Two disparate scenes unfolded this week in North Korea. At a luxurious mountain resort in the country's southeast, long-lost relatives separated for decades by the heavily militarized border that divides the Korean Peninsula enjoyed tearful reunions. Meanwhile, along the frontier with China, the regime of leader Kim Jong-un reportedly warned citizens that they face execution or banishment if their loved ones attempt to escape across the border.
The reunions, the first allowed by the North Korean regime in nearly two years, are the result of deal reached in August that ended a tense military standoff between North and South Korea. On Monday, nearly 400 South Koreans from 96 families crossed the border to meet 141 of their North Korean kin at Diamond Mountain resort on Mount Kumgang.
The reconciliations at the lavish (by North Korean standards) resort were set to be brief, with six gatherings scheduled to last a total of just 12 hours. Photos and videos of the first encounters showed elderly North Koreans weeping and embracing as they saw each other for the first time since the Korean War, which ended in 1953. The participants reportedly included a husband and wife — ages 83 and 85 — who had been separated since 1950, and an 88-year-old father who spoke to his 65-year-old son for the first time.
The South Koreans chosen to attend were randomly selected by lottery from a government registry that includes nearly 130,000 people who claim to have family members living in North Korea, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. The segregation is the result of decades of extreme isolationism on the part of North Korea. Average citizens are allowed virtually no contact with the outside world, and only a handful of wealthy elites loyal to the regime are permitted to travel abroad.
More than 31,000 North Koreans have successfully escaped over the years, however, with the vast majority heading to South Korea, which grants automatic citizenship to defectors and provides them with reorientation and financial assistance. The flow of defectors has slowed since Kim assumed power after the death of his father in 2011 and tightened border security. From 2007 to 2011, an average of 2,676 North Koreans defected each year. That number has fallen to around 1,500 per year under Kim's watch.
On Monday, Radio Free Asia, citing anonymous sources in cities along North Korea's border with China, reported that authorities have warned citizens that anyone caught helping families flee will be put to death, while their close relatives will be exiled to remote areas.
"A lecture was given at a village meeting on the evening of October 14 to let us know that anyone caught abetting a family's defection will be executed," a source told Radio Free Asia. "Parents and other family members will be banished to the countryside."
The crackdown follows on the heels of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers' Party earlier this month. Border guards were also reportedly warned that they would be punished if they were caught helping defectors, who have previously relied on their ability to bribe soldiers to look the other way in order to escape.
Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, an NGO that helps defectors, said reports about a North Korean border crackdown are unconfirmed, but "would fit into the broader trend and story of intensified border security and the attempts to try to cut off the flow of defections."
"Maybe it is a tactic to raise the perceived risks of facilitating family defections, which does seem to be an issue for the authorities — whole families leaving together rather than individuals leaving and then reuniting in China or South Korea," Park said. "It wouldn't be something completely new. It would be an intensification of previous policies."
VICE News recently spoke with several North Koreans who relocated to the United States after applying for political asylum. One refugee, 25-year-old Joseph Kim, hailed from a province in the far north that borders China. He said that authorities were previously lenient when it came to defectors, especially during the famine in the mid-1990s that killed tens of thousands of people.
"They were the first victims of the famine so many people went to China just to search for food," Kim said. "If [the regime] wanted to punish everyone, they'd have to send like 30 percent of the population to the concentration camp. They can't do that."
The North Korean penal code states that defectors face two years of hard labor if they are caught crossing the border, though the punishment is said to vary considerably depending on the offender. Radio Free Asia reported that prior to the recent clampdown, people caught helping defectors faced between five and seven years in prison.
The radio network also reported that the North Korean regime has issued several wide-ranging pardons dating back to August that freed a number of smugglers, would-be defectors, and border guards caught helping people escape.
Watch the VICE News documentary Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang:
Thousands of North Koreans — nobody knows exactly how many — live in northeast China, where there is a sizable ethnic Korean population. These expats help prop up their homeland's economy. North Koreans living in South Korea send back as much as $15 million annually, according to one estimate. Park said underground cross-border trade between China and North Korea has gotten more difficult under Kim's rule.
"It's considerably less easy than it used to be to cross back and forth," he said. "A lot of the smuggling… the main operation is on the North Korean side. You can have somebody who has good smuggling business who never visits China. People will be in communication with Chinese partners and stuff is going back and forth across the river either by mules or [with the help of] border guards."
Another round of reunions involving 250 other South Koreans of 90 families will be held from Saturday to next Monday in North Korea, according to Yonhap. In years past, South Koreans have reportedly said that their loved ones stuck in the North were on the verge of starvation and clad in clothes unfit for winter. According to the North Korean regime, however, attendees at this year's reunion event had nothing but good things to say about their country.
"They and their families are enjoying a happy and worthwhile life in the Korean-style socialist system centered on the popular masses," the regime's Korea Central News Agency reported.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton