In northeast China, where there is a large Chinese population of ethnic Koreans, many North Korean women who have made it out of North Korea illegally find shelter with families of Chinese who speak Korean. The Chinese police leave these North Korean women alone if they report their presence and where they are living. It’s no secret that the local police or Chinese military intelligence often use these women as informants on illegal activities among other North Koreans in the area or criminal activity in general, no matter where the perpetrators come from. This snitch to survive system has been used for a long time, with periodic adjustments. Most of the illegal migrants from North Korea are women, in part because women dominate the legal marketplaces and have become wealthier than their husbands, who usually keep their government job. Getting families out of North Korea is easier if the women go first, make money in China or South Korea, and then pay the people smugglers to get other family members out.
Another one of those adjustments appeared in late 2021 when Chinese police in Liaoning and Jilin provinces, which shares borders with North Korea, visited all these North Korean women to check their cell phones and record the phone numbers they called or were called by. The police were looking for “excessive” calls to and from North and South Korea.
Too many calls to the wrong numbers indicated possible criminal activity, including involvement with people smugglers or smuggling in general. Other possible offenses are prostitution or cooperating with people smugglers who assist in getting North Korean women into China and then force them to become prostitutes or marry Chinese men who cannot find a Chinese wife. This is a growing problem in China where nearly four decades of the “one child” policy meant that many mothers would abort females and try again to produce a son.
The Chinese families the North Korean women are living with were also threatened if they were involved in any illegal activities. North Koreas who did not cooperate were threatened with forcible return to North Korea, where they faced prosecution for getting out without permission.
Such a widespread operation indicates the order came from the central government which is worried about something but won’t reveal exactly what it is. That will emerge eventually, and sooner if the police visits continue into 2022.