Secret Police Intensifies Pressure on Defectors’ Families

Still image from ‘Beyond Utopia,’ a documentary executive produced by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), showing Soyeon Lee, a North Korean defector, receiving news of her son’s capture by North Korean authorities after attempting to defect to South Korea.

SEOUL – The secret police in North Korea has increased surveillance and suppression of families of people known to have defected to South Korea.

Defectors say they have been receiving more worrying news about their relatives since Kim Jong Un re-framed South Korea as the North’s number one enemy on January 15.

A defector named Park, from Sinuiju on the Chinese border, who escaped to the South while in China on a private tourist visa, says the Ministry of State Security (MSS) has intensified the harassment.

“It’s not just my family that is suffering. I’m hearing the same thing from other defectors,” Park said.

The MSS is responsible for internal policing and controls the labor camps. It reports directly to Kim and is known for its brutality.

Park communicates with family members via a mobile phone they smuggled in from China. Park sends them money and also acts as a broker for other defectors’ families in Sinuiju.

On February 5, an acquaintance informed Park that the MSS had raided the family home and a sibling had been detained and interrogated for several days.

Sources in China told Park that, following Kim Jong Un’s policy change toward South Korea, the MSS is targeting the defectors’ families more vigorously.

The main thrust is to convey the message that all acts related to defectors, such as providing them with information, importing content, helping others defect, and assisting in remittances, are now considered crimes against the state.

Previously, receiving remittances from defectors was classified as a general economic offense under “non-socialist behavior” rules. 

The MSS is also trying to revise its system for monitoring and reporting on the families of the defectors. 

Many family members of defectors are undergoing investigation, Park’s sibling said. Park was advised that the family would not be in contact until it is over.  “I was also told that to keep my family safe, I should not get involved in human rights activities,” Park said.

Two other defectors, a Jeong from North Hamgyong Province, and a Choi from Yanggang Province, said their families experienced similar incidents, receiving threats from the MSS that it is an offense against the state to contact defectors in South Korea.

The MSS strategy to restrain defectors by using their families in this way as hostages is not new. It has been going on for a long time. Many defectors who were publicly vocal about the severe abuse experienced in North Korea stopped human rights activities at the request of their families as a consequence. 

But Kim Jong Un’s recent declaration of South Korea as a hostile state is intensifying the threat of families being used in this way as hostages.

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