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Crime and Punishment for North Korean Refugees in China

"Crime and Punishment" (dir. Zhao Liang)

The bleak stretch of border between Northeast China and North Korea is known as a particularly punishing zone, both politically and geographically. In Zhao Liang‘s film Crime and Punishment, the police culture of this pocket of the world is explored to mesmerizing, sometimes mortifying, effect. Portrayed unflinchingly in Zhao’s gaze is the extreme precision of rules the cops aim to attain, the chaotic confusion of almost-crimes and inexplicable legal proceedings; the world occupied by these police and those closely-watched citizens whose encounters with the “law” are rarely short of brutal. Bribery and false accusations abound and a sense of paranoia pervades the film, a sense of oppression that eats away at both the so-called cops and robbers. In the range of these police assaults, the distinction between public and private life falls away and mahjong games and quiet living rooms are ready targets.

The 2007 film focuses on the internal workings of the police community, but the reality that over the river and through the woods from this Chinese border town is another regime is never far off. Recently, a development of an ambiguous political and moral structure in this part of the world was reported on by Agence France Presse. Stymieing any kind of underground railroad-type system that might exist in Northeast China to aid refugees escaping North Korea, officials have installed silent alarms in the homes of local Chinese, meant to exist as warning signals against North Koreans seeking sanctuary in Chinese homes. “If you push the red button on the wall, a signal goes directly to a police station,” [South Korean news agency] Yonhap quoted one man as saying.

The sinister underpinnings of the alarm system are troubling at best and, given the police climate in such towns, presents an unsettling reality of surveillance and control. The alarms, which represent part of a larger initiatives for Beijing to reign in North Korean border-crossers, have seemingly further eradicated the line between government policy and private life and made informants of ordinary citizens. For North Korean refugees turned over the police, their fate may be desperate. AFP reports, “Amnesty says returnees are sent to labour camps where they are subject to torture.”


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