Amid a Yonhap report, that North Korea executed four North Korean defectors who had been forcibly repatriated by Chinese authorites, Andrei Lankov takes an historical perspective on the Sino-DPRK border.
So the Sino-Korean border has remained remarkably porous even when one or both governments worked hard to make it more tightly controlled.
For the vast majority of the North Koreans, this border is in essence a window through which they can get a glimpse of the outside world. The news about China’s economic success and the unbelievable prosperity of South Korea is spreading in North Korea, and in most cases these reports travel by way of China. DVDs of foreign (especially South Korean) movies and TV shows are watched widely, but nearly all these videos have been smuggled from China. It is not incidental than South Korean songs, now widely popular in the North, are euphemistically called “songs of Yanbian” (the name of the area of northeastern China with the highest concentration of ethnic Koreans). Indeed, these songs once infiltrated North Korea through Yanbian.
And, of course, there are rumors, stories told by those North Koreans who have been in China, as well as by visiting Chinese relatives. Somewhat embellished, these stories are told and retold widely. The North Korean authorities do not like what these stories tell, but it seems that not much can be done about this.
It’s clear that border relations are complicated, with different classes of people crossing in either direction, and with confusing precedents. Still, Lankov further buttresses this point, that the active border is actually a window through which North Koreans find out about the world which its leaders try to hide from them.
The experiences of Yim Su-kyong might be another proof of why exchanges with the outside world are the best and surest way to change North Koreans’ worldview and, hence, eventually, change North Korea. Objectively, Yim Su-kyong was a nearly perfect propaganda tool for North Korean officialdom, but in real life her widely publicized visit had the opposite effect: it produced serious cracks in the officially endorsed (and grossly distorted) picture of the outside world.
But, it’s unclear just how distorted the view from the inside or the outside is.
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