GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Daily No. 417 August 24, 2011

[“Good Friends” aims to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and publishes “North Korea Today” describing the way the North Korean people live as accurately as possible. We at Good Friends also hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.
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Government Freezes Efforts to Forcibly Move Families of Defectors
Excessive Harassment from Security Guards
Traveling through Mountains to Avoid Checkpoints
Notorious Checkpoint at Geumdong 1st Unit
Female Travelers Suffer from Sexual Harassment
Guilt-by-association Applied to Wife of South Korean Cell Phone User

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Government Freezes Efforts to Forcibly Move Families of Defectors

The North Korean government has halted its efforts to relocate the families of defectors living near the border with China to inner regions of the country. In November 2009, the government used the Yuseon-dong espionage case in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province, as an excuse to execute a plan that forcibly moved families having defectors as relatives into inner regions, while beginning investigations into families of defectors. The government now, however, has a second thought on its solution to the defector issue and issued a temporary halt to the relocation plan.

Government efforts to define families of defectors were marred by difficulties from the very beginning. There were too many people that had either crossed the border during the ‘Arduous March’ period or were deemed missing, and simply defining a missing person as defector was not plausible. If all missing people were defined as defectors, it would lead to a large-scale forced relocation of people into inner regions. Seeing this as undesirable, the government planned to limit cases of forcible relocation only to those clear-cut cases of families who had a defector as a relative. The government authorities decided to strengthen their surveillance on those households suspected of using cell phones to contact defector relatives or with a suspiciously high level of income.

On the other hand, the authorities decided not to forcibly relocate families with a missing family member and were just barely surviving through small-plot farming or selling merchandise as well as those absent of suspicious activity. Even if the missing family member turned out to be a defector in the end, the government plan was to just punish the defector him/herself, on the condition that he/she had made no contact with the family.

From the start, North Koreans themselves were largely unsupportive of these government plans. One person put it this way: “Who’s left after the government has moved all those families? While the government is using all its power to go after suspect families here and there, how am I supposed to lead my life knowing I could be the next?” Not knowing when the government would target them, many innocent people feel insecure. The North Korean authorities are trying to suppress everyone by showing the horrible consequences of fleeing the country, but many people say that these efforts have just confirmed to them what a large number of people doing illegal activities just to stay alive.

“This may sound too blunt, but everyone is doing something illegal just to stay alive. It is difficult to distinguish whether people who cross the border are traitors or they are just trying to get something to eat. Once the food distribution stopped in 1994 and the period of the ‘Arduous March’ began, starvation has claimed countless numbers of people. The reason people nowadays are doing things the government says is illegal is just to stay alive! Also, nowadays many married couples decide not to have children. They have trouble just feeding themselves, and I doubt they would want to go through seeing their own children starve as well. If things continue this way it is clear that the population of our country will continue to fall…the government really is clueless in trying to expel the families of defectors into the inner regions”, many vent out their frustration.

Opposition to the government plans was particularly strong among the residents living in the border cities of Hoeryoung and Onseong because the money defectors send back has helped the economy and brought in more food.


Excessive Harassment from Security Guards
The Central Party ordered that security agents should not incriminate the entire family just because a family member is a defector. In reality, however, this order goes ignored, because checking on the family of a defector is a good source of income for security agents. They say, “Whether or not the missing person really is a defector, if you keep prodding the family members, they are bound to pay us to leave them alone. Even when the rest of the family hasn’t done anything wrong, if one member has fled the country, that family becomes a good source of income.”

Moreover, if a family member is found to have fled to South Korea, the rest of the family becomes a lifelong source of income for security agents. If the family doesn’t provide them with what they want every time, the entire family is constantly summoned and interrogated; few can endure the harassment. Even in the eyes of ordinary citizens the surveillance and restrictions on the families with a supposed defector seem increasingly extreme. Soon-young Baek (alias), who lives in Nammoon-dong, Hoeryoung City says, “Even people who have no connections to defectors are so severely harassed that I feel sorry for them. One family in my neighborhood was extorted of its possessions until it eventually lost its house. The family became homeless, and I felt so sorry for them.”

There are some families that are caught trying to escape from their village after suffering extreme harassment from security agents. They are accused of trying to flee from the country with the money sent from the defected family member, when in fact they were only trying to flee from the security agents. In contrast, families that do receive monetary assistance from family members who have successfully fled North Korea are able to satisfy the demands of the security agents and live fairly normal lives.


Traveling through Mountains to Avoid Checkpoints
A police officer in Cheonjin, North Hamgyong Province reported the current situation, saying “The number of people willing to risk their lives to cross the river to China is on the rise because the situation at home is not any better than being shot while crossing.” Security department densely set up checkpoints on the gateways and corners from inland to border area. For example, it takes three to four hours to travel from Cheongjin to Hoeryong, and there are three checkpoints through the way. One checkpoint in Gomusan has Buryeong County police station and 9th corp security platoon; Poongsanri Hoeryong checkpoint has Hoeryong Security Department; and Geumdong 1st Unit checkpoint has the Defense Security Command on operation. This is an enhanced crackdown system that blocks people without travel permits such as business trip certificate, travel certificate, and citizen card from traveling through border areas.

