border, are making it increasingly challenging for North Koreans to flee their authoritarian regime and for organisations to operate within the region. “We have noticed the impact,” says an Open Doors worker. “Year after year it has become much harder for North Koreans to travel to China. And more expensive too. You have to pay a huge amount to human traffickers who cannot be trusted. It’s highly dangerous.”
“Pray that God will help North Korean Christians reach our safe houses unnoticed” An Open Doors partner
Although China has relaxed Covid-19 restrictions over the past year, the surveillance measures introduced under the banner of pandemic containment remain in place. Diplomatic sources informed NK News that movements of diplomats and foreigners in the area are under nearly constant watch. This surveillance extends to accommodations and travel hubs, with hotels and airports playing crucial roles in monitoring those in the border region.
The security upgrades are most sophisticated around Hunchun, along the Tumen River. This region, due to its shallow and narrow river, has historically been a preferred route for defectors.
Satellite imagery has revealed substantial upgrades to Chinese border security along the river since 2019, including enhancements to four facilities likely belonging to China’s Public Security Border Troops. This includes erecting new buildings at a Chinese law enforcement facility directly facing North Korea and upgrading the border fencing.
An expansive network of security cameras forms one of the primary means through which Chinese authorities monitor their border with North Korea. These cameras, installed approximately every 328 yards in sensitive areas, provide continuous surveillance coverage along the border.
This growing reliance on technology, which includes facial recognition, has made crossing the border more complex and has effectively stifled previous practices of bribing officials for passage.
“We ask our donors to pray Brother Andrew’s prayer” An Open Doors partner
Simultaneously, these intensified border controls have severed vital smuggling routes for food and other goods feeding North Korea’s unofficial markets. Almost 12 million North Koreans, nearly half of the population, are undernourished, according to recent U.N. data.
The effect of heightened border surveillance is clear in the rapid drop in defector numbers over the past few years. A stark contrast can be seen with only 67 reaching South Korea last year compared to 1,047 in 2019. “This has a lot to do with the impact of the pandemic,” says the Open Doors worker. “Both China and North Korea increased border controls. And China has had some of the most severe lockdowns and travel restrictions in the world. This made it virtually impossible for North Korean refugees to escape from China.”
These increased security measures, coupled with China’s long-standing policies criminalising aid efforts to North Koreans in need along the border, pose a severe challenge for humanitarian assistance.
“We ask our donors to pray Brother Andrew’s prayer,” says the Open Doors partner. “When our founder travelled to Eastern Europe with no protection, he asked the Lord to close the eyes of seeing guards, so that they wouldn’t notice the Bibles. God answered his prayers. We need the same miracles here in the area between North Korea and China. Pray that God will help North Korean Christians reach our safe houses unnoticed.”