A tale of two borders: why North Koreans risk walking the DMZ

Toeing the line. EPA/Jeon Heon-Kyun

The “demilitarised zone” (DMZ) is a 4km-wide swath of land that cuts across the Korean peninsula from east to west. Highly militarised on both sides, with soldiers from both countries guarding their respective sides, it’s filled with landmines and barbed wire meant to make it virtually impossible to cross.

But some people do make it through – as apparently an unidentified North Korean man did on June 15. Reportedly a teenager, he is said to have walked across the DMZ and into the mountainous county of Hwacheon, South Korea and told the South Korean border guards he encountered that he wished to defect. As of that evening, the man was in custody undergoing questioning.

So long as the authorities are convinced that he isn’t a spy, South Korea will welcome him with open arms: it claims the entire peninsula as its territory and considers all North Koreans who defect to the South as its own citizens – just as North Korea makes a similar claim over South Korea.

Two borders

This pedestrian defector will join a growing population of about 50,000 North Koreans who have made their way into South Korea over the years, almost always by way of China. He is one of the very few North Koreans who occasionally gamble everything and try to cross the DMZ despite all the formidable barriers that deter such crossings.

It might also explain recent reports that North Korea has been increasing patrols and planting more landmines along the DMZ while also forcing many residents who live near the border with China to move further inland.

The South’s side. EPA/Yonhap

All these developments will probably ramp up speculation among North Korea watchers that circumstances in the country or, more specifically, the military, might be driving more and more people to flee. But this latest DMZ crossing fits the general pattern of escape attempts; there’s no reason to see it as a signal of change.

To counter that assumption, we only need to place the North Korean soldier’s successful escape into South Korea through the DMZ against another incident that took place in China on June 11.

On that day, a North Korean man who had successfully crossed the Tumen River (separating North Korea and China) and had entered the Chinese town of Nanping, was reportedly shot and killed by Chinese border guards as he tried to defect. There were some reports he had killed four Chinese citizens in a robbery.

In stark contrast with South Korea, China officially has zero tolerance for North Koreans seeking to leave the country, despite the fact that the Tumen River is relatively easy to cross and many North Koreans now live quietly, often clandestinely, in north-eastern China.

As an ally, patron and frequent enabler of the North Korean regime, China has long sparked the ire of human rights activists for its policy of sending North Korean defectors back where they came from rather than recognising them as prospective refugees. Many of these people are reportedly killed, tortured or thrown into prison camps once they are back in the hands of the North Korean government.

Constant fear

These two incidents at North Korea’s two separate borders are the opposite of what would usually be expected to happen. Anyone placing a bet would normally wager that North Koreans crossing into China would have higher chances of survival, despite the obstacles, than anyone brave enough to traverse the DMZ.

Given the way the North Korean regime controls the flow of information, the country’s everyday citizens probably won’t even hear about these incidents, and they will make little impact beyond the Korean peninsula. But they should remind us just how exceptional are the great lengths North Korea takes to confine its people to the country, just as East Germany once did.

That includes implications for the family members of North Koreans who leave the country without permission. Going on the long history of reports regarding North Korean defectors, it’s very likely that both these men’s relatives will be harassed or worse by the North Korean government for guilt by association, even if they had absolutely no prior knowledge or involvement in the escape plans of their loved ones.

This is the human tragedy of the two Koreas remaining technically at war ever since the 1953 ceasefire. In many ways, the DMZ does its job quite well; maintaining an almost totally airtight border between North Korea and South Korea has helped maintain an uneasy peace for the past 60 years. But it also symbolises a terrible state of affairs. The two Koreas are condemned to a constant state of tension. And if North Koreans want better lives, they are forced to take the most desperate of risks with very slim chances of reward – and with dire consequences for those they love.