Sukhoon Jo (alias) has recently experienced a denial to his application for a travel certificate. He wanted to visit his older brother on his 60th birthday, but the high authority had apparently ordered not to issue travel certificates to border area travelers. He was not able to get the certificate even though he bribed police officers and security agents for acknowledgement of his brother’s birthday. Law-enforcing officers became stricter under the tightened crackdown system. Therefore, people from inland without travel certificates increasingly choose to take detours through mountains. To travel from Cheongjin to Hoeryung, they take a ride in a car up to Gomusan. They get off the car before they meet checkpoints, and then walk about 60 km through mountain paths.


Notorious Checkpoint at Geumdong 1st Unit
The most infamous checkpoint among the three on the road to Hoeryong is the one at Geumdong 1 unit, operated by the Defense Security Command. It was also at this checkpoint that a nurse with a pen video camera was caught in 2009 – a major feat which prompted a series of arrests of about 60 people, including both the Party entry-level secretary and the head of the People’s Hospital in Yuseon-dong, for espionage. Because of the event, about 30 government officials at Hoeryong City were fired, suspended, or demoted to farmer. Those who turned out to have committed outright espionage were sent to the closed unit of No. 22 political prisoner detention center.

In the wake of the event, a nationwide espionage alert was issued, and there was a substantial shake up in Hoeryong City. The Central Party set up a policy of relocating the entire family receiving help from their family member who fled to South Korea or China. A full-scale investigation on residents began with the goal to finish the relocation by 2011. The Party announced in very strong terms, saying “The government will investigate any household related to defectors, and vows to crack down on those who communicate with the defectors by cell phone or send even a slight signal of standing up against the government.”

Proud of the feat of the most well-known espionage case in the northern regions, the checkpoint stepped up its security check measures in the hopes of achieving another major feat. Its search became stricter than any other checkpoints. Whether or not carrying anything illegal, people are reportedly scared without exception by those who conduct the search – mostly private soldiers in Defense Security Command. Particularly, women are outraged by an extremely intimate search: the soldiers have no trouble groping women. Another problem is the prolonged period of time taken for the security check. Each check point takes up about one hour on average. It takes more than 6 hours to travel from Chungjin to Hoeryong, which could have been only 3 hours without individual security check at each checkpoint.


Female Travelers Suffer from Sexual Harassment
Each checkpoint conducts fastidiously detailed searches. Anyone suspected of potential border crossing will be detained and interrogated for days. If a person is found to be even slightly likely to cross the border, that person is first sent to travelers’ detention center in Cheongjin, and then sent to home. Young women often face molestation for no apparent reasons. Sunhwa Kim (alias), who was seized at a checkpoint at Gomusan while traveling to Hoeryong to pick up merchandise on behalf of her mother, recollected her experience at the checkpoint: “They were constantly harassing me, asking why a young woman is traveling alone and accusing me of being sold or married off to a Chinese man. It was unendurable. I heard later that it is rare for a woman to be let out unless she allows herself to the guards. They say a lot of women go through that kind of ordeal as I did.” Kim vented furiously and added: “it is a curse to be a woman in this country.”

Some checkpoints are notorious for extorting travelers’ possessions under the false pretext of drug crackdown even when the traveler carries travel certificate. Not only do they search into travelers’ bags and belongings, but they also force them to take their underwear off. If drug trafficking is suspected, travelers are forcibly stripped, regardless of their gender. Women cannot help but feel humiliated by this process. “Checking inside men’s underwear only can lead to an increase in women drug traffickers. Gender is no excuse,” said the head of the checkpoint, showing no consideration whatsoever of the shame that women, most of the times innocent, have to face when they are forced to be naked in front of men.

Amidst such chaos, the searches always prove to be lucrative for the guards. Confiscation of expensive possessions is rampant. Travelers cannot object to such stealing, especially if they are coming from the inner regions. Thus they usually swallow the injustice, thinking of it as a toll.


Guilt-by-association Applied to Wife of South Korean Cell Phone User
Ms. Han Kyung-Hee, who lives in Musan-eup, Musan County in North Hamgyong Province, went through ferocious troubles last year because her husband’s South Korean cell phone use was detected by the radio censorship bureau in August. Luckily, her husband fled over to China, but the National Security Agency arrested Ms Han instead. She was questioned thoroughly during the following months. The questions were about what her husband did with the phone, who he contacted, how he was able to receive money, and so on. Ms Han replied that she did not know anything because her husband rarely discussed any of his business with her. She begged to be released for her two children and old mother who were at home waiting for her, but her plea did not work.

“You are just as bad as the criminal, because you did not report to the police about your husband using a South Korean phone even though you saw him using it”, said the agency. Ms Han refuted her allegation saying, “How do I know if the phone was from South Korea or China. I am not guilty,” but she was sent to prison. One of the agents said that even if Ms Han was released, she would be on the list for the highest level of watch because there is a high chance that her husband may try to contact her. If she gets caught while having a contact with her husband, she will be immediately relocated to inner regions.
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