Strung Out: Fencing and Security on the Chinese-Korean Frontier

Q.: Have you heard anything about how extensive the fencing is along the North Korea-China border?

A.: Ishimaru Jiro of AsiaPress travels the Tumen Valley extensively. This past summer in a trip there with a Deutsche Welle camera crew, he noted that some additional fencing had gone up along one relatively active crossing point. 

However, this is not to be taken as gospel that it’s being done along the length of the Tumen River frontier. The vast, vast majority of that frontier is still unfenced. And keep in mind that apart from Hwanggumpyeong Island and just outside Dandong, along the Yalu River (roughly 2/3 of the length of the border) there is virtually no barbed wire or fencing because the river is sufficiently wide.

With respect to the Hyesan-Changbai juncture, the last time I was there there was very little barbed wire, but a high concentration of North Korean border guards whose clear task it was to keep people in. Just outside of Tumen City, PRC, the barbed wire is very light and the river is easily accessible, but again there are visible North Korean border guards/KPA on the other side, so barbed wire or fencing in and of itself is not necessarily the best measure if security is ratcheting up.

The December 27 incident in Nanping, on the Tumen river in Helong County, PRC, is another good case in point. We seem to be drawn to reports that things have become rather militarized and tense, when in fact they’ve been at similar levels of tension since essentially the Cultural Revolution or the North Korean famine. Jane Perlez of the New York Times went to Nanping and other reports noted that ‘citizen militia’ would soon be patrolling the area, but semi-independent Chinese reporters (Phoenix Magazine in Hong Kong, very PRC friendly but not always strictly on the Party line, and with marginally more latitude) went to nearby Sanhe and found that residents had seen nothing of this ‘militia,’ and that the military presence in the town was already rather heavy. Local restaurants and hospitals in small border communities are dependent upon the business of Chinese border guards (who are from a range of ministries; the Forestry Ministry even has its own armed force patrolling the border) to stay alive, since lots of Chinese-Koreans (Chosonjok), with no barbed wire in their way to the airport, are moving to South Korea.

Additional Reading: Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, and Steven Denney, ‘The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project: Sourcing the Chinese-North Korean Border,’ introduction by James Hoare, Sino-NK, January 2015.

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